Bishop Bruce R. Ough disseminated the following message to all Minnesota United Methodist congregations on May 23 after Gov. Walz loosened some restrictions for faith communities' in-person gatherings.
Grace and peace to you in the name of our risen Lord.
In a press conference this afternoon, people of faith received two messages from Gov. Tim Walz.
He encouraged Minnesotans to stay home as much as possible, to limit in-person interactions, to avoid large gatherings, and to wear masks. He pointed out that today marks the highest daily total for confirmed COVID-19 cases and that each time we gather, we risk contracting this virus. He encouraged faith communities to continue to worship virtually as much as possible.
He also relaxed restrictions for faith communities’ in-person gatherings and issued an executive order that will soon permit churches to gather indoors or outdoors at 25 percent of their building capacity (with a maximum of 250 people) provided that they create a detailed preparedness plan.
In Minnesota right now, coronavirus infections and deaths continue to increase. We have not yet hit our peak. National calls for all churches to be able to open their doors do not account for the fact that what is safe differs from state to state. These calls for re-opening also seem to forget that churches have remained open throughout the pandemic. Our buildings might be closed, but churches have never been buildings—churches are followers of Jesus who embody his teachings and share God’s love throughout the world. And that’s exactly what we are doing as we worship, gather over screens, serve our communities, and further Christ’s mission in ways that keep people healthy and safe.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be leaders in caring for those who are most vulnerable. We are called to love our neighbors and to act for the good of the whole. We are called to heal a broken world. Right now, I believe that means mitigating the spread of coronavirus by staying the course, worshiping online, and significantly limiting in-person gatherings. For this reason, I continue to lift up the guidance we provided in the Phased Re-Gathering Plan for Churches that we released yesterday—and I ask you to limit to 10 the number of people gathering in your church building.
At the same time, infectious disease experts, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Minnesota Department of Health have all indicated that outdoor worship is much safer, and poses considerably less risk, than indoor gatherings—so I strongly recommend gathering this way over the summer. It is my understanding and belief that it is safe to gather outdoors a reasonably larger group than 10 people—but only if strict social distancing (six feet on every side of each person) is maintained and attendees wear masks. Gov. Walz is permitting no more than 25 percent of a church’s building capacity to meet outside, and I want to urge you to keep your numbers smaller than that out of an over-abundance of caution.
One thing that has become clear in recent weeks is that this is a fast-moving pandemic that requires a rapidly changing response. As new recommendations and best practices come to light, we will update you and modify our Phased Re-Gathering Plan for Churches based on the best information we have (today we made slight modifications to the Orange Phase and Yellow Phase to reflect changes to outdoor worship). And we urge you to similarly respond quickly in adapting your preparedness plan as things change.
As Gov. Walz said in today’s press conference, “The desire to get people back cannot override the ability to keep the community safe and those most vulnerable safe.”
Thank you for your partnership, your innovation, and your commitment to care for the spiritual, physical, and mental health of all of God’s people.
Let us remember as we continue to navigate this uncharted territory that God is with us.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough
Resident Bishop, Dakotas-Minnesota Area
The United Methodist Church
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church