In response to Gov. Tim Walz's announcement about new, less restrictive statewide COVID-19 mitigation measures, which take effect March 15 at noon, Bishop David Bard released the following pastoral letter to Minnesota United Methodists.
Dear Friends in Christ in the United Methodist Churches of Minnesota,
Grace to you and peace in the name of the Christ whose resurrection we will soon celebrate.
I write to you today with a sore shoulder. My muscles ache because I was given the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. I am grateful for the ache. It is one small sign of hope among many that we are moving in a positive direction in our fight against the coronavirus. Caseloads have gone down significantly since earlier in the year. Hospitalizations and deaths have also decreased. Late last week, Gov. Tim Walz announced adjustments to the mitigation measures for our state beginning at noon today, March 15 (see diagram below).
We have been living with this pandemic for a year now. I continue to be grateful for the thoughtful and careful ways you have all been making decisions about ministry during this time. You continue to respond graciously, even when you are encouraged to do uncomfortable things, such as refrain from in-person worship. 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.
One thing we have learned in the past year is that this pandemic is filled with unpredictability, challenging even the most thoughtful re-opening plans, such as the Phased Re-Gathering Plan we have been working with here in our conference. Decisions about moving from one stage or color to another are dependent upon a number of factors. The governor’s recent guidance and health indicators argue in favor of moving from our current orange phase. At the same time, while cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined, the decline has plateaued at a relatively high level with daily deaths about where they were during last summer’s peak. There remains uncertainty about the impact of novel strains of the virus, with some epidemiologists predicting another surge in cases in the coming weeks. Additionally, many of our congregations have already made significant plans for the safe celebration of Easter predicated on stricter guidelines, and three weeks is not enough time to change those plans dramatically. Finally, while I would love to have people gather for a joyous celebration of Easter, mitigation measures such as masks and social distancing need to be observed, and that can be complicated at Easter. Are you really prepared to turn people away on that Sunday if too many arrive for you to maintain safe social distancing?
In consultation with conference leaders, we are not going to immediately change the dial on our Phased Re-Gathering Plan but plan to do so right after Easter, barring a new surge in cases. I also understand that we are a big state with congregations from small to large in communities where the spread of the virus and the rate of vaccination vary significantly. Whatever choices you make, I ask that you continue to engage in mitigation practices that protect the public health and promote the common good—masks and social distancing. I ask that if your congregation has put plans in place for worship in the coming weeks that may not be your preference, offer patience and grace, understanding that pastors and church leaders are working diligently to make good decisions based on ever-changing circumstances.
Friends, we are living and doing ministry for Jesus Christ, celebrating signs of hope, and acknowledging reasons for caution when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us have been fortunate in receiving vaccines, while others patiently wait their turn (and please take your turn to get vaccinated when it comes). Vaccinated or not, we need to continue to wear masks in public spaces and work graciously and patiently together to care for one another in Christian love. Thank you for all the ways you have been doing this over the past year.
Bishop David Bard
Interim Bishop, Minnesota Conference
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church