From the Bishop’s Desk: Strong Recommendation Regarding In-Person Gatherings

Friday, November 20, 2020

We’re hitting the darkest days of this pandemic. The next 8 to 14 weeks are going to be absolutely horrible… We’re entering COVID hell.” ~Dr. Michael Osterholm

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Romans 8:18

Beloved Church,

Dr. Michael Osterholm is one of the 13 members of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force. He is also an active member of an ELCA congregation in Minnesota. In his latest interview at St. Olaf College, he outlined the severity of this current moment and offered a sober assessment of where we are. It was a hard presentation to listen to. Nevertheless, it is one I encourage you to engage and acknowledge as wisdom to help discern and decide how to faithfully and responsibly move forward in ministry in this time.

I know that many of you are already grieving the decisions you’ve had to make for the holidays and the decisions that need to be made in the coming days and weeks. I also realize that many of you are still struggling and debating what to do for yourselves and for your congregations.

After much listening, reading, and praying, I am compelled to offer you a strong recommendation– Meet with your councils, engage in hard conversation, and make the difficult and faithful decision to refrain from meeting and gathering in person for worship until “the darkest days of this pandemic” are over.

I am aware that this decision may cause discomfort to many. You may have some resist or threaten disassociation with your congregations. You may even have those who in their fear, anxiety, and frustration threaten the finances of the church. Dear colleagues, take courage; courage to love each and every one of your challengers. Lean into what we know by faith- God is faithful and God will provide.

You have each shown up for your beloved communities and you have earned your people’s love and trust. Now is the time to lean into that love and trust so that they may accept your leadership in this moment. Help those entrusted to your care understand that the motivation behind your discernment and decisions is, in fact, love. Tell them that you love them too much to lose them. Let them know that you love them enough to say, “I know you want to see each other and share in-person space again (I do, too!), but precisely because we love each other so sincerely, we will remain physically distant until it is safe to return.”

The stories of unfortunate and unnecessary loss across our church are heartbreaking. A congregation in Texas has lost half their council and much of their congregation was infected with the virus because they chose to worship and sing in person (with masks and at a distance); they became a super spreader in their community. Early in the pandemic, a congregation in NY lost 42 members to COVID and since then I’ve learned story after story of congregations that have had to close (with much resistance) only after becoming aware of 2-5 cases in their congregations. Daily, the United States is seeing 185,000 new cases, 80,000 people hospitalized, and over 2,000 deaths (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/). The numbers keep rising and according to Dr. Osterholm, the next 8-12 weeks will be “COVID hell.” Again, I strongly encourage you to engage and acknowledge these realities as wisdom to help discern and decide how to lead faithfully and responsibly.

Even as I write this letter and hold the weight of this daunting moment in life and ministry, I am profoundly grateful for Scripture and how it remains a living word for us all. I’m reminded of my favorite verse, Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” This verse has come up often this year and each time it does I feel a sense of holy relief. I’m relieved by the reminder that though this moment in our history has brought about much suffering, it is not the end of our story. And not only is it not the end, the text says, the current time “is not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” 

We will see and live anew because of what is revealed to us on this journey. 

We will experience the glory of God in the midst of this tremendous hardship. 

And we will give God the glory for how God has brought us through “COVID hell” and helped us not just survive, but thrive.

This Thanksgiving consider inviting your congregations to thank God for wisdom and courage to make hard decisions for the sake of life itself. 

Invite them to thank God for breath of life, for resilient bodies, for science, scientists, nurses, doctors, teachers, essential workers; for family, friends, loved ones; for accompaniment when we cry and community to make us laugh. 

Invite them to thank God publicly and unapologetically on their social platforms and among their peers. 

Invite them to keep an eye out for the good news that surrounds them and the glorious wonders they get to co-create with God and one another. 

Invite them to bask in the joys of life discovered in the least expected people, places, and times. 

Invite them to see and tell the whole story of this moment; the days ahead may be “the darkest” and the most filled with bold and boundless love; we’re all struggling with the uncertainty of this time and we’re not alone in the struggle; this season is hard on every level and we anticipate the glory about to be revealed to, in, and through us.” 

As we invite our communities of faith to lean into the whole story of this moment with wisdom and courage, may we feel emboldened and empowered to do the same… with God’s help and in Jesus’ name.Serving Christ with you,

Bp. Ortiz

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