Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:5b-7
March 10, 2020
Dear colleagues in Christ's ministry,
Our scriptures remind us in countless places that God draws near to us in our need, and that our worries are enveloped in the generous love and deep peace God provides. It is helpful to remind ourselves of these promises of our faith in a time when our nation is consumed by uncertainties and anxiety amid the public health crisis created by COVID-19, or coronavirus.
The news we hear changes daily, as events rapidly evolve both world-wide and in our own cities and counties. Ramsey, Carver, and Anoka counties in Minnesota have now reported confirmed cases of COVID-19; so has Pierce County in Wisconsin. All four are home to PTCA congregations. The number of cases and deaths in the United States has grown. At least six states have declared states of emergencies in order to draw on additional funding to combat the further spread of the disease, and that number will grow. There is a growing trend toward prohibiting all large gatherings. In short, this is a public health crisis that demands our attention and care. And that is especially true because our congregations and members include the most vulnerable part of our population—the elderly among us.
Local Church Considerations
To be informed and prepared, and to lean into facts rather than fear, is the best means by which to counteract the spread of COVID-19. The Presbytery is maintaining daily contact with public health officials, the denomination, and our ecumenical church partners. We will continue to evaluate the advice we receive from them about gatherings both small and large, and we will share that advice with you in a timely manner. You may hear from us again later today, or tomorrow, or three times next week. In this communication, we are providing you some basic precautions our churches should be taking now, and some things to consider in the event the situation in Minnesota and Wisconsin worsens (many of which are already being implemented in our congregations):
Beginning Right Now (if you haven’t already):
• Advise members and staff not to attend worship services and other church events if they are ill or concerned about becoming ill. We know that some of our church members are at higher risk if exposed to the COVID-19 virus, including older adults and those with already pre-existing or chronic health challenges. Encourage people in that group to self-monitor, both physically and emotionally, and be especially vigilant. And to simply stay home if they feel sick or are fearful of becoming sick.
• Discontinue the shaking of hands during the 'passing of the peace' and when congregants come and go from services and gatherings. Instead, encourage an alternative such as a smile or hands crossed over the heart. Health officials are actually discouraging the elbow bump, since so many of us have followed their advice to cough into our elbow joints or upper arms.
• Re-think your communion practices and how you receive the offering to minimize contact. Here’s what Presbyterian Disaster Assistance suggests about communion: Consider changing communion practices away from common cup and shared loaf. Consider using prefilled communion sets and have the celebrant, gloved, handle bread disbursement. Prepare elements wearing gloves and masks. Keep elements covered until used. Communicants can be brought forward by rows. Avoid intinction, since hands carry the most germs. One of our congregations on Sunday made a very public ritual of its elders using hand sanitizer before handling the elements. If you bring home communion to your members, take similar precautions. Make sure sanitizing wipes or gel accompany you everywhere. Offering baskets can be placed at exits, or a ritual of individually bringing the offering forward can be used. Encourage those who count the offering to use gloves. And, of course, there are multiple ways to offer electronic giving, if you don’t already.
• Make sure there is a public supply of tissues and alcohol-based sanitizing hand gel at worship services and gatherings. (And use sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content to ensure effectiveness.) Be sure to provide unique and visible bins for disposal of tissues at gatherings. Ensure hand-washing facilities, including soap and disposable towels, are also well maintained.
• Ensure all hard surfaces that are frequently touched (e.g. door handles, handrails, faucets, pews) are cleaned regularly with a household detergent or disinfectant wipes.
• Pastors: You may (at this point) continue to make pastoral visits if you remain healthy. However, follow basic precautions when doing so; monitor your own health carefully (so you do not unwittingly become a carrier); and pay attention to the advice of hospitals and care centers about whether visits in those facilities are advisable.
If the COVID-19 outbreak should continue to worsen in your community, public health officials may recommend community action to reduce spread, exposure, and severity of the disease. That may include discouraging all gatherings over a certain number of people, which could directly impact our ability to gather for worship or other events. (This has already occurred in parts of Washington state, for example, where the Presbytery of Seattle has advised its congregations to temporarily suspend in-person worship gatherings and seek alternate forms of worship.) While we hope this will not be the case in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we should nonetheless think now about how to respond should that occur here.
• Decision-making: Be clear who will make decisions about alternatives to in-person worship or other events, and on what basis or criteria those decisions will be made. And when you make decisions—to change the way you do communion, or worship, or fellowship gatherings, put an end date on those changes, even if you aren’t sure. Say, we’re making these changes until April 10, and we will then re-evaluate according to what we know and see at the time. Indefinite change leaves people unconnected.
• Communication: What mechanisms do you have in place to efficiently communicate with all your members about the status of worship and other events? This is the time, before the urgency increases, to be sure you have current contact information for members of your congregation; to be sure members know how you plan to contact them in the event of urgent news; and to encourage everyone in your congregation to join your social media platforms if they can.
• Caring and connecting: If worship and other gatherings cannot take place in person, how will you still continue to connect and care for one another? Do you have social media or other communications through which you can provide outreach and care? Can you post or email sermons and devotions for spiritual encouragement, or perhaps live-stream or “Facebook-live” messages or some form of worship? How will you and your congregation check in on those who live alone or might otherwise be most vulnerable to illness? Now is the time to consider the answer to questions like these.
• Finances and Staff: If we would reach the point of where worship gatherings are suspended or limited to online streaming, do you have a way for your members to give electronically? Do you have any reserves that can help you meet a shortfall in income so that essential expenses can still be met? How will staff (and even volunteers) be encouraged not to come to work if they are ill; are their protocols in place that allow all staff to stay home from work if they are sick or quarantined, without losing essential pay. You may need to review the sick leave and paid-time-off policies for the church. Your presbytery colleagues and presbytery office can help you think about these opportunities (which can continue long after the virus outbreak has ended).
• Welcoming People Back: Whether we ever reach the point of suspending in-person worship, it is inevitable that worship attendance will suffer for the next few weeks or months. Begin planning now the kind of celebration or special service or other event you might sponsor to intentionally invite people back to worship and other church activities when the crisis is over.
• Insurance: Ask your provider: Does our church have insurance that might include a clause providing for business interruption coverage or other coverage in this kind of situation? Check with your provider now to ask.
• If You Rent Space: If you have organizations renting or otherwise utilizing your building, be sure to communicate with them about how your church and their organization will communicate and operate during this time, and who has the authority to limit or close use of building space.
In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Ten days ago, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance released its guidance for congregations who want to take all reasonable precautions against any infectious disease outbreak. You can find that resource here, in both English and Korean. It is excellent. Our stated clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, has called all of us to prayer during this outbreak. This Presbytery will remain in daily contact with our national office, and will provide updates for you as we receive them.
Websites to Monitor
While the Presbytery office will make every effort to keep you informed of public health recommendations, you also should continue to monitor key sources for accurate and regularly updated information:
• The Minnesota Department of Health
• The Wisconsin Department of Health And Human Services
• The federal Center for Disease Control. The CDC has particular guidance for community and faith-based organizations you might review.
We realize this is a lot of information. Our purpose in sending this communication is not to induce panic but to urge continued wise planning and healthy practices. It's important for all of us to behave calmly, thoughtfully, and faithfully, choosing facts over fear and preparation over panic. As leaders, we're responsible for setting that tone with those we serve.
In this time the Christian church calls Lent—a time of personal spiritual reflection and building community—what better Lenten discipline is there than extending the bonds of care to others? In doing so, let us invite God's peace into our hearts and communities, and lean on one another for support and wisdom and guidance as we navigate these unfamiliar waters. And let us trust, as the scriptures remind us, that God is ever near.
Grace and peace, Your officers and staff
Anna Kendig, moderator
Jean Emmons, vice-moderator
Barbara Lutter, stated clerk
Rocky Rockenstein, Presbytery Leadership Team chair
Steve Robertson, treasurer
Jeffrey Japinga, executive presbyter