March 11, 2020
To the Clergy and Lay Leaders of the Diocese of Nebraska –
COVID-19 continues to daily affect our personal and professional lives in changing and increasingly complex ways. I greatly appreciate the stress you are all under to balance caring for your family, friends, selves and your church communities in the face of this challenge. Know that you are beloved of Christ and that you are precisely the one called to be a minister to your people at this moment. Count on God to journey with you and equip you all along the way. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me and my staff if we can be supportive in any fashion in the days ahead.
Here is a quick update for this week:
I was reminded at this week’s House of Bishop’s meeting that Episcopal Relief and Development remains a very reliable and up-to-date source of information about COVID-19 and the particular challenges and opportunities it places on our Episcopal Church. This Friday, March 13, 2020 at 2:00 PM CST, Episcopal Relief & Development will lead an on-line conversation about how we can maintain safety and serve the needs of vulnerable populations. You can register for the webinar by following this link. I strongly recommend you tune in to this event so that you can be fully informed by scientists and other professionals about the spread of the coronavirus and the various ways our Church can faithfully respond.
We’re becoming increasingly aware that our health care system will be overwhelmed if we cannot slow the spread of COVID-19. This means a couple of things for all of us. First, it is time to institute best-practices around hand washing, and social distancing (which in the Episcopal Church means sitting apart from other folks in worship, providing to receive Communion in one kind, and not physically passing collection plates or sharing the Peace) without exception. We will need to be the ones to educate and directly lead folks into behaving in a new and perhaps uncomfortable way. It is very important to get everyone on board with these behaviors.
This leads to the second point: we’re following these rules for the sake of others, especially those at high risk of serious illness or death. YOU may well be unafraid of contracting the coronavirus or even of death itself, but if you fail to act responsibly at this moment you put countless others at risk. In this instance, the faithful thing to do is, in fact, the conservative thing to do. The day may come when we will be able to throw ourselves in front of the lions if we feel so called. Today is not that day. For the sake of your brothers and sisters, please follow the rules to prevent the spread of this disease.
Public gatherings – including worship – are increasingly being discouraged and even banned here in the U.S. I continue to trust all of you to inform yourselves about how COVID-19 is spreading, and then considering the particulars of your parish church (e.g., how much space you have, the health profile of the population that attends church, and how compliant your people are with following your rules) make a decision about gathering for worship. Since coping with COVID-19 is expected to be a reality for weeks and months to come, I urge you to carefully consider the implications of canceling worship altogether. And should you choose to cancel worship, make sure you plan and publicize from the start the timetable and conditions under which worship will resume.
We’re blessed to live in a moment where virtual gatherings and social media make it easy to convene, at least in some fashion, as a church without physical contact. I recommend that you start planning to broadcast services or sermons using Facebook Live or some other online platform as soon as possible, and similarly, begin offering Christian formation and education opportunities using virtual meetings. If you’ve not already done so, I recommend downloading Zoom, or a similar utility, and testing out your capacity to run a virtual vestry meeting. I am sure we will talk further about doing the long-term business of the Church in the weeks to come.
As I read what other churches, pastors and bishops are saying on-line (one could spend the better part of every day doing little else!) I am struck by how much attention and energy is being focused on the health of those who might attend church worship and on the purely institutional issues that are complicated by the coronavirus. These are necessary and vital concerns, but of equal importance to God’s mission is our call to serve the person of Jesus in the poor and the marginalized. At times like these, it is folks in those vulnerable populations who will suffer the most. After watching the ERD webinar, I urge you to gather some local folk and to organize around ministries like checking on your sick and shut-ins, delivering food and medicine to those who cannot get out, offering special prayer events (whether in person or on-line,) and in all the other creative and faithful ways that you can best imagine, to show the world the power of the Church of Jesus Christ when faced with the threat of sickness and death.
We were built for just this moment. So do not fear … and keep the faith.
Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker