Dear beloved pastors, congregations and faith communities of the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church,
Greetings in the name of Jesus, the Vine. He still invites us to remain connected with him and bear fruit that lasts. In this unprecedented time of coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic, God has called us to witness to our faith and to lead through, and to, Christ. When we committed our lives to Christ, we committed to put others before ourselves and to share His love in all that we say and do. We can do this only by remaining connected to the God who sustains us and the community of human love.
We, Bishop Tracy S. Malone and the Cabinet, offer this guidance recognizing that we will follow God’s leading during this rapidly changing situation! Spiritually mature leaders adapt to new information. This letter is long because we have been asked to provide guidance on a number of areas that are suddenly very different than they were just two weeks ago.
These four Cs guide us today: Christ, Community, Care, and Creativity.
We have been training our entire Christian lives for such a time as this: to put others before ourselves, to decide and act with compassion for the vulnerable, to testify to God as our Rock and Redeemer, to lift up the promise of resurrection, and to live as though we do indeed believe Christ is with us in this as in all things. Jesus never asked, “What makes me the most comfortable?” His concern was always for the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the harassed and the helpless sheep without a shepherd. As his followers, our concern is the same. We are faithful to Christ when we ask, “What offers people the greatest protection?” and “How do we love people as Jesus does in this unique situation?”
God put us in our communities to offer Christ in crisis. We believe the words of Paul when he wrote, “To each is given manifestations of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7 NRSV). We are so thankful for the God-given gifts of public health scientists, medical professionals of all kinds, and community leaders at all levels. We call on all Christians to pray for them daily right now!
Even so, we mourn the changes that come from following their directives.
We best protect others by limiting physical contact with them and we best worship God by testifying to our faith in new ways that don’t put others at risk. Physical separation is not the same thing as spiritual isolation. God has preserved the Church of Jesus Christ for 2,000 years, even though forms of worship and other aspects have changed.
We strongly urge all of our United Methodist churches to suspend in-person worship until we hear that it is safe to gather again.
Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton have mandated no gatherings of more than 50 people and strongly encouraged none above 10, as well as closing and restricting businesses.
Painful as it is, we are suspending in-person worship to save lives. We do not know how long this will need to last in order to protect others from this highly contagious virus that is more deadly to some than others. As Jesus said in a very different context, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4:23).
This means that churches need to plan creative ways to worship and share the good news for our coming Holy Week and Easter season as well as regular worship, weddings, and funerals.
All in-person meetings at the Conference and district levels are either postponed or being held virtually until we hear that it is safe to gather again. We strongly urge churches to do the same. All Spring District Conferences are postponed until it is safe to have such large gatherings. It is premature to make any decisions about Annual Conference at this point. The Commission on General Conference has released a statement announcing the postponement of General Conference 2020. Please pray for Commission members as they work to schedule new dates.
We give thanks for the God-given gifts of people who make available to us such resources as Facebook Live, Google Hangouts, Zoom, freeconferencecall.com, postal workers, and so many other ways for us to connect while being physically apart. We thank you for being your most flexible selves in learning new technologies and we urge you to take advantage of the many tutorials, blogs, and other websites that are already available to help. Please ensure you are conducting your worship legally as there are some different laws for livestreaming.
People always matter most to Jesus. In every twist and turn of this new situation, ask, “How do we care for the people while also protecting them?”
Pastoral Care for Those in Hospital and Nursing Home Settings
Most if not all hospitals and nursing homes are permitting almost no visitors for the protection of those in their care. Check before you go. We urge pastors and members to respect these guidelines. We also urge you to provide pastoral care by phone calls, cards, and through the institutions’ chaplains.
Pastoral Care for Those at Home
Connect with members and with each other however you can! We rejoice in the stories of devotional guides being sent to everyone in the church, of younger members delivering groceries to older members, of the entire directory being divided up amongst each other for intentional contacts because they show the Spirit is alive and well in our churches! Everyone will be stressed in this time – whether through fear and loneliness, job loss, grief over cancellations of big events, trying to work from home while suddenly homeschooling as well – so love on each other! “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
Care for Confidentiality
We don’t at this time know exactly how to proceed if a member of a congregation tests positive for COVID-19. Follow the guidance of your respective health department. In all cases, churches should not be sharing people’s health information beyond what they themselves have chosen to share. Pastors and laity alike should ask, “What would you like me to share for prayer?”
Care for Community Needs
How is your church called to care for the community while practicing social distancing? Are there senior citizens who have not previously been part of your church but now need to be included in your church’s circle of care? Do your food pantry and community meals need to shift to drive through? Do the schools need a place for distributing free lunches? How can you collaborate with others in your community to ensure needs are being met without duplicating efforts?
Care for Church Employees
We encourage you to make every effort to continue paying your church staff, but we recognize that every church has a different capacity. Be as kind to your church staff as you are to all people right now, because all of us are figuring this out as we go.
Care for Church Finances
We urge people to be faithful in giving and prudent in spending. The districts and Conference will do the same. Highlight alternative ways to give and develop them if you don’t have them. We know that members are facing income loss from either job loss or stock market loss. Care for people first. Monitor church bank balances. Check your insurance policy for terms of business interruption endorsement.
Care from the Conference Staff
The East Ohio Conference staff are available to resource and equip you. Please call or e-mail the staff if you have questions about how to care for your ministry, connect to your community, or how to interpret rules and guidelines. We are all still working and offer ourselves to support you and the needs across the East Ohio Conference.
The Holy Spirit of our creative God breathed the breath of life into humanity and the Church. Jesus healed on the Sabbath and treated women as full disciples. John Wesley preached in cemeteries, fields, and on people’s way home from work. Our current churches grew out of catacomb worship on another continent. God preserves the church and the creative Spirit adapts its form. Now is a time when everyone craves the stability of our millennia-old faith but the form in which we share faith and community has had to adapt to brand new formats in less than two weeks!
We are so proud of the ways our pastors and churches have stepped up and learned new skills, shared what they already know and do, and just generally found ways to continue to be the church that bears fruit that lasts in the midst of crisis. We encourage you to continue to try new things and to use the resources already available to help – including each other! Clergy who are interested in collaborating, discussing new ideas, and sharing best practices are invited to join the new Facebook page created by the Cabinet.
As stressful as it is to move everything online, it also presents a “low commitment, high invitation” opportunity to reach new people. The friend who is uncertain about showing up in person to a Bible study or worship can check out the Facebook Live version with much of the social anxiety removed. The healthy coworker with too much time and anxiety on their hands could help with food distribution. People are looking for reassurance and ways to help right now. How is your church offering them that?
To be honest, we don’t know what will be asked of us in the coming days. We will all have to adapt to the changes we can’t yet foresee – and we will do so knowing that God both cares for us and will provide what we need.
We encourage you to use the helpful and practical resources that are provided in the links below.
With much love and appreciation, and prayers for peace, wisdom, and protection,
Bishop Tracy S. Malone and the Cabinet
Executive Secretary to the Bishop’s Office
Board of Ministry
The East Ohio Conference Office:
located in North Canton, OH,
near Akron-Canton Airport.
8800 Cleveland Ave. NW
North Canton, OH 44720
Local: (330) 499-3972
Toll Free: (800) 831-3972
Fax: (330) 499-3279
Monday through Friday
8:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
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