A year ago as COVID-19 vaccines became available in 2021, this blog hosted a conversation asking “What would happen if a church became a vaxxed-only congregation?”, meaning that they required proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend worship. We ended up being really cautious about the practice, naming that while closed small groups could benefit from a vaccination requirement, worship should fundamentally be for everyone, without restrictions.
Months later, my church became required to practice exactly that type of restriction.
My church is in downtown Seattle, which consistently has been on the cutting edge of sensible and timely COVID-19 restrictions. In response to regional denominational and civil authorities, the church I pastor made the move to require proof of vaccination of all attendees to church worship services, saying:
In keeping with recent guidance from our Bishop that directs all congregations to be in compliance with local vaccine mandates, First Church will require proof of vaccination for all individuals, 12 years of age and older, attending worship services in person, beginning October 31, 2021.
What did the church approve?
Our County had required proof of vaccination for indoor venues, and our Bishop (presiding denominational authority) has consistently approved of churches acting in accordance with public health, rather than claim a shaky “religious exemption.” Here are sections of the fuller rationale of why we implemented this:
In keeping with recent guidance from our Bishop that directs all congregations in the Greater Northwest to be in compliance with local vaccine mandates, the Worship Team recommends that First Church require proof of vaccination for all individuals attending worship services in person, effective October 31, 2021.
We are painfully cognizant that such requirement presses upon our commitment to radical hospitality, and we come to this recommendation based upon the following rationale:
● We are committed to keeping all who participate in the First Church community as safe as possible. Vaccination is the best way to insure safety in the face of Covid.
● For those who cannot or choose not to be vaccinated, we maintain the option of connecting virtually with livestream worship services.
● Children who are not eligible for vaccination due to age are exempt from this requirement.
● Masks are still required, as previously articulated. Members of the Worship Team are committed to helping facilitate vaccination for any unvaccinated individuals who wish to participate in in-person worship services.
● Proof of vaccination includes a vaccination card, photo of a vaccination card, or QR code.
There was very little rejection or complaints about this development, which I attest to being a congregation where our spiritual health and our public health were hand-in-hand, not antagonistic. People knew we were a place where that balance was practiced, so this was no surprise when it was required of us.
To implement this requirement, we determined that we would check proof of vaccination status of each attendee, and if they provided it, we would keep their name on a list so on subsequent Sundays, they would just check their name on a list. This process was deemed appropriate and voluntary and not—as often alleged—a violation of HIPAA concerns. The same list could be a contact-tracing resource as well, should the need arise.
To put the process into practice in our context, we had two people outside notifying people of the requirement. If an attendee had proof of vaccination with them, then they could go inside and sign a document giving us permission to include their name on a list. For future Sundays, the attendee could simply check their name off a list without showing their proof of vaccination again. If they did not, then there would be a conversation and sharing of resources (a card with where to get vaccinated and who to call to get a ride to it).
We eased into it with a trial Sunday. The first Sunday was the pastors checking the vaccination status of people—and we found one segment of people hadn’t gotten the notices (mostly senior adults not on our email list), so we were lenient that first day. But after that, we were firm in turning away even long-time church members who hadn’t shown us their vaccination status, though thankfully that only happened a handful of times. And as we could name for people, attending worship via live-stream–which we work really hard at being a high-quality experience–was open to everyone.
Long Term Impact
There was one hope and two fears that our leadership expected to come true from this action—however, none have come true, which is both good and bad news.
Our hope is that a vaccination requirement would cause more families with children to attend in-person rather than continue at home. However, three months later, we haven’t seen a significant return from our church families with kids. That may change with the Omicron wave (hopefully) tapering off and the vaccine coming soon for children under 5 years old. I will also name that my own children also worship from home, given one of my three kids is under 5 years old, so I get it! So we did not achieve this hope.
But we also did not experience what we feared because we did not experience a drop in worship attendance. Some of this is due to folks who started attending in-person knowing the room was safer for them to spend an hour in. But some of it was our surrounding area as our County required proof of vaccination for most indoor venues and restaurants, so our locals were used to carrying around their cards anyway.
Finally, we also feared that such requirements would disproportionately exclude those experiencing homelessness and housing vulnerability from attending. While our numbers lowered, most of the regular members who had attended in-person before the requirement continued to attend, and one said it was an assurance to them that if they lost their card, they could at least get an attestation from the church of seeing it because their name was on our list. In addition, those experiencing hunger and homelessness continue to be served a hot breakfast each Sunday, as our mission work was not required to provide proof of vaccination to be offered food—or attend a worship service to receive food.
Learnings for other churches
While we are now seeing a loosening of restrictions and it is unlikely civil authorities will require vaccination verification again, if there are churches that find themselves fusing their spiritual and public health in this way, here are a few learnings:
- Asking church members for their cards can be an emotional thing. We found more success with a staff person checking proof of vaccination with first-timers, whereas folks who are already verified can check-in with a church member for contact-tracing purposes, an interaction that is far less emotional.
- The church promised to hold private the list of those who were vaccinated and gave consent to add their name to a list. By naming that, that gave members a bit more assurance that we would lock up that list when not in use during Sunday worship. People are still weird about something so public as vaccination status, so that small bit of grace went a long way.
- By far the most emotional experiences were weddings and funerals with vaccination verification requirements. Family members refusing to attend a momentous worship service where they had to provide proof of vaccination was a really hard conversation. But a worship service is a worship service, and providing a consistently verified place of lower transmissibility fears was important.
Even this past Sunday, we had to turn away a visitor who did not have proof of vaccination with her, months after the requirement was implemented in our County. Sigh.
Going forward, with the end of my county’s vaccine mandate coming in a few weeks, my church will be in deep discernment whether to discontinue this practice to go back to open worship, or retain it in the name of providing a space where spiritual and public health are both celebrated. Both are valid directions!
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