"I can do all things through God who strengthens me." Philippians 4:13

July 28, 2020
Dear Clergy colleagues,
Grace and peace to you all.

Last week we seemed to enter yet another new phase in our COVID-19 experience here in Minnesota. On Wednesday, Governor Walz issued an Executive Order mandating the wearing of masks in all public, indoor spaces and in crowded outdoor spaces where physical distancing is not possible, effective July 25. This decision came as the number of infections continued to rise in Minnesota, and was made in hopes that doing so might prevent us from having to 'dial back' as a state to more restrictive stay-at-home measures.

What does this mean for our congregations?
  • Executive Order 20-81 does apply to places of worship. Therefore, if you have resumed indoor, in-person activities, all participants must wear masks. (And if you were already requiring that, now you have very clear reinforcement straight from the Governor!)
  • There are some exceptions to the mandate articulated in the Executive Order. The MN Department of Health offers some best practices and considerations for people with disabilities and special health needs.
  • Our rising numbers of infections, and clear evidence of ongoing communal spread, continue to suggest abundant caution when considering when and how to resume in-person, indoor worship and other activities. There are factors that have led some of our congregations to already resume in-person, indoor worship, such as very low infection rates in their county and church members' lack of access to virtual, online alternatives. I trust your discernment in these matters, and that all of you are taking into account the full complexity and weight of issues involved.
It may be instructive to share with you that I will be bringing a recommendation to the Board of Directors on August 8 that the Conference itself continue to suspend all in-person activities and events through December 31. If approved, this would mean that all our committee meetings, ordinations, ecclesiastical councils, retreats, and other special gatherings would continue to be virtual only through year-end, and that Conference staff will not be making in-person visits to local churches.

In the meantime, in the recent survey many of you completed, there was an interest expressed in seeing sample plans or policies of congregations in regards to COVID-19. I subsequently asked any of you with such plans in place to share those with me for the purpose of sharing them more widely. As a result, I have several to share with you ; these are posted under "Sample Policies" on our COVID-19 Resources page on our website. Two of our Minnesota Conference UCC congregations (Alexandria and New Ulm) provided their policies, and the others are from a UCC congregation in the Central Atlantic Conference. All are really excellent and I encourage you to take a look at them. Thank you to Rev. Jill Sanders (First Congregational - Alexandria), Rev. Diane Hatman (UCC- New Ulm), and Rev. Barbara Kershner-Daniel (Evangelical Reformed UCC- Frederick, Maryland) for sharing them with me!

One note: Jill Sanders shared her congregation's funeral policy with me with the caveat that they have since decided to return the congregation to a more restrictive phase based on growing communal spread in their county. This means funerals/memorial services will return to being graveside services only. But Jill reports they learned some important lessons from the one funeral they held in the sanctuary in compliance with their policy: 1) People wore masks but it was impossible to enforce social distancing; 2) People pulled down their masks to speak to one another; 3) Our culture "in grief" is to touch, comfort, and hug; and 4) It felt impossible to hold people to the policy. Important lessons learned.
One last thing on this pandemic season...
I know many of you are exhausted. Being together in-person again in the Fall, or even for Christmas services, seems increasingly unlikely for many; that is disheartening. Much of our current political and social climate frustrates and overwhelms us. And we are missing so much of what normally energizes and inspires us about ministry, the substance of our work that thrives on the relationships we hold dear.
Please take good care. Reach out to Conference staff if you desire an individual conversation. If you don't have an existing relationship with a spiritual director or therapist, please apply for one of our   counseling assistance grants and create that kind of safe space for your own reflection and self-care.
And now for something totally unrelated to COVID-19.............Yay!

Please check out The Damascus Project's   2020/21 courses , which are now open for registration. The Damascus Project is a collaborative initiative we've launched with the Wisconsin Conference, and it is fabulous! It provides authorized pastors, lay and staff leaders, spiritual seekers, and members-in-discernment with meaningful opportunities for faith and leadership growth. The high quality learning experiences are designed specifically for online delivery. And, during this intense and unusual time, it is focused specifically on building supportive community through our online, interactive learning platform,   The Damascus Project Network.  
If you're seeking additional adult programming for your congregation, please take special note of the Faith Foundations & Leadership Skills courses, designed for lay people and running from August 2020 - May 2021 in five 6-week learning units.  Learners can sign up as individuals or in small groups from one church (special pricing available). What a great opportunity to strengthen your own congregation and provide awesome programming, without having to design or lead it yourself! Take a look at all the Damascus Project has to offer - to your members AND to you as a pastor or chaplain!

I lift you all in my prayers, and give thanks for your perseverance in faith and service. May God bless and keep you, and grant you strength sufficient for this season.

With you on the journey,
Reverend Shari Prestemon
Conference Minister