November 18, 2020
Dear Missouri Conference Clergy and Laity,
As we live into our first General Rule of doing no harm, I strongly encourage that in-person worship services be suspended until further notice for congregations located in counties with a critical status related to the COVID-19 pandemic. I fully recognize that this means worshipping physically apart from one another during the Thanksgiving and Advent seasons, including Christmas Eve and other large group gatherings. I believe this is the most responsible action at this time to preserve the health and wellbeing of our laity, clergy and neighbors.
Sadly, there are very few counties in the state of Missouri that are not showing a significant increase in cases and positivity rates. Our smaller, local hospitals are stressed and causing even further strain on our larger hospitals as rural patients are directed to the major hospitals for critical care.
We encourage you to look at the positivity rate for the past seven days for your county (i.e., jurisdiction). When the COVID-19 percent-positive rate is high in your area, the chance that you will run into someone with the virus at the grocery store or at Sunday morning worship, is much higher than if the rate is low in your area. Unfortunately, there is no uniform percent positive number at which things shut down or re-open. Many Missouri schools use a percent positive of 15-20% for decision-making. Missouri has a state-wide positivity rate of 24.4% at the time of this writing with many of our counties having a much, much higher rate.
Check out your county’s positivity rate by visiting: https://showmestrong.mo.gov/public-health-county/. Be sure to click on “positivity rate.” Missouri’s COVID-19 dashboard uses a red/orange/green system to flag if your county is in a critical or dangerous status.
Most of Missouri is now in the critical and danger statuses for COVID-19 infection, hospitalization increases and deaths. Our Church, too, has been touched by the virus. Many of our laity have contracted and succumbed to this disease. One active pastor and a young lay person on a church staff has died. We currently have clergy hospitalized due to the illness and each week more pastors or their families receive a positive diagnosis. We cannot afford to have more of our leaders get ill and possibly die.
If you must meet in-person for any type of gathering from public worship to staff meetings to small groups, I am requiring that all United Methodists on all United Methodist property do the following minimum procedures to ensure the safety of all people.
- Masks are to be worn by everyone apart from children 2 years and younger.
- Strict physical distancing of 6 feet between family units should be observed.
- Gathering spaces are not to exceed 25% occupancy.
- The gathering space must be sanitized between services held on the same day.
We are living in difficult and uncertain times. I am aware that our Thanksgiving tables will be filled with uncertainties and the absence of loved ones because of the pandemic. I am aware that this Advent and Christmas season will be difficult for individuals, families, and our communities. But we are a people of relentless hope in God in times of despair. Do not waver in your faith in the promise of Jesus.
Just because we cannot gather for worship within our church walls in this season like we have in the past, does not mean we cannot worship. Throughout the past nine months, you have demonstrated creativity and perseverance through meaningful online worship, joy-filled outdoor services, and innovative plans to help our people worship in their homes. Continue to listen to the Holy Spirit guiding you toward new ways of connecting with God and one another.
With more than 1,100 coronavirus-related deaths happening on average each day in our nation, I offer my prayers for those who have died, those who are sick, those who have recovered and the front-line workers seeking to heal those who are ill and suffering. Please join me in praying for those who are working to ensure an effective vaccine is widely available sometime in 2021.
Know that you are always in my thoughts and prayers during this Advent season of watching and waiting. Stay faithful. Listen to the experts. Do your best. We will get through this together.
Bishop Robert Farr
The Missouri Area of The United Methodist Church
It’s no secret that the COVID pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down. While we’re encouraged by the news of a vaccine coming available in the near future, at present COVID positivity rates continue to rise; and of late, rise dramatically. That’s certainly true here in Missouri.
This past Wednesday at 4 pm our Bishop, Bob Farr, sent a letter to all Missouri Annual Conference clergy and lay leaders to encourage congregations in the hardest hit counties…counties with the highest “seven-day positivity rates”…to suspend gathering for in-person worship from now through the end of the year. So that we’re all on the same page, our staff has posted the Bishop’s letter on our church website and Facebook page.
Please know that myself, our ministry staff, and our Church Leadership Council have carefully considered our Bishop’s advice. Our Ministry Staff and our Lay Leader, Todd Rushing, met Thursday morning to formulate a plan specific to our Jackson/New McKendree context. I’ve also been in consultation with our District Superintendent, Rev. Bruce Baxter. And then, on Thursday evening, I convened our Church Leadership Council for a meeting via ZOOM. We prayerfully considered the Bishop’s letter, the COVID situation here in Cape County, assessed our church family’s ability to gather safely and responsibly, and then discussed how best to proceed. Through all that, we came up with a New McKendree specific plan.
So here’s the plan: We will offer all three in-person worship gatherings this weekend. That’s 5 pm Saturday and 9 am Sunday at our High Street Campus and Sunday at 10:30 am at our South Campus. Let me say that again: this weekend…November 21st and 22nd…we’ll offer in-person worship at both campuses at our three regularly scheduled times.
That’s the plan. Here’s the rationale behind the plan. First, we’ve been gathering for in-person worship since July 3rd at South Campus and began gathering at High Street on September 13th. When we resumed worshipping together we did so with a well thought through plan for how we could worship together safely and responsibly. And, I’m proud to say, all of us have followed the plan meticulously. Under Pastor Charles’ leadership, our awesome hospitality teams have kept us socially distanced during worship and our worship spaces sanitized between services. Most importantly, those of you who’ve chosen to gather for in-person worship on Saturday evening or Sunday morning have done so responsibly and with upmost love and concern of one another’s safety. You know…I talk to a lot of other pastor’s throughout our Southeast District, and lately, throughout our Missouri Conference. Of those that are meeting in-person, each have struggled with their parishioners not wearing masks and distancing themselves during worship. I’m proud to say that that’s not a problem here at New McKendree. You all observe social distancing and you all wear your masks…not just most of you, but all of you. You have no idea how rare that is! In this crazy COVID culture, wearing your mask is an outward and visible means of loving your neighbor. You all know that and you practice it week in and week out. Therefore, I’m confident in our ability to continue to do so. That’s our first reason for meeting in-person this weekend.
The second reason is that, at least here in Cape County, there have been no other closures. The Jackson R2 School District is up and running, businesses are open, people are going to work, buying groceries, going to ball games, etc. All these things, as long as they’re done responsibly, are important and necessary to our physical, social, and psychological wellbeing. The church is no less necessary for our spiritual wellbeing. In fact, the church is called to be the courageous beacon of light and love in an otherwise dark world. I’d say we need the church and our community needs our church now more than ever.
There are other reasons behind our decision to meet this weekend, but I’ll mention just one more. In person worship isn’t our only option. Thanks to your generosity and the skill of a few really smart and dedicated volunteers and staff members, we’re able to live stream our 10:30 service and provide a video recording of our 9 am service. Plus, our Sunday 9 am service is available on the radio. That means that you don’t have to join in-person to worship with your church family. Whether you choose to worship in-person or choose, for very good reason, to stay home, we’re blessed with the ability for us to all worship together as one family.
Now, one final thing I want to make you aware of: While we will meet for in-person worship this weekend, we’ve decided to suspend in-person worship on the Sunday following Thursday’s Thanksgiving celebration. Lest you think we’re being inconsistent, here’s the rationale: Many of us will no doubt be gathering with family on Thursday and throughout the weekend…after all, it’s Thanksgiving and that’s what you do on Thanksgiving; gather with family to give thanks, overeat, and watch football. Many of you are perhaps travelling to a relative’s home while others may be hosting out-of-town guests. Although I’m confident that each of us will take the appropriate precautions while enjoying your holiday, there’s nonetheless a heightened risk of exposure. And, since you can have COVID for several days before feeling the symptoms, there’s a chance that one or more of us could inadvertently come to church on the 28th or 29th carrying the infection. That being the case, we’ll be worshipping online only on the Saturday and Sunday following Thanksgiving.
Although the situation may dictate otherwise, as of now we fully intend to resume in-person worship on the weekend of December 5 and 6; the Second week of Advent. Obviously, myself and our leadership team will keep you posted. And, whatever decision is made, I’m committed to sharing with all of you our rationale behind the decision. It’s important that we all know not just what we’re doing, but why we’re doing what we’re doing. After all, we’re all in this together.
Folks, there’s no sense sugar-coating it; these are trying times. But remember, God’s got this and, COVID or no COVID, we’re a family and we’ll keep on doing what families do when hard times hit. We’ll trust God and we’ll keep on loving and caring for one another.
Pastor Bryan Wendling