Dear pastoral leaders of the Greater Northwest Area of The UMC,
It has been a delight to see churches across the Greater Northwest Area respond to COVID-19 with great caution, compassion and creativity. It hasn’t been easy to suspend in-person worship for three months, but you have risen to the occasion and exercised great caution for the health and well-being of your neighbors. Many of you have developed the ability to offer online worship. Others send printed bulletins and sermons out each week. You’ve found ways to offer compassion by distributing gift cards, making face masks, offering curbside food boxes, and drive-by birthday and commencement celebrations. Your creativity has given rise to online prayer circles, study groups and kid’s gatherings. You have led with abundant grace through a very difficult and constrained time.
Still, it’s not possible to gather for online worship in all the places our churches are located. And it’s not possible to host summer sleep-over camps safely. It’s heartbreaking not to be able to hold the hand of a dying loved one or to gather and honor the dead at a memorial service.
As your bishop I’ve struggled this past week to know how best to lead and tend to the needs of so many churches and the communities they serve, facing such varied circumstances. The “curve” of new COVID-19 cases has turned upward since the loosening of restrictions on social movement across most states in May and following Memorial Day weekend. Impacts of the large public protests for racial justice since George Floyd’s death on May 25 are unknown. Health care professionals are very concerned that we may be seeing the beginning of another spike that could threaten to overwhelm health care systems.
Despite serious reservations, effective immediately, I am loosening restrictions on in-person worship and building closures that allow transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of Reimagining Life Together. This means that IF…
- a church’s plans for reopening have been approved by their district superintendent (or, in the case of another ministry setting, by their director of connectional ministries), and
- the plan is consistent with state and local public health guidance,
THEN… the church may implement its plan to enter Phase 2.
In addition, in response to requests for clarification, the following amendments and interpretations are in effect during Phases 1 and 2:
- For protection against COVID-19, vulnerable adults and persons with underlying health conditions are discouraged from gathering with others in church facilities or for church activities. However, respecting the right of adults to choose the level of risk they will accept, no adult may be excluded from church activities due to age or health conditions that may make them vulnerable to the disease. Churches should have a process in place to make individuals aware that entering the building and participating in church functions may expose them to COVID-19. Once aware, they should not be excluded solely for their protection.
- Individuals may be excluded from entering church facilities or participating in church activities if there is reason to suspect they may be infected with the virus and would be putting others at risk by their presence, or if they refuse to abide by the hygiene and distancing protocols specified in the church’s Reimagining plan. Social distancing and wearing a face covering are not sufficient protection to allow participation of a person who has tested positive, has been exposed or shows symptoms of the virus.
- These guidelines are not intended to prevent essential services from being offered in the Church building on the condition that distancing and hygiene protocols are observed.
On a case-by-case basis, district superintendents may approve local church plans for Phase 2 that include the following:
- Drive-in worship, no access to the church building.
- Outdoor worship, no access to the church building.
- Recording solo music performance for online worship, including singing and wind instruments, in the church sanctuary with precautionary measures.
As congregations Reimagine Life Together, and consider how and when to reopen, every United Methodist congregation and leader should consider alarming trends and the serious potential harm of opening too soon, or without adequate preparation. As you reflect with other leaders in your church, take the long and wide view of the impact of your decisions and action.
Social science and health science research give ample cause for caution. Twenty-one states, including Alaska, Oregon and Washington states in the Greater Northwest Area, are experiencing an increase in cases since opening up and increased socialization over Memorial Day weekend. As yet unknown is the impact that large public protests for racial justice may have on the spread of the virus. Practices of testing and case tracing are inconsistent across our area, and insufficient in some areas. Health care capacity is unevenly distributed across the area, and in danger of being overwhelmed if COVID-19 rebounds.
People providing essential services, People of Color and poor people are disproportionately vulnerable to contracting the disease, to inadequate health care and to economic strains. Decisions to accept the risks that come with reopening in hopes of reaping the benefits of increased individual freedom, social interaction and economic recovery have the effect of privileging the privileged and render the vulnerable expendable.
Expressions of urgency to reopen come from various motives. Some are concerned about the church budget. Some are worried about the economy. Some about losing members to a church down the street that has opened for worship. All recognize the emotional, mental and spiritual necessity of human interaction, and see it as the mission of the Church to gather people for support, prayer, encouragement and comfort. Some hear the call to prophetic witness and action in Church, and feel this moment in history compels us to meet, organize and take to the streets to advocate for racial justice and mercy. Christians face extraordinary moral dilemmas in this complex time.
Physical health and economic health are mutually dependent interests. Health is not simply a progressive value. Economic stability is not simply a conservative value. If the pandemic continues to spread, the economy will not recover. If we jump-start the economy by encouraging businesses to open and people to return to work before it is safe, the number of cases and deaths will increase, and again the economy will suffer. No church should simply align with one side or the other of the present political divide in America. Christians should be willing and able to sacrifice now for the long-term outcome that benefits the whole human family. Not just my family, my congregation, my town, my county, my state, people who look or think or vote like me. Loving neighbor as self means acting now in ways that we intend to lead to the long term goal of wholeness and healing in the household of God.
Some of you wonder about outdoor worship with face coverings and social distancing? What moral dilemmas might outdoor worship present? How do you weigh the blessing of gathering as a community of faith against the possible harm of exposure to the disease? What motivates the urgent desire to gather again? Is it to serve the needs of people in the church? Does it also serve the general public? What message does it send if people see the church gathered outdoors? Would such a gathering encourage people to continue to limit their social interactions, or might it give the impression that the danger is past?
Reimagining encourages each congregation to let go of some customs and traditions that have served for a season, and to discover and experiment with new, different forms of congregational life. The urgent push to gather again, shake hands and hug, to sing together, to break bread together at the communion table or the potluck table grows out of a yearning to return to habits that make us comfortable, but perhaps at the cost of safety. Could we think of COVID-19 as a season of “fasting” from familiar forms and habits of church? Could this be a time when we go through our church “closets” to see what still fits, and what looks great, and what is outdated, shabby, or just plain doesn’t fit anymore?
I know that leading a congregation is a challenge during a time of such health threats and disruption of normal routines. I know that making the adaptations necessary to carry on basic ministry functions is stressful and requires learning whole new ways of being in relationship. My own first selfie videos in the season of COVID-19 were taped on my phone, held in place on a step stool by two spools of thread and a rubber band. With patience and good humor (you have to laugh or you’ll surely cry) I’ve learned and relaxed, and let what I am able to produce be good enough. I am reminded of John Wesley’s purported last words, “The best thing of all is God is with us” in the laughter, frustration, tears, and precious moments of holiness.
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:18-19
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky
Greater NW Episcopal Area
[June 16, 2020]