Baptist COVID-19 Response Team

In October 2021 the Baptist COVID-19 Response Team was established to work alongside the National Office and Regional Leadership in our ongoing support of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand. The purpose of this group is to help us bring clarity to government and health guidelines, give guidance, make suggestions, take initiatives, provide resources, answer questions, and to look for gospel opportunities through this. The team is chaired by Grant Harris, and contains expertise and experiance in the following areas: public health, legal and employment, finance, health and safety, te ao Māori worldview, missional faith community leadership, Regional Leader, rural, urban, and South Auckland pastors, and Baptist theologian. We are thankful for the willingness of these people to serve us in the months ahead.

Contact the COVID-19 Response Team via email: [email protected]

 

Baptist Intranet: COVID-19 Resource Sharing

Our intranet contains a number of resources, some shared from various churches. Acces to this requires a  login. Please contact the National Office if you have forgotton your login details. Click here to log in to the intranet

 

New Zealand Government COVID-19 information

We highlight and support the Government guidelines and direct churches to the government source of information:

COVID-19 Protection Framework—Guidelines for places of worship V2 23/12/2021 A 16-page PDF form the government first issued 29 November 2021, latest version 23 December 2021 that came with the following note from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on 24 December:

This version clarifies aspects of the guidelines in response to questions that have been raised, including at the information session last week. These include:

  • Clarification around the face covering requirements for workers and volunteers at gatherings. You will see that at Orange and Red, performers and formal speakers (such as a person leading a service) are not required to wear a face covering provided they are 2 metres apart from others. 
  • Information around the My Vaccine Pass requirements for young people. 
  • Clarity around the Education vaccine mandate, as requested during the information session.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about COVID-19 and churches

Questions churches and pastors have asked, compiled and answered by the Baptist COVID-19 Response Team

1. Baptist Union of New Zealand ‘official’ position

The Baptist Churches of New Zealand do not have an ‘official’ position. Charles Hewlett, as National Leader of the Baptist Churches, has stated that he is “fully supportive of the New Zealand Government’s Covid vaccination programme.” He writes, “For us our faith is about being prepared to give up our rights for another. It is very much about loving our neighbour. Being vaccinated will help save the lives of others. I urge you to proactively encourage and support not only the people in your congregation, but also those within your local neighbourhoods, to be vaccinated.”

The Baptist Union’s COVID-19 Response Team is also supportive of the government’s vaccination programme as a public health measure that will save lives. However, this is not an ‘official’ position, as such. Baptists believe (based on texts like Matthew 18:20) that final authority over any local church rests not with a national leader or a national council (and not even with a senior pastor or a group of elders) but with the risen Christ who promises to be present and make his will known whenever that church gathers together to seek his will. The members of every local church are accountable ultimately to Christ and must obey what they discern he is saying to them. In that sense they are free from external edicts.

However, the freedom of the local church to discern Christ’s will is not an unbridled autonomy. Contrary to popular belief, Baptists do not believe in the “autonomy” of local congregations. From their beginning, Baptists have recognised (based on texts like 1 Corinthians 12) that every local congregation is not on its own competent to find the mind of Christ in some issues. It needs to draw on the experience and insights of other churches, on other Christians. That is why, from their origins, Baptists have always formed associations and unions, and gathered together in assemblies or hui to listen together to the risen Christ in their midst. We need the wisdom of one another. And we certainly need the wisdom of one another if, as local churches, we are to navigate this pandemic in a way that honours Jesus.

2. COVID-19 Protection Framework (Traffic lights system)

[Updated 14March2022] The Government announced the new COVID-19 Protection Framework (aka the new traffic light system) in October 2021 and that it would replace the alert level framework in Auckland once the 90 per cent [double] vaccination rates are achieved across all three DHB’s. All of New Zealand moved into the COVID-19 Protection Framework from Friday 3rd December 2021.

This will be a contextual process based on an individual church, however some general considerations should always apply:

Consistency of Communication: Listening and speaking. We need to step into the conversations with grace and welcome the conversation

Acknowledgement: 

  • Some answers are unknown, and we will discover the answers in time. A decision today will likely need to be reviewed in the future as to continued relevance.
  • Some things that are the right answer now, may not be in the coming days.
  • It’s ok to go on a discovery journey.
  • We won’t be able to implement every idea or opportunity. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad or wrong idea, but it may not be the immediate next decision.

 
Revisiting Vision, Values and Purpose with congregants. This discussion can anchor and bring focus in reminding our people of the important function of the church in society, and that this hasn’t changed. It’s possibly amplified the need for our ‘why’ to be outworked in these times. Much attention is being focussed on how we will function, and that’s important, however, having clarity on why we function may direct how we do that while keeping the interests of our most vulnerable in society in mind.
 
Jesus: Constantly reflect on Christ and his response to pressure, opinion, the neighbourhood, the unkind and the delivery of the Gospel in the midst of all of it.

There is no doubt that this is one of the more difficult conversations to have. Each church will have their own culture and structure around how decisions are made. The COVID-19 Response Team are supportive of the government’s guidelines as a public health measure. Our only advice is that we should be holding to, and focussing on, what defines us as brothers and sisters in Christ, vaccinated or unvaccinated.

The reality is that each church might respond differently to the one around the corner. Talk lots, pray daily, listen to many voices and don’t be in any rush before you need to make any decisions.

We’re here to help if you need any specific advice or support based in your context.

Yes, and it is reasonably comprehensive about how we should operate at the three different traffic light colour settings: The COVID-19 Protection Framework—Guidelines for places of worship is a 17-page PDF from the government first issued 29 November 2021, latest version 4 April 2022.

3. Church services

We do not endorse this pathway as we fully support the governments COVID-19 Protection Framework as a matter of public health during a global pandemic. We do not support working outside of the government’s mandates. How each church implements the Framework will be dependent upon its congregation size, location, and the ways in which church gather.

We recommend you fully consult government advice including WorkSafe and the Ministry of Health.

The government has not mandated the approach to be taken by organisations who work with children and youth, outside of registered schools, student hostels and ECE (Early Childhood Education) providers.

Therefore, each church needs to decide whether the role currently held by a staff member or volunteer is one that should be held by a vaccinated person, in accordance with the churches obligations to mitigate risks (in this case, the spread of COVID-19) under the church’s usual health and safety obligations.

WorkSafe has provided guidance around a risk assessment that organisations can use to determine whether a role should be held by a vaccinated person to mitigate the risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19. Look at this link to see a series of questions to work through to help assess the risk of a worker in a particular role being infected with, and transmitting, COVID-19 – https://www.worksafe.govt.nz/managing-health-and-safety/novel-coronavirus-covid/how-to-decide-what-work-requires-a-vaccinated-employee/.

A church could look to other sections (such as education) when deciding what its answers to each of the WorkSafe factors is.

If a church decides that a role should be held by a vaccinated person, then they need to follow a process in trying to implement that if the person currently holding that role is not vaccinated. This process varies depending on whether the person currently in the role is an employee of the church, engaged under a Terms of Call, or a volunteer. However, an overview of the process is as follows:

  1. Consult with the person/people holding the role about the church’s health and safety assessment that the role should be held by a vaccinated person, and why that assessment was made.
  2. Consider any feedback the person might have about the assessment.
  3. Confirm if the role needs to be held by a vaccinated person, or not.
  4. If the role does need to be held by a vaccinated person for health and safety reasons, ask the person if they are vaccinated and/or give them an opportunity (on work time) to get vaccinated.
  5. If they choose not to get vaccinated, redeployment opportunities within the church should be considered and/or whether the role can be modified.
  6. If there are no redeployment opportunities within the church, and/or the person does not wish to take them up, the church needs to terminate employment on the basis of health and safety grounds (with notice given in line with the employment agreement, or if the terms of call are being ended, in line with the terms of call).

The above process should largely be followed for volunteer positions, but obviously employment law doesn’t apply.

It is recommended that churches seek independent legal advice before terminating employment on the above grounds. Contact us if you would like to be put in touch with someone.

People that may fall into these categories should be approached with empathy, care and consideration. We would like to think that our priority would lean toward these people as they are the most vulnerable in our communities and the Gospel message highlights the importance of the church focussing here. It’s also important not to be seen as being coercive, manipulative, but building one’s trust and relationships.

What that may look like for each congregation is different, however, there are a number of churches and models that have implemented digital services that have accompanying support, follow up and regular relational investment that can help navigate a person through to worship and connection with the wider church community and point towards Jesus. This means it is not simply all ‘online’ but a hybrid model which seeks to understand vulnerabilities and limitations for an individual with the option to still connect technologically and in person.

For example, a few people may be willing to open their homes on a Sunday morning so that vulnerable, or unvaccinated, people can be in community and still participate in a livestreamed service, or a church might hold a service that does not require vaccine certificates on a different day of the week, keeping within allowed limits of course.

As above, we can educate, build relationships, communicate and then leave people to make their own decision.

If you are operating as a gathering, you can serve food and drink at green, orange or red.

Standard Food and Safety Hygiene should still apply and then any government requirements around gathering and sharing of food should also apply. We are not aware of any new requirements for this, so, if you were going to do so, proceed with care, consideration and hygiene mandates.

[Answer updated 19/11/21] At this point there is no situation under the COVID19 Protection Framework that applies where a negative test will gain entry to a gathering in place of a vaccine certificate.

[Updated 14Mar22] Everyone that was part of that gathering may be considered a close contact. Close contacts no longer need to isolate unless they are a household contact of someone who tested positive. You will need to advise everyone who was at that gathering that someone has tested positive – contact us for a template of an email you can send.

4. Legal positions (mandates/employment)

This decision is over to the individual church. Each role, and the work that is being done, should be assessed to decide whether a role should be held by a vaccinated person or not.

Each church needs to decide whether the role currently held by a staff member or volunteer is one that should be held by a vaccinated person, in accordance with the churches obligations to mitigate risks (in this case, the spread of COVID-19) under the church’s usual health and safety obligations.
There is room for churches to reach different conclusions around this. At law, a church needs to take reasonable and practicable steps to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spreading. For some churches, this may mean all staff and volunteers are vaccinated. For others, this may mean (for example) services continue online, or youth groups etc are only run outside, where everyone wears masks, and hand sanitizer is used regularly etc, or it may mean that only some roles need to be held by a person who is vaccinated.

WorkSafe has provided guidance around a risk assessment that organisations can use to determine whether a role should be held by a vaccinated person to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID-19. Look at this link to see a series of questions to work through to help assess the risk of a worker in a particular role spreading COVID-19 – https://www.worksafe.govt.nz/managing-health-and-safety/novel-coronavirus-covid/how-to-decide-what-work-requires-a-vaccinated-employee/.

A church could look to other sections (such as education) when deciding what its answers to each of the WorkSafe factors is.

Yes. However, whether someone is vaccinated or not is personal information, and your team do not have to tell you if they are or not. You are entitled to assume that someone is not vaccinated if they do not provide you with proof that they are.

A church can decide that a role needs to be held by a vaccinated person, and then only allow vaccinated people to carry on volunteering in that role.

WorkSafe has provided guidance around a risk assessment that organisations can use to determine whether a role should be held by a vaccinated person to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID-19. Look at this link to see a series of questions to work through to help assess the risk of a worker in a particular role spreading COVID-19 – https://www.worksafe.govt.nz/managing-health-and-safety/novel-coronavirus-covid/how-to-decide-what-work-requires-a-vaccinated-employee/.

If a church decides that a volunteer role should only be held by a vaccinated person, they are entitled to either ask the person holding the role to be vaccinated or ask them to step down. Please note, employment law obligations do not apply to volunteers, so a process in relation to requiring volunteer roles to be held by vaccinated people only is legally more straight forward than for roles held by employees or those engaged under terms of call.

We suggest that any process you go through with volunteers should be a highly relational process with open communication and lots of grace. It’s a difficult subject to talk about with lots of emotion, so think carefully (& pray much) about your approach and what you want to communicate.

[Answer updated 30 November 2021]
No. As yet, the government has not mandated that all church staff need to be vaccinated by 3 December 2021 (or at all). On 26 November 2021 the COVID-19 Response (Vaccinations) Legislation Act 2021 came into force. The Act gives the Minister of Workplace Relations the ability to issue a Specified Work Order, which means only certain work or classes of work can be carried out by vaccinated individuals and/or individuals that satisfy testing requirements. A Specified Work Order has not been made in relation to church staff.

In a press release on 23 November 2021, Michael Wood suggested that staff in workplaces that are required to or can use the My Vaccine Pass must be vaccinated (whether they use the My Vaccine Pass or not), which would include churches. Subsequently, other indications from government appear to suggest that this will not be the case.

To date, if church staff are attending a service that requires vaccination certificates (My Vaccine Pass) they will need to be vaccinated. Otherwise, whether church staff and volunteers should be vaccinated or not should be determined by the risk to contracting and transmitting COVID-19 that their role possesses (see answer to question 4.1)

If the government mandates that church staff are vaccinated, the answer to this question will be updated.

It’s not so much a question of whether or not it is “legal”, per se. Given the current Covid-19 restrictions, it is reasonable in some cases that only someone who is fully vaccinated could apply for certain roles. For example, in a larger church where gatherings (Sunday services etc.) are using vaccine passes, it would be reasonable to limit applicants to those who are fully vaccinated (as otherwise they would not be able to perform the role). Similarly, if a church is running events at orange and green (events are not permitted at red), all workers must be vaccinated. However, if it were a smaller church that was running open gatherings (with no vaccine passes) that were capped at the appropriate level for the colour because of a smaller congregation, and did not run events, there may be less justification for requiring vaccination.

Our advice would be that a small note is added to the job advertisement – for example an asterisk with a note at the bottom – that simply states “We note that because the duties and responsibilities of this role include working at gatherings [and events, if relevant], applicants for this role must be fully vaccinated in accordance with the current COVID-19 public health measures.”

5. Health and safety

[Answer updated 4 December 2021] The NZ Pass Verifier app should be the preferred method to check all vaccine certificates for all gatherings that are for vaccinated people only.

Ultimately, the church will be responsible to ensure that those entering the gathering/event or using the premises have signed in and are identified. Each local church will need to decide who they have checking vaccine certificates upon entry to the building, for example: pastor, elders, volunteers. An important consideration with this role is the potential for difficult conversations that may be required if people arrive without vaccine certificates and are turned away.

The [Senior] Pastor would normally be considered the PCBU (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking) under health and safety protocols and would be personally accountable for these actions to take place, consistent with health and safety legislation that has been in place for a number of years.

Yes. If you haven’t already been using your own risk assessments, the best place to start is the WorkSafe COVID-19 Safety Plan document. It can be found, with relevant advice, here: https://www.worksafe.govt.nz/managing-health-and-safety/novel-coronavirus-covid/operating-safely-what-you-need-to-think-about/ Download the PDF or Word document part way down the page to get started. The language is business orientated, but just think church and gatherings and it will achieve the same result.

6. Theology

Vaccination is simply a way of helping our immune systems to develop memory for specific diseases, so that if a person is later exposed to the microorganisms that cause those diseases they are protected from the disease, or even if infected, from serious illness and death.

Vaccination is mostly a safe and effective medical intervention that has been used for hundreds of years and has saved millions of people’s lives all around the world. It has led to the elimination and control of diseases that were until relatively recently common causes of misery and death, such as smallpox, polio, rubella and diphtheria. In regard to success rates vaccination has proved to be (one of) the most effective. Like any vaccination however there is risk but this is extremely small in comparison.  Refer to: https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-vaccines/covid-19-vaccine-side-effects-and-reactions.

Vaccination is a huge success story. It has eliminated smallpox worldwide. In New Zealand it has dramatically reduced the occurrence of and deaths and complications from polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, measles, whooping cough, hepatitis B, rubella, some types of pneumonia and meningitis, influenza and others. When we travel to other countries, vaccinations can protect us from diseases such as Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A, rabies and typhoid fever. We have much to be thankful for. In past generations, it was common for children and adults to die from such infections.

The more people vaccinated in a population, the less the microorganisms that cause infections can circulate in that population. Getting vaccinated therefore benefits not only the individual who is vaccinated but also the people around them who are not vaccinated especially people who may be particularly susceptible because of age or ill health.

Vaccines for COVID-19 were developed following the declaration of the pandemic in March 2020 and have been given to hundreds of millions of people around the world. They are not as effective at preventing infection as some other vaccines, but they have been conclusively shown to reduce the risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from COVID-19.

Some people have suggested that the current vaccine mandates match the situation described in Revelation 13, where all people were forced to receive a mark on their right hands or foreheads. They could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name…. That number is 666.” 

Throughout history many people have assumed that the book of Revelation is written primarily to predict future events many centuries later. That ignores the clear fact that Revelation was written to Christians living under the pressure of a pagan empire in the first century. The book was written to strengthen their faith in the face of pressure to worship the Roman Emperor. We need to interpret texts like Revelation 13 in light of that context.

When we do that, it becomes apparent that the number “666” is probably a reference to the Roman Caesar, Nero. When Nero’s name is translated from Greek into Hebrew, its numerical equivalent is 666. In the Roman empire, it was not uncommon for people to wear religious tattoos, marks on their bodies, to indicate their devotion to a particular deity. Revelation 13 is arguing, therefore, that the religious practices of the Roman Empire – the worship of the Caesars and of pagan gods – was demonic in nature.

The implication for us is that we must resist the empires or systems of our day when they induce us to give our worship – our ultimate allegiance – to anything but Jesus. Our view is that the government’s vaccine system is not preventing us from worshiping Jesus as Lord. But it is calling us to be creative, for a season, in how and where we do that.

Biblically, and historically, freedom of conscience means the freedom to choose and practice your religious faith. Our forebears in the faith argued that the state should not compel you to adopt a certain religion or doctrine. As one early Baptist statement expressed it: “the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force and compel men [and women] to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every [person’s] conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Rom 13) … for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience (James 4:12).” [Quoted in Paul Fiddes, Tracks and Traces, 260-1]The question we have to ask is whether the government, by requiring us to exclude unvaccinated people from attending certain worship gatherings, is forcing and compelling anyone to adopt a certain religion or doctrine? Is the government requiring us to disobey Christ our king, or disown him as Lord? We do not believe it is. The government is simply limiting the ability of some Christians, under certain circumstances, and for a certain period of time, to participate in certain worship gatherings – and this to protect the population. This is not a violation of our religious freedom, at least not as our forebears in the faith understood it.

Some people are arguing that vaccine mandates, when applied to the church, violate the traditional separation of church and state. But what is meant by this “separation of church and state”? The early Baptists in England articulated this concept when they insisted that the state should not favour, under law, any particular religion. This is how the early Baptist leader, Thomas Helwys, put it: “Men’s religion to God, is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure” [A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, 1612].

Separation of church and state means, in other words, that the state should not mandate a particular religion or doctrine, and it should not punish those who refuse to embrace that religion or doctrine. It does not mean that the state cannot interfere with the operation of churches. The state does that all the time, with our consent. For example, it requires by law that local churches abide by certain health and safety regulations. It requires by law that churches follow certain practices in the way they treat employees. The state is entitled to do the same in relation to vaccination.

While these restrictions might be disruptive, they might yet prove to be the hand of God (Romans 8:28), compelling us to find new and creative ways in which to worship together, and care for each other, and witness to our neighbours.

7. Pastoral Care

This is the core business of God’s people and churches should spend time actively discussing this and coming up with strategies that allow the love of Christ to be shown to all people. Regular phone calls, video calls, prayer, the offer of meals and financial help could be some of the options.

Networking with other Baptist churches (& wider) in your locality could also be useful to see if there are opportunities for the church to support and care for people who aren’t connected to a local church – it could be a wonderful missional opportunity.

Refer to the government’s COVID-19 Protection Framework—Guidelines for places of worship for more information.