November 29, 2021

“Vaccine Mandates?”

I try to keep our parish as far away from politics as possible. But, what happens when politics choose to visit us as they did with the question of COVID-19 vaccination mandates?

As our mayor and our governor battled each other in court about what could and could not be required of churches, we had to figure it out for ourselves. Surely, we were going to encourage vaccination, but would we require it? And, if so, of whom?

A recent article in The Atlantic argues that it is harder to run a church in 2021 than it was in 2020. I couldn’t agree more. Our choices were relatively straightforward at the height of the pandemic, but they are far more complicated now. Our approach to vaccination requirements worked for us, and I offer it as a starting place for others facing similar questions.

Clergy and Staff

The question of requiring vaccines among our employees came up first.

Distinct from the people we serve, our staff – lay staff and ordained staff, program staff and support staff – are the people who carry out our ministry, the people whose role it is to be present with those who are most vulnerable and those who might not be vaccinated. How do we protect them and the people that they serve?

We realized early on that we were not going to be willing to fire someone over this. Taking away someone’s livelihood because they were sincerely uncomfortable putting medicine in their bodies was a bridge we were not willing to cross. At its most fundamental level, respecting the dignity of every human being needs to include respecting their autonomy over their bodies.

So, with the help of our medical (and legal!) advisors, we developed a three-part approach. Any member of staff who did not provide evidence of vaccination was required to…

  • …be tested for COVID-19 weekly and provide documentation of a negative test to the parish administrator. We promised to cover the cost of testing.
  • …wear a mask at all times while on our campus. Indoors or outdoors, alone or in a group – no exceptions.
  • …attend a one-time educational session with a consultant who had medical expertise and could hear their concerns and answer their questions. To encourage honest sharing, we committed that no one from our management team would be present for this meeting.

Behavioral psychologists would call this approach a “nudge” – we did not require anyone to be vaccinated, but we made it easier for them to be vaccinated than to be unvaccinated. We incentivized the choice that we hoped our staff would make by disincentivizing the choice that we hoped they would not make.

In the end, 100% of our employees chose to be vaccinated. (One reported that his first nasal swab was all the encouragement he needed to change his mind and take the vaccine!) I’m proud of our policy, and grateful to our team.

Parishioners

Not long after we had created a policy on staff vaccination, we started hearing about churches in other places requiring proof of vaccination as a criteria for attending in-person worship.

Our deacon helped us find our way through this one. In many ways, Deacon Randy McCloy is the spiritual anchor of our parish. A retired physician and former senior warden who was subsequently ordained, Randy is the longest-standing member of our clergy team. He is a wise and beloved figure in our community whose words carry a lot of weight.

Randy argued that physicians take an oath to treat the patient in front of them, without exception, and that clergy make similar promises.

Remember the Prayer Book’s charge to deacons: “You are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” And to priests: “You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”

To put all of that another way, clergy do not get to choose the people whom we will serve. The church’s history of distinguishing between people based on their chosen or unchosen characteristics is not a proud one. It has taken us a while to learn that “everyone” really does mean everyone, and that God’s embrace is inconceivably wide.

We did mask mandates. We did physical distancing when it was required of public buildings in our community. We put hand sanitizer and free masks at every point of entry. But, checking vaccine cards at the door is another bridge that we will be leaving uncrossed.