Dear Pastoral Leaders of the Greater Northwest Area of the IMU,
It has been a blessing to see churches in the Greater Northwest respond to COVID-19 with great caution, compassion and creativity. Suspending worship in person for three months has not been easy, but you have lived up to the circumstances and exercised great caution for the health and well-being of your neighbors. Many of you have developed the ability to offer worship online. Others send out printed newsletters and sermons every week. You've found ways to offer compassion by distributing gift cards, making face masks, offering food boxes, birthday celebrations, and graduation ceremonies in cars. His creativity has spawned prayer circles, study groups, and virtual children's gatherings. You have directed with abundant grace through a very difficult and limited time.
Still, it is not possible to gather for online worship in all the places where our churches are located. And it is not possible to organize summer camps safely. It is heartbreaking to be unable to hold the hand of a dying loved one or to gather and honor those who have died in a memorial service.
As your bishop, I have struggled all last week to know how best to lead, to meet the needs of so many churches and communities that you serve, facing such varied circumstances. The “curve” of new COVID-19 cases has increased since the restrictions were relaxed in relation to social interaction in most states in the month of May and after the weekend of “Memorial Day”. The impacts that major public protests for racial justice will have since George Floyd's death on May 25 are unknown. Health professionals are very concerned that we may be seeing the start of another spike that could threaten to collapse healthcare systems.
Despite serious reservations, effective immediately, I am easing restrictions on in-person worship and the closing of buildings that allow the transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of "Re-imagining our life together." This means that IF ...
THEN… the church can 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:
On a case-by-case basis, district superintendents may approve the local church's plans for Phase 2 that include the following:
As congregations reimagine life together together and consider how and when to reopen, each congregation every united Methodist leader must consider alarming trends and the potential serious harm of opening too soon or without adequate preparation. As you reflect with other leaders in your church, take a broad and far-reaching view of the impact of your decisions and actions.
Research in the social sciences and health sciences is cause for caution. Twenty-one states, including the states of Alaska, Oregon and Washington in the Greater Northwest Area, are experiencing an increase in cases since opening and as a result of socialization over Memorial Day weekend . The impact that major public protests for racial justice will have on the spread of the virus is still unknown.
Testing practices and case tracking are inconsistent in our area and insufficient in some areas. Health care capacity is unevenly distributed across the area and is in danger of being overwhelmed if COVID-19 re-emerges.
People who provide essential services, people of color and poor people are disproportionately vulnerable to contracting the disease, having inadequate medical care and the financial strains that this causes. Decisions to accept the risks of reopening in the hope of reaping the benefits of greater individual freedom, social interaction, and economic recovery have the effect of privileging the most privileged and making the most vulnerable the most disadvantaged.
The expressions of urgency to reopen come from several reasons. Some are concerned about the church budget. Some are concerned about the economy. Some on the loss of members by a neighboring church that has been opened for worship. Everyone recognizes the emotional, mental, and spiritual need for human interaction, and sees it as the mission of the Church to gather people for support, prayer, encouragement, and comfort. Some hear the call to prophetic witness, action in the Church, and feel that this moment in history compels us to gather, organize, and take to the streets to advocate for justice and racial mercy. Christians face very 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 up and people to return to work before it is safe, this will increase the number of fatalities, and the economy will suffer again.
No church should simply align itself with one side or the other of the current political divide in the United States. Christians should be willing to be able to sacrifice now for a long-term outcome that will benefit the entire human family. Not just my family, my congregation, my city, my county, my state, the people who look, think, or vote like me. Loving neighbor as oneself means, acting now in a way that we try to address the goal of a complete spirituality and proclaim the healing of the house of God.
Some of you wonder about outdoor worship with facial covering and social distancing. What moral dilemmas might outdoor worship present? How do you assess the blessing of coming together as a faith community against the possible harm of exposure to the disease? What motivates the urgent desire to meet again? Is it to meet the needs of people in the church? Does it also serve the general public? What message is sent if people see the church gathered outdoors? Would such a meeting encourage people to continue to limit their social interactions, or could it give the impression that the danger is over?
“Re-imagining life together” encourages each congregation to set aside some customs and traditions that have served for a season, and to discover and experience new and different ways of congregational life. The urgent urge to meet again, to shake hands, to hug, to sing together, to break bread together at the communion table or at the food table, arises from a desire to return to the habits that make us feel comfortable, but perhaps at the cost of the safety of others. Could we think of COVID-19 as a season of "fasting" in familiar church ways and habits? Could this be the time when we check our church “closets” to see what is still fitting or working, what looks good and what is out of date, in poor condition or just doesn't fit anymore?
I know that leading a congregation is challenging during such a time of such threats to health and disruption of normal routines. I know that making the necessary adaptations to carry out the basic functions of the ministry is stressful and requires learning completely new ways of relating.
My first selfie videos in the COVID-19 season were recorded on my phone, held on a shelf by string and an elastic band. With patience and good humor (you have to laugh or you will surely cry) I have learned in a relaxed way, and I let what I am capable of producing be good enough.
I remember John Wesley's alleged last words: "
"Best of all, God is with us" in laughter, frustration, tears, and precious moments of holiness.
I pray that they may have the power to understand, together with all the saints, how wide and long, high and deep is the love of Christ; in short, that they know that love that surpasses our knowledge, so that they are filled with the fullness of God.
- Ephesians 3: 18-19
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky
Episcopal Area of the Great Northwest
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