The national United Church now says it expects all actively serving ministry personnel to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless they have a medical exemption.
In a memo publicized on Thursday, the church’s Office of Vocation, which regulates ministry personnel, said that this is not a requirement and compliance won’t be tracked, but if a complaint is made against a minister, they could be seen as violating one of the ethical standards for ministry personnel.
Ministry personnel include ordained and diaconal ministers, designated lay ministers and candidates serving under appointment, among others.
Rev. Norm Seli, the chair of the office’s Board of Vocation, told Broadview that the expectation wouldn’t apply in a situation where a congregation had no issue with an unvaccinated minister, maybe because they were worshipping remotely.
“What we’re saying is — if you have a concern about that minister, we recognize that it would then be an ethical breach if they did not practice that level of public safety,” he said.
“If a community of faith raises it, then we would respond to support them. But if they’re not raising it, we’re not telling them what they have to do, we’re just giving them the tools.”
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He said that Regions, which oversee the work of churches in a geographic area, were looking for guidance on the issue.
“As part of the ethical standards for ministry personnel is that we’re sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the whole community, so it’s in that light, that we’re recognizing in COVID-19, in this time of pandemic, that vaccination is a sensitivity to the needs and vulnerabilities of the community,” he said.
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Rev. Alan Hall, the General Council executive officer of ministry and employment, confirmed to Broadview that this new expectation does not apply to other church staff, such as administrators or custodians.
“The General Council has no authority over establishing policy for employment practices of lay people and congregation staff, that’s a congregational governance issue, and because the congregations work with and are supported by the regional council, the regional council often provides guidance and advice to them in establishing their own policies,” he said.
Seli said the board discussed the possibility of mandating vaccination, but ultimately opted to let churches make the decision.
“It would be really easy just to say ‘Boom, that’s what it is and we’re going to check up on you,’ but that doesn’t really fit who we are as a church, nor does it recognize our individual communities of faith and their autonomy,” he said.
Emma Prestwich is Broadview’s digital editor.
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