Peace and grace to you in these closing days of summer, partners in service!
As the seasons turn, and I consider the adaptive work all of you have been engaged in since the pandemic's arrival in Minnesota nearly six months ago, the passage I've included from Hebrews above seems appropriate. Your faithful work, and the love that you've embodied as you've continued to serve diligently while keeping the greater good front and center in this public health crisis, is worthy of celebration. God does not overlook it, and neither do I. And so I begin by extending my sincere gratitude to all of you, wherever and however you serve, for your amazing ministries and enduring faithfulness.
This moment continues to call on deep reservoirs of perseverance, faith, and abiding patience amongst us. And there are surely days when we do in fact feel 'sluggish'! We are tired of making endless heavy & consequential decisions, exhausted from new routines, eager to gather with congregants, family, friends, and colleagues in ways that nurture our souls and make the journey more bearable. There is no shame in feeling any of this. We can only trust that God will continue to grant the strength, wisdom, and joy sufficient for these days. I remain inspired by all the ways the Church in every setting has stepped forward in faithfulness to meet the challenges of these days.
I want to offer several important updates in this letter, many of which are applicable to you whether you are a chaplain or local church pastor or serving in some other specialized setting. This letter is long, but I beg your indulgence as you read it thoroughly.
New Clergy Survey
In an effort to keep up to date on all that is happening with you, our congregations, and other ministries, we're sending out this 9-question survey. Please take 15-20 minutes of time to complete it and give us a sense of how things are going.
COVID Updates & New Guidance from MDH
The mask mandate instituted by Governor Walz on July 25 remains in effect and includes our churches & sanctuaries. Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm provided a sobering COVID-19 update on August 31, and noted that Dr. Deborah Birx from the White House Advisory Group expressed specific concern about Minnesota numbers in her recent visit. Minnesota numbers have not improved; we have plateaued at a very high level of ongoing infections. Our rate of new cases in Minnesota is now higher than the national average. In that same statement, Commissioner Malcolm stressed that the concerning communal spread is not just a metro issue but is a state-wide problem. 9 weddings, 2 funerals, & 13 other 'social gatherings' contributed to outbreaks across the State; churches were also mentioned as a source of outbreaks. The Commissioner stressed that we have a very critical need to bring down communal transmission now before Fall and Winter. ( This page on the MDH website provides good visuals of all the relevant trajectories since March in Minnesota, and also provides County-specific data.)
In light of this recent report, I want to urge all continued caution in regards to in-person activities of our congregations. I remain convinced that how we as congregations conduct ourselves in our communities is critically important to our state's attempts to arrest COVID-19, regardless of where we are located. I truly understand that the desire to re-convene & resume normal church activities is strong, particularly as we enter a time that would normally be filled with Rally Sundays, increased activity, and (soon) Advent & Christmas. I also know there are many factors placing pressure on your decisions, and that not all circumstances are equal across the life of our Conference. Nonetheless, this week's report from MDH makes clear: this is not a time to relax our protocols or our approaches to these difficult questions. Please continue to understand your congregation's decision-making as an essential puzzle piece in the greater whole of this public health crisis.
MDH has released two specific guidance documents recently that I want you to know about. On August 27, MDH released guidance about music activities & performances during COVID that can assist you as you contemplate how and if to incorporate congregational singing or special music in your activities. On August 31, MDH released guidance for youth and student programs that may be helpful to you if you are considering any in-person faith formation or youth programing. This guidance allows for up to 15 in a room, provided space allows for a 3-foot concentric circle of distance around each child/youth. The last update to the guidance for places of worship from MDH was August 12. The guidance I provided to churches in May, except for the mask mandate that has begun since then, is still relevant and can continue to be utilized for your planning purposes. I have also posted several sample policies from local churches on our website for you to refer to should you need assistance in developing one for your church in regards to activities during COVID.
Thanksgiving Worship Compliments of the Conference Staff
The Conference staff team will be making a full worship service available to you and to your congregations for your Thanksgiving worship on November 22 or any day that week. The worship service will be provided to you digitally as a whole and in discrete digital components so you can use what you wish for your congregation's purposes. We will also provide text versions of each part of the liturgy for your use. We will distribute all this information to you as clergy via email on November 13; it will also be provided to the wider Conference community via our COMMAntary e-news on November 18. We look forward to sharing this with you as a token of our thanksgiving for each of you and the congregations you serve.
Important Update: Regular Zoom Calls with Local Church Pastors & Chaplains
Since the pandemic began, Conference staff members have been hosting regular support calls for local church pastors & chaplains. We've recently spent some time evaluating that practice and have several updates:
- Chaplain Support Calls: based on feedback from chaplains in a recent survey of chaplains we conducted, we will now be offering support calls for chaplains one time per month on every 3rd Tuesday beginning September 15, 5:30-6:30 pm. Future dates for these calls are: September 15, October 20, November 17, & December 15. The Zoom link for each of these monthly calls will be https://us02web.zoom.us/j/229537084. We will also provide reminders & the Zoom link on our authorized ministers FB group page. We will utilize the Touchstones from Courage & Renewal to shape our time together.
- Local Church Pastor Support Calls: These weekly calls will continue as they have been on Tuesdays @ 11 a.m. Utilize this Zoom link for those calls; reminders will be posted on the authorized ministers FB group page. We will utilize the Courage & Renewal Touchstones to ground our time together.
- NEW Monthly PRAXIS Calls: We will now be offering an additional monthly call for local church pastors. These calls will be focused on practical questions & needs in the local church and will take place the 2nd Wednesday of each month, 3-4:30 pm via Zoom (use this Zoom link). We will be seeking your input for future topics. The topics the first two months are as follows:
- September 9, 3-4:30 pm (NEXT WEEK): Navigating the question of in-person, indoor worship & other activities. Whether you've already returned to in-person, indoor worship or you're contemplating it, this call can be useful to you. Marge Higgins from the MN Department of Health will be with us to answer any questions you have for MDH.
- October 14, 3-4:30 pm: Advent Planning. Our plans for observing the Advent & Christmas seasons will need to look very different in this pandemic time. Specific resources & your collective wisdom will enrich the conversation.
- November 11 & December 9: Topics TBD.
- Fall Clergy Convocation: This event is cancelled. We do, however, invite your attention to these other amazing retreat opportunities that may be helpful to you:
- Minnesota Conference Outdoor Ministries is hosting three stand-alone contemplative retreat experiences for Fall 2020:
- October 13, 10:00am-noon - Changes: A contemplative retreat rooted in the wonder of autumn and the turning of the seasons led by psalmist and musician Richard Bruxvoort Colligan
- November 14, 10:00am-noon - Thanksgiving Amidst Struggle: A soulful exploration of gratitude during challenging times led by Minnesota musician Hans Peterson
- December 13, 6:30-8:30PM - Deep in the Darkness, Hidden Seeds: A contemplative reflection for the Advent season led by Duluth-based singer-songwriter Sara Thomsen.
Registration for each retreat is $15 or $30 for all three experiences. Please look for more details and registration information in COMMAntary and on the Conference website soon.
- Courage to Lead: An Online Retreat Series for Faith Leaders will be a new Circle of Trust cohort series using an extended, virtual model of gathering together. We have redesigned this experience to meet the demands of ministry during a pandemic. Many have experienced the virtual format to offer a more generative pace than a more intense, in-person gathering. Ample time will be given for self-reflection, small group sharing/listening, and group discussion. Following is the program schedule:
- October 5-6: Two sessions each day (a 3-hour session and a 90-minute session)
- November 2, December 7 and January 4: 1 session each day (3 hours)
- February 8-9: Two sessions each day (a 3-hour session and a 90-minute session)
Thanks to generous funding from the Ashley Endowment, the cost of the retreat for participants from the Minnesota Conference UCC is $200. For more retreat details and registration information click here - https://www.uccmn.org/2020/08/18/courage-to-lead-a-retreat-series-for-faith-leaders-2/
- Boundary Training: Yes, boundary training applies even in a pandemic! We have, however, heard your concerns about the training we've been utilizing most recently during the pandemic, and have made arrangements for a new training provider. We have three new dates for boundary training, two for any authorized minister and one specifically for chaplains (by popular demand). Each of these trainings will be facilitated by our partners at LeaderWise. The dates are:
- Any authorized minister: October 21 & October 28
- Chaplains only: October 29 (morning)
Specific times & registration info will be provided in COMMAntary in the coming weeks. The cost will be $50/clergyperson.
In all of this, we hope that the Conference continues to serve and support you in ways that are timely, helpful, and life-giving. I am grateful for each of you and all you do to share and multiply the love and mercies of God each and every day. I continue to hold you in my prayers. May God's grace surround and uplift you and all those with whom you minister!
Grace and peace,