November 16, 2020
Dear Michigan United Methodists,
Grace to you and peace, in the name of the Risen Christ who was and is to come.
First of all, I would like to make an announcement about the Bishop’s Advent Appeal. I do not know how the tradition began here in Michigan for the bishop to make an appeal for a special offering during the Advent season, but it was something in place when I arrived as your bishop, and it is a beautiful tradition. This year, however, I will not be asking your churches to take a special offering to give to a cause I designate. I encourage you to be generous with your churches this Advent, and if they wish to designate a special cause for Advent and Christmas, I welcome that. In this unprecedented year, you know best where to direct any special offerings to help your church, your community and our world.
I do have Advent asks, however, that are more challenging. It was a little over a week ago that I spoke to you about the coronavirus pandemic, thanking you for your thoughtful efforts to promote public health, further the common good, and care for the well-being of others as you continue to be the church of Jesus Christ in ministry. I thank you again for your creativity, energy, and caring during these difficult days.
In my last pastoral letter, I noted that cases of COVID were increasing rapidly across our nation and state, creating enough concern to ask that you look at your own health protocols and even consider returning to virtual-only worship. In the days following that message, we have continued to see record numbers of COVID cases, with daily cases in the United States regularly surpassing 100,000, and here in Michigan, our daily average number of new cases is rising exponentially. According to the Brown School of Public Health (https://globalepidemics.org/) we are at the highest risk level across our state, the level of unchecked community spread. Within the Michigan Conference we have had an appointed pastor die from COVID, and a number of other pastors, pastor’s family members, church staff, church members, and conference staff contract the virus. The rapid spread of the virus is creating a strain on our hospitals and health care professionals.
Here is my first ask, please get a flu shot and encourage others to do the same. This is critically important as hospital and health care resources become scarce. In my last pastoral letter, I also said that you need to be making plans that include the distinct possibility of on-line Advent and Christmas worship. This is now more than a distinct possibility. Today, I am asking you in the strongest way possible to refrain from in-person indoor worship for the Advent and Christmas seasons. I am deeply grateful for all the ways you have encouraged the wearing of masks, social distancing, and handwashing. It has helped. Yet, community spread has become so prolific that we need to do more to protect public health, promote the common good and care for the well-being of others in the name and spirit of Jesus.
In 1527 Martin Luther offered advice about life and ministry in the face of sickness and disease. “It is not forbidden but rather commanded that by the sweat of our brow, we should seek our daily food, clothing, and all we need and avoid destruction and disaster whenever we can, as long as we do so without detracting from our love and duty toward our neighbor. How much more appropriate it is therefore, to seek to preserve life and avoid death if this can be done without harm to our neighbor, inasmuch as life is more than food and clothing, as Christ himself says in Matthew 6:25.” In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, avoiding situations that spread the disease is exactly what love and duty toward our neighbor requires.
In his work on caring for one’s health, Primitive Physic, John Wesley wrote: “But can there nothing be found to lessen these inconveniences which cannot be wholly removed, to soften the evils of life, and prevent in part the sickness and pain to which we are continually exposed? Without question there may.” Without question we can act so as to prevent a measure of sickness and pain.
The words of Proverbs are also instructive. “One who is wise is careful and avoids trouble, but the fool is reckless and overconfident” (Proverbs 14:16).
No list of exquisite and eloquent citations really makes this easier. This is a lot to ask, and I do so with an ache in my heart. We are all looking forward to something more normal and were hoping that this Christmas season might provide a bit of that. I know that you will be creative in sharing the hope and joy of the season even as you do so virtually and carefully. Small groups should gather, observing the protocols of mask wearing and social distance, to plan and put together meaningful worship and devotional experiences for this special time of year. Invite friends and neighbors to join your experiences on-line. Be creative in connecting with others by phone, computer, with a distanced visit, or by leaving a note or token of love and care at the door.
Though I am offering my best advice given the health data I am reading and the people I am consulting, I know some will choose to worship in-person indoors. If you make that choice, be vigilant in enforcing health protocols: masks, social distance, provisions for hand washing, and getting contact information for those gathered in case someone present is diagnosed with COVID. Also, know that if the health situation in the coming weeks changes for the better, I will gladly offer updated guidance.
Remember, worship is never about the building, no matter how moved we are by a beautifully adorned sanctuary. Worship is about connecting with God and with each other, and while virtual connections are different, they remain important ways of connecting nevertheless. Remember, the Christmas story is about a God who arrives in surprising places and in surprising ways. When there is no room in the inn, a manger will have to do. When being together inside is not safe, good news of great joy still arrives.
David Alan Bard
Michigan Area Bishop