January 13, 2021
Dear Friends in Christ in The United Methodist Churches of Michigan,
Grace to you and peace, in the name of the Christ whose light we celebrate this Epiphany Season. I hope the Christmas season brought you all opportunities for rest and to know the joy woven into our celebrations of the birth of Jesus. I know it was a strange year to celebrate Christmas because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is about that pandemic that I write to you.
I continue to be grateful for the thoughtful and careful ways you have all been making decisions about ministry during this pandemic. You continue to respond graciously, even when you are encouraged to do uncomfortable things, such as refrain from in-person worship during the Christmas season. You desire to act in the interest of public health, the common good, and the well-being of others, all in the spirit of Jesus. I appreciate that.
Recent news about the coronavirus continues to encourage caution. Cases of COVID remain high across our nation and state, as do hospitalization rates. We continue to set daily records for new infections across the country. In some places, the availability of intensive care unit beds is critically low. According to the Brown School of Public Health (https://globalepidemics.org/) we remain at the highest risk level across our state, the level of unchecked community spread. We are aware that a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus has been found in the United States. There is good news with the availability of vaccines, and we know the distribution of those vaccines has been a bit problematic. I am very aware that broad statements about the on-going spread of COVID do not capture all the local nuances of a state as big as Michigan.
In light of what is happening, I offer the following guidance as we seek to continue to care for public health, the common good, and the well-being of others while being in ministry together for Jesus Christ:
Have a well-considered plan for in-person gatherings that is cautious and flexible.
I understand the deep desire to be together, and I know the risks posed by in-person gatherings. How and when you gather should be based on reliable local community health information. Has the new strain of the virus been detected in your area? What is the positivity rate for people being tested? A positivity rate below 5% has been seen as a guide allowing more in-person gatherings. What is the case rate in your area? A case rate of over 25 new daily cases per 100,000 people is considered the highest risk level. What is the capacity of health care services in your area, such as the availability of ICU beds? Caution would dictate not considering in-person gatherings until after a possible holiday surge, so sometime after mid-January, or even better, late January.
- Flexibility in your planning dictates that you be ready to move from in-person to virtual gatherings when the health metrics indicate.
- Your plan for any in-person gatherings needs to include mitigation measures of mask-wearing, social distancing, adequate provisions for hand washing, and collecting contact information for those gathered in case someone present is diagnosed with COVID. I expect such mitigation measures will be needed for months to come.
- Be gracious in offering options for those who continue to choose to connect with your faith community virtually. Just because you’ve opened again for in-person worship does not mean everyone will deem it safe to return. As the weather warms, consider outdoor options for some gatherings. Continue to find creative ways to connect safely with each other.
- Actively encourage vaccinations as they become available. We will be able to increase the frequency of our in-person gatherings and relax mitigation measures as more people become immune to COVID.
Worship is not about our buildings. Ministry happens in all kinds of places and in all kinds of ways. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The answer was, “yes!” Significant progress is being made against this pandemic. Now is a time to be patient and prudent in decision-making.
Grace and Peace,
David Alan Bard
Michigan Area Bishop