A message to the pastors and deacons of the Southwest California Synod, 
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Risen One! 

Siblings in Christ, you have my  deep thanks and warm admiration  for the ways in which you have responded to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. When I wrote to you first two weeks ago, the crisis was just beginning; even now, we are still anticipating much worse than we have yet experienced in Southern California. I think we may reasonably expect  a dramatic upturn in cases in the near future . I am writing today to say that I believe that we will not be able to resume normal worship and gathering patterns in our congregations  until well after Easter, and possibly not before May . But please continue to be guided by the public health directives in force in our state and your community.

By now I’m sure you have all wrestled with the question of how to observe Holy Week and Easter while physically distanced, and some of you likely already have plans in place. Your response to the crisis thus far has been  energetic and full of variety —I have seen much  imagination and love  in the ways you have tried to meet your congregations’ spiritual needs, and I am astounded at your  flexibility and ingenuity . Some of you have just entered the world of digital communications and have learned very quickly—others have honed skills they already had. I expect the holy season ahead of us will bring forth an even richer harvest of preaching, teaching, and virtual worship.  I am grateful for all you do , and I give thanks to God for you.

My first concern in this letter is  your own welfare: spiritually, physically, and financially . I know (because I have seen it) that a crisis like this  tempts us all to overfunction . That can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. We are all highly susceptible to that. I implore you to  take time for yourselves . In the outpouring of digital resources for worship and reflection, use some for your own benefit.  Spend quiet time with yourself , the scriptures, and your family. Exercise, read for recreation, and plant your garden—or sew, knit, pick up that musical instrument again, or do whatever you do with yourself in quiet time. And if you don’t have such an activity, it might be time to think about finding one—you’re likely to have some time in which to do it.

And above all,  protect yourself and others from contagion  by following the public health advisories in your locality.  Please report to me diagnosed cases of COVID-19  occurring among your parishioners. I will keep the information confidential, but when infection becomes widespread, I will try to let you know how it looks in our synod conference by conference. I know of only one clear case in one of our congregations right now, but I am certain there are already more, and will be many more to come.  If you become sick, please let me know right away . I and your colleagues will do what we can to “do your chores” if you are incapacitated. My office staff will be calling each of you in the next week or two to check in with you. We also are trying to collect the names and contact information of your congregation’s principal elected lay leader, against the possibility you might be infected and we need to communicate with your leadership.

I know that the  financial pressure on congregations  that are not meeting to collect an offering will be great. We will experience it at every level of the church’s life, right up to the denominational level. I have tried in all my communications to remind your people how urgent it is that they continue their weekly offering. Some congregations that were financially insecure even before this emergency may find it impossible to recover from the hit. Others will be moved into greater urgency in thinking about mergers or sharing pastors. But pastors themselves will also be hurt, and I am sorry for it. Ultimately none of us will go without some sacrifice, as this crisis lays bare some fundamental weaknesses in our ecclesial structure.

I have asked my colleagues in the synod office and at the ELCA to help us communicate best practices to congregations about  reducing time commitments and compensation  for rostered and other staff, if this can’t be avoided. I wish I could promise funds to make up the shortfall, but the operating funds we have at the synod level come mostly from mission support, which I expect will decrease as giving to congregations decreases. The ELCA is planning to begin an  emergency grant program  to replace some losses, and it will roll out the first of a series of opportunities to access those funds, starting next week with congregations engaged closely with feeding the poor. I will make sure you hear about it and all have a chance to apply, as I am on the planning committee for these grants. But nothing will ever replace all that has been lost. We will need to do some long-term reassessment once we are back together. The synod council and I will work on that together at our May meeting.

I would like to support you in your efforts to  make your Easter celebrations as meaningful as possible  under the circumstances, and if there are ways I can do that, please let me know. I have been offering ELW morning and evening prayer through video, because it is something I can do from home with my limited video camera and editing abilities. I will do that through Holy Week and will re-evaluate then. We have produced weekly Sunday worship services from the Lutheran Center chapel as well, and the last of those will be available this Sunday. That was intended as stopgap for those who might not have the ability or time to do some other kind of digital worship. It is not my intention to compete in any way with what congregations choose to do, but to give our people the widest possible choices. I am deciding in the next few days what to do with Palm Sunday and/or the Triduum from out of my home, and am open to suggestions.

I also know that  you have been tending to your people : I have heard many variations on the theme of doing general congregations check-ins with all your people. You don’t need advice from me for that, but I want to encourage you to  continue to reach out to people  either yourselves or through phone trees or other strategies. Our elderly members in particular are vulnerable not only to the virus but also to the despair of loneliness and isolation. I think at the moment  we are a synod of shut-ins , and we ought to be doing our ministry that way.

That brings me to the question of how to provide our people with access to the sacraments. It fascinates me that our history has brought us to a point where the sacrament for which we actually have an emergency provision—Holy Baptism—is no longer one people feel they need to receive on an emergency basis. In contrast, the Lord’s Supper—which has long been surrounded by rules and customs intended to enhance respect for and understanding of its spiritual and ecclesial importance—has not generally in Lutheran practice been thought of as something needed in an emergency. 

Confession and forgiveness has always been the emergency or “deathbed sacrament”  for Lutherans. I applaud our discovery of a wider value to the Eucharist than simply being the regular Sunday worship of the church, but I want to lift up to you the value of Confession for what will certainly be your growing ministry to the sick and dying—and this assurance of grace and the promises of Baptism is easily done by phone call or videochat. As we begin to lose members to the virus, this will be very important to us all.

As to Holy Communion, as I have said before, I do not believe that there is any way to bring the elements of the Sacrament of the Altar from ourselves to our communicants without at least some risk of infection. Even if the elements themselves remain uncontaminated, the delivery process itself brings risk. That being said,  if you can find ways to reduce that risk  to a level you and your members can tolerate, and you feel that the emergency in your community is acute,  you may devise ways to commune your people . The decision (and the responsibility) are both ultimately yours. As I said, we have become a synod of shut-ins—taking the Eucharist from the altars into our people’s homes is the natural response. One practical consideration might be not to share the wine at all—we do have a strong theological understanding that the Body and Blood of Christ are really present in, with, and under both the bread and the wine.

As to the  question of virtual communion , you all will have seen a variety of views circulating among us on social media. You will also have seen the recommendations of the ELCA worship unit and the Presiding Bishop. You may have seen notes from other bishops to their synods. This is what I have to say:  I believe that our church does not have a consensus  yet on how the virtual community created by digital means of communication relates to our traditional view of the gathered community as one physically present together for the worship of God.  I do not feel I can give any formal endorsement  to remote or virtual consecration of the elements of Holy Communion absent a wider church consensus. The weight of tradition is against it, but times—and views—continue to change.

The conversation will continue; this is not a synod-by-synod kind of decision and I (and our synod) are committed to the promises we have made to the whole church to be faithful to its teaching and practice as it is currently expressed. The ELCA, in turn, is committed to its own theological principles and its communion with other Lutheran churches and ecumenical partners. But the most important thing you need to hear is this:  no pastor in our synod needs to be afraid of censure or discipline  by me for doing what they feel to be necessary in this time. 

I hope that the tone of this letter has not been too discouraging; what we face is indeed a great pandemic that will have fatal consequences to some of our members, and endangers every one of us. But we also have  clear opportunities in the midst of this crisis  to be a church that both continues to worship God and lives out in new ways our Savior’s command to neighbor-love. We do this first by keeping our people safe; secondarily, we try to keep our communities viable for the future. Right now, getting through this is our main goal. I and my colleagues Pastor Brenda Bos and Pastor Marj Funk-Phil continue to be available to you for consultation, as do Pastor James Phillips and Maria Pavia for their work in the African Descent and Latino communities. I will give you an update on our plans for the postponed Synod Assembly soon.

But I think  there is also still room for aspiration and hope : I hope we come out of this better connected communities, more empathetic with those less privileged than we are; and with a new kind of cooperative spirit that sees our congregations more rooted in their neighborhoods and more connected to each other. Whatever (and whomever) we lose in these next weeks and months, I hope those who carry our church forward will have a greater appreciation of what it means to be “church together” in our congregations, the synod, and the wider church.

As I have said in other places, even though the calendar moves on beyond Holy Week,  our real “Easter” will be when we can gather together again —face to face—at the table of the Lord, to eat of the feast of the Lamb. Happy—indeed—will be those who are then called to Christ’s supper!

My blessing is with you—for your ministry and for your good health!

In Christ,

Bishop Guy Erwin 
March 27, 2020 
Southwest California Synod of the ELCA| (818) 507-9591| news@socalsynod.org| www.socalsynod.org