First Church Responds to COVID-19: Guidelines & Updates

As people of faith, we understand that Science, Math and Reason are all gifts of God.  As such, we trust the research that indicates we must do our part to flatten the curve.  All of this has informed our decisions to do our part to lessen the advance of the Coronavirus. We are implementing the practices urged by the CDC , W.H.O., and the Vermont Health Department, doing our very best to protect the health of all.    


UPDATES FROM OUR REGATHERING TEAM: Our Team continues to meet regularly. The fall update to our guidelines includes recommended (rather than required) mask wearing for all over age two in the church building. On October 14 our Regathering Team adjusted our guidelines to permit food and beverages in the building.

  •  CLICK HERE to read the Rev. Elissa Johnk’s September 16, 2022 letter that addresses the fall regathering guideline changes that moved to make masks recommended inside the church building.
  • CLICK HERE for information about our guidelines adjusting on October 14, 2022 to allow food and beverages inside the church building


An August 26, 2022 Update & Survey from the First Church  ReGathering Team: 

Dear First Church,

For more than two years our Re-Gathering Team, comprised of representatives chosen by our Deacons, staff and by our Buildings and Grounds and Worship Teams, have been meeting a minimum of once a month and as frequently as weekly to assess our response to the Covid pandemic.

As we plan for the months ahead, we are asking for your thoughtful input via the survey LINKED HERE .

In April 2021, the Re-Gathering Team shared a similar survey that asked for your feedback on virtual worship, vaccinations, and the potential for offering in-person worship. The Re-Gathering Team analyzed every response and formulated our re-opening plan in coordination with those results, as well as local, state, and Vermont UCC Conference recommendations. Over the last 18 months, we have resumed in-person worship with singing (!), began offering outdoor fellowship with refreshments, hosted community events, and many more amazing offerings!

We understand that while there are no perfect answers, plans, or policies, as the body of Christ, we affirm our responsibility to do our best to care for all in our congregation, including our oldest and youngest participants, and those in the congregation and staff who are, or who live with, those who are immune-compromised or too young to be vaccinated.

In creating any proposed revisions to our gathering guidelines, the Re-Gathering Team will take into consideration responses from the survey, along with local, state, and Vermont UCC Conference recommendations. Before making any policy changes, a proposal from our Team will be presented to representatives of our Executive Team, Board of Trustees, and Lead Minister. Please complete the survey as soon as possible, and if you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact members of the Re-Gathering Team.

In Faith,

The Re-Gathering Team: Doug Viehmann, Bob McKearin, Hilah Clarke, Ann Vivian, Caroline Catlin, and First Church President Paul Hobbs (proxy for Rev. Elissa Johnk)


An AUGUST 18, 2022 NOTE FROM OUR REGATHERING TEAM: Our Team continues to meet regularly. Recent updates to our guidelines include optional mask wearing for all speaking from the pulpit and for those not singing while playing the organ, piano or other musical instruments.  We are no longer roping off every other row in the center sections of the Sanctuary but do continue to reserve the balcony and under the balcony for those wanting to maintain physical distancing.  Social gatherings and any gatherings with food are held outside.  All over age 2 continue to wear masks for all indoor church activities and meetings.  Whenever possible a virtual (Zoom) option to worship, programs and meetings is offered.

On February 4 2022 – the guidelines below were updated to allow congregational singing – with masks – and with physical distancing.

January 7 2022 Update from our Covid Response Team

Dear First Church Friends –

We know you’ve been following the news on the Omicron variant and keeping close tabs on the rising case numbers and record hospitalizations – because you’ve told us! Here at First Church we have been doing the same thing.  Your Covid Response Team – comprised of members of Personnel, Buildings, Deacons, Worship and Staff – has been watching the trends closely, and consulting with those in the medical field about how to best proceed over these next few weeks.

As you might imagine, the answer is … cautiously!

To protect our most vulnerable populations and staff, and in order to continue gathering in person, we are temporarily returning to an earlier stage of our Covid precautions.
For this week:

  • Every other pew in the sanctuary will be roped off in order to observe physical distancing at all times during the service
  • There will be no congregational singing (UPDATED on 2/4/22 to permit signing – with masks).
  • ALL worshipers are asked to depart the building immediately following the service, to socialize outside or over our zoom fellowship gathering.
  • All non-essential, in-person church events be postponed
  • The Possibility Shop and Church School activities will continue as they have been – with strict distancing guidelines, upgraded masks, and new air purifiers.  Church School now has a zoom-in option during the 10am worship.

We want to reassure you that our Covid Response Team is meeting weekly, and will attempt to make decisions for each week in “real-time”.  We understand that none of this is ideal, and there is no one solution that will feel right for all of us. One of the things that has been so remarkable about this community over the past two years is the adaptability and respect we have been able to grant one another as we navigate these challenging decisions and care for one another in these challenging times. Please know your patience and understanding is seen and appreciated.

In faith,
The Staff and Covid Response Team


Worship In Person at First Church – June 2021 Update
Weekly Live-Streaming on YouTube

    It’s time to re-gather physically! Stay tuned for updates on guidelines, but we are ready to welcome one and all back to the sanctuary starting Sunday, July 4, 2021!
Of, course, we understand not all of us will be able to be there physically, so we are committed to continuing to integrate our digital congregation, by live-streaming at 10am on Youtube!   Our Zoom Fellowship time will continue after worship – as will in person fellowship on the front lawn at church!   CLICK HERE for details about programs for children and youth this summer.

A Letter from Our Deacons About In-Person Worship

June 25, 2021

Dear Members and Friends of First Church

In a year of many firsts, changes and challenges, this congregation is about to embark on a new experience with much joy and celebration: First Church will be opening its doors again for live worship on Sunday July 4.   The Deacons are excited to be part of this joyful and celebratory time, and want to share with you some information as to how our worship life will work, once we begin to welcome folks back within our church walls.

While many of our friends and neighbors cannot wait to walk into the Sanctuary and reclaim that favorite pew, we do expect some in our community will continue to worship virtually; some maybe for a brief period of time and some may continue permanently.

In addition to our physical re-opening, our ministry leaders have been working hard to adapt our worship to support an ongoing remote worship along with our live Sunday services.   We want our tradition of radical hospitality to extend to folks who will continue to participate remotely on Sundays, to ensure all can access our time of worship, even if their physical presences is not possible due to issues of health, accessibility or distance.   It is our goal to make remote worship an extension of our Sanctuary service, so that those worshiping virtually can share sacred time and space with those who are participating physically.  READ MORE…



“We will serve communion in pre-torn pieces, we won’t shake hands for the passing of the peace, and we have hand sanitizer in the pews.  I think we have a good plan in place.”
-Elissa Johnk, Trustees, 5/10/2020

I have heard it suggested that a pillar of wisdom is learning to laugh at yourself.  If this is true, some of us should be emerging from these last 15 months like Solomon. None of us knew what was in store, of course, but for quite some time it has felt as if we were constructing a raft while already floating down the rapids, praying there aren’t larger waterfalls ahead.

“If all goes well, we will be able to welcome into the building anyone who wishes to physically attend worship on…”  CLICK HERE to read the full letter


April 16, 2021 – Covid Update from the Rev. Elissa Johnk


Dear Friends –

This past week marked our two-year anniversary together, and it seems strange to think that the last year has been our own congregational version of a long-distance relationship!  Instead of gathering in our beloved sanctuary, I have been invited into your homes for every meeting, every visit, every worship, every week.  You have offered yourselves in testimony and witness, and I now know how it is you respond to forms of trauma and stress. While these are not the same things we would have learned about each other in any other year, in many ways, it has felt like many years of ministry condensed into one.

But I’ll tell you what I miss (beyond the obvious preaching to a present congregation, communal music, laughter, and prayers) – I miss the hallway conversations. The ways you get to know someone, and what is happening in their life, in passing. The details that are shared over a warm mug of coffee or tea, with children running just a little too fast around your knees.  Like me, I am sure you are eager to get back to this – even if it means forgoing the warm mug.

To this end, I am pleased to tell you that the Covid Response Team (comprised of members of staff, Deacons, Building and Grounds, Personnel and Worship) has been working to establish a plan to get us back to one another as soon as it can be done, and done safely.  Drawing on resources from public health officials, denominational resources, and the wider church, we have developed what we are calling our “PEACE Plan”, which establishes a five-part plan for a phased reopening.

P, or phased-in worship regathering, involves our worship LEADERS coming back to the sanctuary to record our worship for streaming. This will involve staff, lay readers, musicians, leaders, and our new A/V team, to begin to learn the new equipment.  We anticipate this will start in late May or early June, as our staff will (hopefully!) be finishing their vaccinations by this date. Indeed, all who are in the building during this phase will be required to be fully vaccinated, to wear masks, and practice social distancing. There should be no more than ten people in the sanctuary at any given time.

Phase Experimentation will begin shortly thereafter, and will involve staff, worship leaders, and designated groups such as the Trustees, Deacons, Worship Team, or Faith Formation Team, gathering to test out what a hybrid regathering would be like, then discuss it later and make changes based on experiences and science. During this phase masks and distancing will be required, and all present will be required to have at least the first dose of a vaccine. There will be no more than 25 people in the sanctuary at any given time.

Once Phase Experimentation is underway, and we begin to work out the “kinks” of hybrid gatherings, we anticipate Phase A adding the broader adult congregation – will occur shortly thereafter, hopefully in mid to late June. This is, of course, the phase we are all waiting for!  And, as exciting as this will be for all of us, I want to remind us that this will not look like what it has in the past – there will be no congregational singing, or passing of the peace, attendees will have to register in advance, and masks and distancing will be required.  To move into this phase, a few additional factors will have to be established:

  • most of the adult church population has been vaccinated with at least one dose,
  • the majority of the Chittenden County adult population has been vaccinated with at least one dose
  • No more than 2 percent positivity rate in the County, and 14-day downward trends
  • No known presence of vaccine-resistant variants in the area

The next two phases – adding Children, and Everyone! Everywhere! – also have a set of environmental and congregational “triggers”, which we will tell you more about as we get closer to those stages.

I want to reassure you that your Covid team has been incredibly thoughtful about putting together this plan.  A summary of this plan can be found by clicking here.  Please note, however, that this is not locked in stone.  In fact, every part of this plan is subject to change, based on new information or circumstances.  We are putting this out to you simply so you have a better sense of the guiding principles behind our decision making and procedures.  Before each phase is complete, and we move to the next, conversations will be had between the Deacons, Trustees, and Covid Response team, to ensure we are safe to proceed to the next steps.

To help us ensure we are on the right track for you and your family, we have compiled a short survey we hope you will complete.  This will help us evaluate our plan, and consider appropriate steps between phases.  As it has been all year this is a congregation-wide effort, and we really do need to hear from you to make sure we most effectively focus our attention and resources moving forward.

There is an old joke that a man bought his wife a bouquet of 48 roses for their 50th anniversary.  When she asked why 48, he said “one for every good year.”  She looked at the bouquet and threw out a few more before giving him a kiss.

I know this year has been hard. But with the amount we’ve learned about one another, and ourselves, I would still call it good. So happy anniversary, friends. Here’s to the year ahead, in faith.


The Rev. Elissa Johnk

November 19, 2020 Covid Update from the Rev. Elissa Johnk

September 2020 Update from our Staff & Covid-19 Response Team


May 21, 2020: As the country begins to ponder re-emerging from our homes, I am reminded how grateful I am to live in Vermont, which leads the nation in successful response.  As we are consistently reminded, however, now is not the time to lose our diligence.  Even as restrictions are loosened, we are being asked to follow best practices – staying close to home, wearing masks, and limiting social gatherings.
CLICK HERE  for The First Church BTV Covid-19 General Guidelines including guidelines related to: Worship, Team Life, Office and Building Protocol, Pastoral Care, the Possibility Shop and Renters.


June 18, 2020: In her sermon on workplace relationships this winter, Elissa called worship our “staff meeting.”  It is the place we come to “discuss the issues at hand, encourage one another, and equip ourselves for our particular jobs spreading the love of God, serving God in the world, each in our respective assignments.”  It has been just over three months since we were able to physically gather for “staff meeting”.
CLICK HERE to read the full update from the Task Force for ReOpening

Transformation & Vision: Our Next Steps

June 2020: Few are the moments in one’s life that are so transformational that you know you are experiencing one in real time: saying “I do”, the birth of a child, the death of a beloved. They are moments so profound, so disorienting – so re-orienting – that you know you will be changed forever.
Pentecost, which we just celebrated in worship, was one such moment for Peter.  Having denied even knowing Jesus three times, at Pentecost he finally had the chance to take it all back – to be who Jesus believed he was: the rock upon which even our church here at 38 South Winooski is founded. Here at First Church, we are in an extraordinary place, because we are living in the middle of two transformational moments at once.
CLICK HERE to read Elissa Johnk’s Message: Transformation & Vision: Our Next Steps


  • For any prayer requests, emotional support, or other assistance you may need during this time, please email our Partners in Pastoral Care and Clergy at [email protected]  
  • Our Partners in Pastoral Care and Deacons Teams are working together to be in regular contact with our members and friends during this time.  If you haven’t received a call, or know of someone who is in need, please email [email protected]  


Your stewardship is more important than ever in this time.  You can mail in your checks, or use one of the options below.

Click HERE to Give Now

  • GIVE to First Church by texting: FCCBUCC to 73256 to give a gift using your text messaging. Standard text message rates apply.


  • JUMP – with COVID-19 precautions in place in Vermont – JUMP has created “JUMP FLEX” – so that phone and email can be used to connect people in need with valuable and much needed direct services. 
  • Our AA and NA meetings will resume meeting at First Church when they feel comfortable after “stay at home” is lifted. 
  • Small Potatoes continues serving Saturday morning breakfast and bag lunch (now outside) at First Church having made adjustments to menu and serving methods; volunteers have agreed to disinfect any space used following the meal. 
  • The New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church has temporarily cancelled all in-person events. 
  • The Possibility Shop is closed and can not accept any donations at this time.  We are grateful to our volunteers, donors and customers for their generosity and patience.
  • The Office will be open from 10-3 Tuesday thru Friday, but most staff will continue working from home for the time being.  To make sure that staff will be present, it is always good to call ahead (802-862-5010, ext.4) before visiting the church.  Ring the doorbell when you arrive.
    • A small crew of volunteers will be regularly disinfecting the common areas for the safety of our office staff and volunteers.


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