Bishop urges calm but caution, compassion in COVID-19 pandemic

Acknowledging the growing threat of America’s new pandemic, Bishop Peggy Johnson has written to United Methodists twice this week calling on them to “exercise peace and calm but also observe methods of prevention” in protecting themselves and one another from the Coronavirus disease known as COVID-19.

In her Thursday, March 12, pastoral letter, the Philadelphia Episcopal Area leader said the new Coronavirus pandemic “has taken the center stage with alarming statistics and increasing numbers of sick people.” She described it as “a silent, invisible virus that has no known cure or vaccination at this time.” 

She urged conference members to avoid panic and “exercise the bedrock of your faith: the promise of Jesus for peace.” But she also encouraged them to “observe the many directives that are posted regarding prevention. These include vigilant hand-washing, staying home when sick, avoiding exposure with common sense decisions about gatherings, taking special care of senior citizens who are the most vulnerable, reporting any symptoms immediately to health officials, reporting any exposure you may have experienced, following the mandates of our government officials about travel, etc.” 

Bishop Johnson recommended that congregations suspend use of a common cup for Holy Communion and use instead small, individual communion cups. She advised them to “not hold services if they have large attendance (250 or more) in areas that have been affected” but instead to consider video livestreaming church services while utilizing online electronic giving for financial stewardship.

The bishop echoed but added to that advice in her follow-up letter on Friday, March 13, titled “Abundance of Caution:  What Should We Do about Church Services this Sunday?” She consulted with her cabinet to respond to many inquiries from clergy and laity about whether to conduct or cancel worship and other church events. Other bishops and denominational leaders are likewise offering advice or instructions to their constituents also.  

“We as God’s people must be in partnership with God’s healing and preventative care ministry during this COVID-19 pandemic,” Bishop Johnson wrote before offering the following directions:

—Churches with 250 people in one room at a time should cancel church services.  All activities (dinners, plays, school events, sports events) that are held at the church in large numbers should be canceled.  You should consider canceling all small meetings and use electronic means instead if possible.

To all the churches I give full authority to pastors, in consultation with their lay leadership, to cancel services this week and in the weeks to come, as they feel it is appropriate. We do this with weather emergencies, and health risks require the same careful consideration.  We reside in different areas of the state, and the spread of the virus is clustered in some parts but not everywhere at this time. Churches located where the outbreak is most prevalent should cancel services and activities. Churches with a large percentage of vulnerable adults (the elderly, those with chronic health concerns, etc.) should cancel services as well.

—Offer live-streaming video of your services (if the technology is available), so that people can participate in worship from the safety of their homes.  It is a good idea to begin to offer this every Sunday, no matter the emergency.  Enabling electronic giving from home is also encouraged.

—Those churches continuing to hold services should be careful to observe safe distances between people. Folks should not sit close together in the pews. (Yes, the front pews can be used.)  Handshakes and hugs should be replaced with handwaves and other non-touching forms of greeting.

—Surfaces in the church should be wiped down with a disinfectant after every activity, especially in rest rooms, kitchens and high traffic areas. Potluck, buffet-style fellowship meals should be avoided so that multiple hands are not touching food and serving utensils. Protective gloves should be used in all food preparation. In the sharing of Holy Communion, use of a common cup of grape juice should be avoided.

—Personal hygiene is of the utmost importance.  These measures include vigilant handwashing, covering one’s mouth with an elbow when coughing, and seeing a doctor if needed.

There will be no committee meetings at the EPA Conference Center for now. Conference-wide events in March are being canceled. 

—People who have recently traveled in affected areas, or are feeling sick, or suspect they have been in contact with someone who has the virus should not come to church and should voluntarily stay away from all people.

—There will be no committee meetings at the EPA Conference Center for now. Conference-wide events in March are being canceled. We will determine the future calendar events in the weeks to come as we monitor the spread of the virus. There is no word about General Conference at this time.

(Note: The Council of Bishops has since requested a postponement of General Conference, scheduled for May 5-15 in Minneapolis, just six weeks away. Learn more)

“This is a fluid situation; so, it is vitally important that leaders stay in touch with the latest news concerning the outbreak,” wrote Bishop Johnson. “Late-breaking directives from state and local officials supersede any of the directives in this letter. 

“It is a time to be informed but not to panic,” she urged. “It is a time to pray and not lose heart.  It is a time to give financially to those whose livelihoods are compromised by the many cancellations It is also a time to call and check on our home-bound folks.

“There is ministry to be done in all situations, and the church should especially be the Body of Christ at this critical time. Observe an abundance of caution, and we will position ourselves for the best outcomes possible in the weeks to come. I am offering my prayers for all of you as you navigate this unique time in which we live.”