Bishop David Bard has turned the dial on the Minnesota Conference's Phased Re-Gathering Plan for Churches from red to orange. Below is a letter to Minnesota United Methodists explaining the reason for the change and offering specific guidelines for resuming in-person worship:
Dear Friends in Christ in the United Methodist Churches of Minnesota,
Grace to you and peace in the name of the Christ whose light we celebrate this Epiphany season.
I hope the Christmas season brought you all opportunities for rest, and to know the joy woven into our celebrations of the birth of Jesus. I know it was a strange year to celebrate Christmas because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is about that pandemic that I write to you.
I am grateful for the thoughtful and careful ways you have all been making decisions about ministry during this pandemic. You have responded graciously, even when you have been encouraged to do uncomfortable things like refrain from in-person worship during the Christmas season. You desire to act in the interest of public health, the common good, and the well-being of others, all in the spirit of Jesus. I appreciate that.
Recent news about the coronavirus continues to encourage caution. Cases of COVID-19 remain high across our nation and state, as do hospitalization rates. We continue to set daily records for new infections across the country. In some places, the availability of intensive care beds remains low. The Minnesota Department of Health reports that we are seeing a downward trend from our peak in November, when new cases were averaging 6,000 to 8,000 a day. However, the Minnesota numbers are still concerning, with between 1,000 and 2,000 new cases and 40 deaths each day—and community spread is still rampant. We are also aware that a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus has been found in the United States, including Minnesota. There is good news in that vaccines have started to become available, and we also know the distribution of those vaccines has been a bit problematic. As I say all of this, I am very aware that broad statements about the ongoing spread of COVID-19 do not capture all the local subtleties of a state as large as Minnesota.
In light of our improving trends and the variety of our contexts, we are moving to orange
in our Phased Re-Gathering Plan
. Because outdoor worship is very difficult this time of year, our orange phase has been adjusted to allow in-person worship of up to 50 percent of your building capacity, with a maximum of 50 people. We know this is more restrictive than what the governor’s StaySafeMN guidance
allows, but we are still in a risky season of the pandemic and indoor gatherings continue to be problematic. We still encourage you to meet virtually because it’s the safest option. However, If you do decide to move to resume in-person gatherings, I offer the following guidance as we seek to continue to care for public health, the common good, and the well-being of others while being in ministry together for Jesus Christ:
• Have a well-considered plan for in-person gatherings that is cautious and flexible. I understand the deep desire to be together and I know the risks posed by in-person gatherings. How and when you gather should be based on solid local community health information. Has the new strain of the virus been detected in your area? What is the positivity rate among those being tested? A positivity rate below 5 percent has been seen as a guide to allow more in-person gatherings. What is the case rate in your area? A case rate of more than 25 new daily cases per 100,000 people is considered the highest risk level. What is the capacity of health care services in your area, such as the availability of ICU beds? Caution would dictate not considering in-person gatherings until after a possible holiday surge, so sometime after mid-January, or even better, late January. Flexibility in your planning dictates that you be ready to move from in-person to virtual gatherings as health metrics indicate.
• Your plan for any in-person gatherings needs to include mitigation measures of mask wearing, social distancing, adequate provisions for hand washing, and collecting contact information for those gathered in case someone present is diagnosed with COVID. I expect such mitigation measures will be needed for months to come.
• Be gracious in offering options for those who continue to choose to connect with your faith community virtually. Just because you’ve opened again for in-person worship does not mean everyone will deem it safe to return. As the weather warms, consider outdoor options for some gatherings. Continue to find creative ways to connect safely with each other.
• Actively encourage vaccinations as they become available. We will be able to increase the frequency of our in-person gatherings and relax mitigation measures as more people become immune to COVID.
Worship is not about our buildings. Ministry happens in all kinds of places and in all kinds of ways. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The answer was “yes!” Significant progress is being made against this pandemic. Now is a time to be patient and prudent in decision-making.
Bishop David A. Bard
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church