The Board of Missions of the Presbytery of East Tennessee is recommending that congregations of the Presbytery of East Tennessee extend the suspension of public worship through the month of May 2020. This guidance extends to actions and events of all presbyterial agencies such as in-person board meetings and any and all presbytery-wide or presbytery sponsored events and programs due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This recommendation comes as the third communication from the Board of Missions which just weeks ago encouraged congregations to suspend public worship through the month of April 2020.
Below is the correspondence from the Board of Missions which deliberated and passed by majority vote late last night (April 22, 2020). Chair of the Board of Missions, Rev. Dr. Casey Nicholson had this to say to the congregations and leadership within the presbytery, “The situation with the coronavirus here in Tennessee continues to be very fluid, both from a public health standpoint and from a political standpoint.” Concerns that the numbers of those who have contracted the virus in the region are relatively low the “numbers may be giving people a false sense of security just now. “ Nicholson stated on behalf of the board that “the virus is not merely about numbers, but about real human lives.”
Another update from the board of missions will be forthcoming in May 2020.
The Board of Missions of the Presbytery of East Tennessee
Rev. Dr. Casey Nicholson, Chair
1020 Tusculum Blvd.
Greeneville, TN 37745
April 22, 2020
To: The Ministers, Session Clerks, Elders, and Concerned Members of the
Churches of the Presbytery of East Tennessee
I’m once again reaching out to you with updated guidance from the Board of Missions
concerning the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the suspension of public worship in the
congregations of the Presbytery of East Tennessee.
I’ll cut to the chase here by saying that the Board of Missions is recommending
that congregations of the Presbytery of East Tennessee extend the
suspension of public worship through the month of May 2020. Also note that
in consultation with the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, I have been asked to communicate
that this guidance should extend to actions and events of Presbyterial
agencies such as in-person board meetings and any and all presbytery-wide
or presbytery sponsored events and programs. Please read on so you can
understand our thinking on this guidance.
As you’re probably aware, the situation with the coronavirus here in Tennessee continues
to be very fluid, both from a public health standpoint and from a political standpoint. In
regard to public health, the one thing we can say for sure is that cases of the virus
continue to be on the rise here in northeast Tennessee and the Knoxville area. The
Greene County numbers are still quite low—just 37 known cases in the county, up by 23
since our last correspondence on April 5th. In Knox County the count has almost
doubled from 99 on April 5th to 196 today. In skimming over county statistics in our
area, the virus has caused two deaths in Greene County, four in Knox County, three in
Blount County, and one in Anderson County so far.
The difficulty that these numbers present us with is that there are multiple ways to
interpret this data. One way of looking at the numbers is that the number of cases seem
to be quite few, and at the present we have so far not seen anything close to the worst case
scenario of a collapse of the local hospital system. However, it must be noted that the
numbers have continued to rise even as much of our society has slowed down
dramatically in recent weeks. It’s also true that the virus seems to be coming to our region
weeks after large scale cancellations first began at the national level. When one takes this
into consideration, the relatively low numbers may be giving many people a false sense of
security just now.
It’s also worth noting that the virus is not merely about numbers, but about real human
lives. Here in Greene County we’ve had a physician who is the Chief Medical Officer of
our two local hospitals become hospitalized and on a ventilator for about two weeks
before fortunately recovering. That doctor is around forty years old. In Hamblen County
the lone casualty from the virus thus far was the Chaplain of the Morristown Police
Department. These cases underscore that while it may be true that many people can
catch the virus and not suffer severe symptoms, just about anyone can be a potential
victim of the virus.
On the political side of this, since my last communication the Governor of Tennessee
recently issued a “Safer at Home” order through April 30th, but then on Monday the
20th he announced that he intends to let that order expire as originally intended. It’s
worth noting that much remains to be seen as to how the next ten days will pan out. It’s
impossible to know if the Governor will stick to this plan to let the Safer at Home order
expire if things get worse in the next week. It’s also worth noting that the Governor had
already closed dining rooms and theaters prior to the Safer at Home order going into
effect, and that it’s reasonable to believe that many public gatherings will continue to be
restricted beyond April 30th. It’s also very likely that many businesses will continue to
employ alternative business models for several weeks past April 30th—remember, the
Governor has the power to force businesses to close, but the market will determine much
about whether businesses reopen and how quickly they do so.
All of this leaves the Board of Missions once again in a difficult position of
recommending that the congregations of the Presbytery of East Tennessee extend the
suspension of public worship through the month of May.
The Board also feels that it’s important to pass along some resources that will help
Ministers and Sessions as they think through this guidance. Our first suggestion is that
Ministers and Session Elders need to familiarize themselves with this Tennessean article that
summarizes a Vanderbilt University study which forecasts the effects of the virus over the
next several months (you can click through to the link from this PDF file on your
As you can see, Vanderbilt’s model suggests that Tennessee’s peak for the virus outbreak
will be a fair bit later than current national projections with the statewide peak hitting the
middle of June, and that lifting social distancing guidelines could prove disastrous. This
late onset of the peak could be especially true in rural areas of the state, which could
prove to see the virus hit later than in more densely populated urban areas. These are
facts that congregations must take into consideration when deliberating on when to reopen
our doors for acts of public worship.
A second resource that church sessions may find useful during this time is this helpful blog article:
As the title suggests, this article offers up two dozen questions that sessions should address
and answer before lifting the suspension of public worship. To be fair, these two dozen
questions have the potential to leave us feeling a bit overwhelmed, especially if we read
through them all at once. Because of that, the Board suggests that congregations use
these questions as a helpful tool as opposed to an authoritative rulebook. Look over these
questions and ask yourselves which are most relevant to your particular congregation as
your church thinks forward to reopening public worship in the future. Ministers and
Session Elders may find this list of questions to be a valuable tool by thinking about the
list creatively. Being mindful of these questions will allow your congregation to think
through the complexity that the Covid-19 pandemic presents, and will provide you with a
better sense of how to proceed in your specific congregational setting.
Having said all of this, it’s important to say once again that the Board recommends that
all congregations suspend public worship through the month of May. We are passing
along the above resources now because we recognize that many folks are wanting life to
return to normal as soon as possible. Hopefully being mindful of the Vanderbilt
projections and being thoughtful of the challenges that reopening will bring will allow
each of our congregations to make good decisions in the days to come.
I’ll close for now by calling your attention to the words of Jesus in Matthew 10. As Jesus
was sending the disciples out on their first missionary venture, He told the Twelve to be,
“as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” The moment we find ourselves in is one in
which we must channel the spirit of this original mission: to be wise and innocent as we
go about doing the Lord’s work. Being wise in this case means not being ignorant to the
danger this virus poses to our congregations, our members, and our communities. Being
innocent in this case means doing the right thing to live in service to those who are at
greatest risk of harm from the virus, as opposed to making decisions based on our own
personal desires. My challenge to each of you is to be both wise and innocent as you
make decisions on public worship in coming days.
Know that the Board of Missions is praying for you and your ministry during this
challenging time. I’ll be in touch with another update sometime in the month of May.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Dr. Casey Nicholson
Chair, Board of Missions
Presbytery of East Tennessee