In light of the recent COVID-19 surge due to the spread of the omicron variant, Bishop David Bard urges vaccination and masking, and advises church leaders to consider moving worship and other in-person gatherings online for the coming weeks. Below is a pastoral letter explaining these recommendations.
Dear Friends in Christ in the United Methodist Churches of Minnesota,
I greet you in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit. May the light of Christ that we celebrate in the epiphany season surround you.
One year ago, I sent a pastoral letter with the following: “Recent news about the coronavirus continues to encourage caution. Cases of COVID remain high across our nation and state, as do hospitalization rates. We continue to set daily records for new infections across the country.” Sadly, I can write the same today. With the omicron variant spreading rapidly, positive test rates are extraordinarily high, as are daily cases. Thankfully it appears that this variant is less virulent, particularly for those who have been vaccinated and received vaccine boosters.
I encourage you, then, if you have not been vaccinated, get vaccinated. Get vaccine boosters when appropriate. It remains the single most important thing you can do to care for yourself and for others. The unvaccinated remain those most likely to be hospitalized and suffer severe illness, even with the omicron variant. Get vaccinated and encourage your fellow church and family members to get vaccinated.
Given rising cases across the state and nation, it makes sense that our churches would strongly encourage and even require masking by everyone when meeting in-person and indoors. After vaccinations, masks are the next best tool we have for slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and slowing the spread also prevents the virus from developing into additional new variants. Wear a mask, a high-quality mask that will offer protection. Beginning yesterday, Jan. 6, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have instated masking requirements in many public places. Together, masking and vaccinations will help us turn the tide against COVID.
While we experience the omicron surge, church leaders should consider moving worship, discipleship groups, and other meetings online for the coming weeks. You know the unique circumstances of your community and are in the best position to make decisions about gathering, whether in-person or online. While we are not moving from the yellow phase of our Re-Gathering Plan, moving to virtual worship and meeting is one strategy for navigating this recent surge.
In a recent essay, directed especially toward faith leaders, Diana Butler Bass wrote: “The next few weeks will be hard. Do not panic. Do not give up. Instead, be prepared. Exercise leadership that models truthfulness, care, and healing…Remember to pray, take small breaks as needed, cry often. But do not surrender. Please. Keep doing what is right. You aren’t broken; you’re just worn down, sad, and tired. Even in the midst of it all, there’s still love, a healing God, good people, and a beautiful purpose for your life and theirs. You are being called to be your best self as leader, friend, and neighbor. Tell the truth with intelligence, assurance, integrity, and insistent resolve. Act with compassion and courage. That’s our path to real hope.”
Friends, I continue to believe that by God’s grace we can muster the resilience, the kindness, and the determination to do what needs to be done to navigate this pandemic. As followers of Jesus, we can and should lead in promoting public health, furthering the common good, and caring for the well-being of others. When we act out of love for neighbor and care for our community, we offer a powerful witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We allow the light of epiphany to shine more brightly in our world.
Grace and peace,
Bishop David A. Bard
Interim Bishop, Minnesota Conference
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church