A message from Bishop Bruce R. Ough:
We are in unprecedented times. The coronavirus pandemic has gripped the world’s attention and, in many places, is straining our disease prevention and health care systems. Nearly every conversation I have had in the past week, even at home, has included comments about the virus’s impact on our daily lives. The rapid spread of the virus, the endless news cycle, and the ever-changing recommendations and directions from federal, state, and local officials creates fear upon fear.
The common goal in all the steps being taken to close public schools, entertainment venues, and restaurants, and to restrict travel, is to retard the spread of the virus and flatten the now infamous infection curve, in large part to not overwhelm our health care assets.
Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new recommendation: For the next eight weeks, all gatherings of 50 people or more should be canceled or postponed. Also yesterday, here in Minnesota, Governor Walz announced a nearly two-week closure of all K-12 schools in the state, to begin no later than Wednesday, March 18.
I believe those of us in the faith community should be the first responders when it comes to the spiritual, physical, and mental health of all of God’s people. Thus, I am asking all United Methodist congregations in the Minnesota Conference to suspend in-person worship through the end of March. Further, I urge the postponement or cancellation of all non-essential, in-person small group meetings or gatherings in our church buildings during this timeframe. Finally, I urge all pastors to exercise thoughtful discretion with regard to conducting funerals or other religious rites and pastoral visitations. Stricter recommendations are being announced almost daily, so I will revisit these recommendations by the end of March.
I do not take this action lightly. In more than 40 years of ministry, I have never recommended the suspension of worship, except in extremely bad weather. What might feel like overreaction today is likely the response needed to avoid a greater crisis tomorrow. For me, this is not an emotional, political, or economic response. This response is a matter of civic responsibility and spiritual leadership.
The coronavirus pandemic has extraordinarily changed the context for each of us as spiritual leaders and each of our congregations as safe harbors. According to Luke’s Gospel, “Jesus called the Twelve and gave them authority and power to deal with all the demons and cure diseases. He commissioned them to preach the news of God’s kingdom and heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2, The Message). We are being challenged to claim our authority and power to adapt and expand our missional imperative to heal a broken world to address these unprecedented circumstances.
I encourage you to consider anew our five-fold membership vow as a template for your ministry during this season of disruption and adaptation. When we join a United Methodist congregation, we pledge to participate in its ministries by our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. Here are some ways in which we can continue to do that:
- PRAYERS – Initiate a prayer ministry for those infected with the virus, the heroic health care providers, and all those in your congregation and community who are or will be isolated by the social distancing and cessation of large gatherings and businesses.
- PRESENCE – Start conducting online or live-streamed worship, Bible studies, and discipleship classes, and organize regular phone calls or video chats with and among parishioners.
- GIFTS – Institute online giving; the ministry and mission of your congregation and the larger United Methodist connection will go on. We will not stumble or fall; we will not stall or go into a holding pattern. The mission is paramount, and the need for our witness does not wane, but actually increases during a crisis.
- SERVICE – Consider how to promptly, but safely, provide food assistance or other essential services to those on the margins or most vulnerable during this pandemic.
- WITNESS – Let us show our communities and the world that the people called Methodist practice grace upon grace and not fear upon fear. Do not hunker down; get creative in how you go about sharing the faith. The primary way we receive and learn and perpetuate the faith is through relationships. Maintain your relationships with one another. Initiate new relationships – they are a phone call or video chat away. Take care of one another; show Christ’s love. Social distancing is not an excuse for disengagement; it is a call for holy imagination.
Let us remember during these uncertain days that God is with us. I will be praying for you, our church leaders, as you continue to adapt to changing circumstances and find new ways to worship God and care for our neighbors.