Brothers and sisters in Christ,
As you are aware, the CDC, the President of the United States and the Governor of the State of Mississippi have made some very serious requests of the people of this nation and this state. The district and conference offices have begun to make operational adjustments to mitigate risk of people contracting the coronavirus. We continue to monitor updates and recommendations by public health officials and evaluate what is best for the faith communities of the Mississippi Conference. We ask that you join us in prayer for God’s healing power and protection for those with coronavirus, our health care professionals and those working tirelessly on a vaccine. Pray for strength and comfort as people not only face the spread of the coronavirus, but also the economic impact it may have on some families. This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and we will provide updated information as it becomes available, in addition to updated guidance. You can keep up with those updates, as well as worship best practices here.
While nothing has been specifically mandated by the authorities regarding the activities of people in our area, some strong recommendations have been made by national and state authorities. We should all pay close attention to the information we are being provided. You can find information to help clergy and lay leadership make appropriate decisions on the conference website at congregational care and the coronavirus. This page will provide you with best practices around worship—including online worship, stewardship—including online giving, Holy Communion, visitation ministry and other pertinent topics.
The Mississippi Conference will not mandate a blanket requirement for churches and congregations to follow during this crisis. We will continue at this time to rely upon the lay leadership of our congregations and the pastoral leadership of those congregations to make prudent decisions about the ongoing ministries of the church. However, we would encourage each pastor to be in constant collaboration with the lay leadership in your churches regarding any face-to-face, in-person activities. At present the recommendation by the CDC and other authorities is that there be no gatherings in excess of 10 persons. Therefore, we strongly encourage our congregations to seriously consider the recommendations of those authorities.
We encourage the lay and clergy leadership of the local church to work together and research new ways to do church in your communities until the health risk subsides. There are already many churches in the Mississippi Conference who are initiating new ideas to serve the people of their congregations and communities while reducing the risk of infection. Pastors, you are encouraged to reach out to your colleagues to find new ways that might work for you and your congregation. The Holy Spirit is already working to help the church be the hands and feet of Christ in this new environment. We can give thanks for the blessings that are already being made known in the midst of this crisis.
You might encourage your people to meet in small family groups to view the service on Facebook live or some other electronic media. Encourage them to spend time together in these small groups in prayer and discussion regarding how Jesus would have the people called Methodists to show the world his love during this season.
Easter is approaching and pastors need to be discussing alternatives to the typical Easter service with their lay leadership now. We may have some direction on the trends of this virus by then, but there is no way to know what those trends may be at Easter. We are in a time of great uncertainty. By then this crisis could be over or it could be even more critical. Regardless, we must seize the day to present the message of Resurrection to the communities we serve. Easter is always a great time to do so, and this could be the most meaningful Easter in our lifetimes if we approach it with the power of God’s healing and grace.
Church finances should be discussed now. Regardless of whether you continue to hold regular services or not, this situation could bring financial struggles in the future. People may lose a portion of their income and be unable to give as they have in the past. Others may not feel comfortable coming to church and neglect to give what they generously give when they are present. The people of your church need to be made aware that their giving is important to the long-term viability of the congregation. If during this season of crisis, they reduce their giving it could have a major impact on their future when things do return to a more normal situation. Pastors and lay leadership should consider ways to discuss finances with the congregation in a meaningful way. For more information about alternative ways of giving beyond the normal offering plate method, visit the stewardship section of congregational care and the coronavirus. If a congregation begins to experience significant new financial stress you should contact your district superintendent as soon as possible.
Special services such as weddings and funerals should also be discussed by the pastor and the lay leadership. Some parameters regarding these special and meaningful times should be considered. In specific situations conversations should always include the families, the director of the services, church laity who will be assisting if held at the church facilities and any other persons involved to make certain that as many details as possible are considered to mitigate unnecessary social contact that could increase risk of contracting the virus.
If a church decides to suspend services for the safety of the people who normally attend, this is not a time for pastors to neglect their care of the congregation. It is more important than ever to find ways to remain in contact with your people and continue to care for their needs. Pastors let your people know you love them by your actions.
There will be other information and suggestions provided as we move through this time of crisis. Please keep a close check on your email as well as your conference and district websites. The fluidity of this situation is unusual. Our recommendation is that congregations abide by the instructions of those who have the best information to make educated recommendations for the health and safety of our people. Pastors and lay leadership should collaborate concerning the matters mentioned above and determine a plan to weather this crisis as a family of faith, caring for each other’s spiritual, physical, emotional and financial needs along with the ongoing requirements to remain a viable church to serve the mission field God has placed you in through this crisis and forward.
Bishop James E. Swanson, Sr.