Beloved in the Lord!
I greet you with a (virtual) sign of peace in these days of “physical distancing,” and now—since the declarations of the Governor of California and the Mayor of Los Angeles last night—this new time of staying “Safer at Home.” Though this more drastic declaration is not surprising in itself, I have to admit that I did not expect it quite so soon. As we digest what it means for us as congregations and as a church, let me reflect a bit on what I have seen this week, and what I hope for us all in the days ahead—which we now know will extend at least until mid-April and likely beyond.
First, I have seen remarkable resilience and creativity on the part of our rostered ministers, many of whom have worked long and hard this week to transfer worship and meetings from face-to-face to virtual, digital format. Most of our congregations took my advice and transferred their in-person services last Sunday to a virtual format; almost all have done so for the Sunday just ahead. And now there is no choice for any of us. I am grateful for your cooperation with the public health authorities, as hard as it is to suspend our normal ways of “being church.” I know it is for the best, and I hope it will save lives—some of them ours.
I have been in touch with our conference deans this week and many of the pastors and deacons each day, and I know that this has been a very difficult week for them. They are trying to develop ways for congregations to keep connected and for our members to be in touch with one another as this crisis has deepened. They are trying not just to maintain community, but to be of help to people who might have greater need or be at higher risk—and many of our members are such people. We owe our pastors and deacons gratitude for responding so quickly and decisively to this emergency, and in many cases going beyond their experience in trying new things. Most have had to develop new skills very quickly—and we are not done learning yet.
But now it gets even harder: gathering in groups of two or three to produce digital worship from our sanctuaries becomes impossible under the new rules. In the future pastors will likely be leading worship only in ways they can do from their own homes. The video Sunday worship services we have recorded from the synod office will end after the service on March 29, which was the last one we were able to shoot before the shutdown. I’m not sure what will happen next: I will practice tonight at leading evening prayer from my own home—we will see how that goes.
Today, my main goal in writing to you is to reassure you that even in this very challenging time the church lives on in you in prayer and in your faithful response to the needs of others. Your congregation will need now all the support you can give, and then some; the costs of maintaining a congregation and supporting a pastor do not end just because you are not worshiping in your building. Please be generous in response to your congregation’s needs: send in your offering! Many congregations do not have sufficient reserves to cover costs in this time; the synod does not have an emergency fund to cover congregational shortfalls; very few of our congregations have “lost income” riders in their insurance policies. Things will be tight for everyone.
I will be meeting (virtually) with the Synod Council executive committee tonight; we will review the actions I have put in place already, including the postponement of the Synod Assembly, and discuss new ones to bring to the whole Synod Council later. As before, the synod office remains closed to visitors; we are trying to figure out ways to keep our work going as the staff continues to work from home. In the short term, it will be better to reach us by e-mail than by phone—we may have to discontinue phone coverage for a time. Please be patient as we sort things out.
As always, our website and our synod digital newsletter will be the best ways for us to be in touch with you, and I promise regular communication. It is trite now to say that we are “in uncharted waters” when we are also right in the midst of the storm. But keep in mind that however great our inconvenience and discomfort are at having our ways of gathering so disrupted, our faithful response as Christians: in prayer, giving, Bible study and devotional reading and in service to others can still intensify. We are not adrift—we are simply finding new ways in challenging times to anchor ourselves to Christ in faith.
Our first concern should be with those who are sick or will be soon—for it is for those who are yet to be infected that we stay in our homes. We do not yet know what the cost will be in lives lost, livelihoods disrupted, and families separated, but it is likely to be high. We need to prepare ourselves for harder days than we have yet known. So I beg you-- look out for yourselves, those in your household, and those in your reach who need your help. Follow the directives of public health officials. Do not despair: get as much sleep as you can and exercise as you are able. Read a good book; clean the house; but do not constantly watch 24-hour news. Everything you need to know you will hear in time—you do not have to listen to the same bad news again and again.
And pray, first and always; pray without ceasing for all who work in the medical fields, for our police and fire and public health departments, and for all those who support our lives with food, water, and power. Pray also for those most vulnerable to the virus, and for our pastors and deacons as they try to serve you in faithfulness and give you courage in your uncertainty. Be kind to one another, even in this time of stress and anxiety.
I will support you by prayer, by staying in contact, and by using digital media to connect to you. Your pastors will be doing the same, and I ask your prayers for them and for me and my staff. We are still “church together” even while we are physically separated. Together, we will endure and survive this challenge—and even in the worst of it, we can know this for sure: Jesus lives, and our Easter joy lies just ahead.
I ask God to bless and protect you all.