The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Bishop Patricia Lull wrote this message to the rostered ministers in our congregations on March 27.
We are living with daily and sometimes hourly updates on the coronavirus pandemic. Even encouraging news from a friend or family member has a jarring effect as we try to find settled ground for the choices we need to make. It’s not just you; all of us are on edge as we seek to do the right things to stay safe and healthy.
On March 25, Governor Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order for us Minnesotans. Before I address what this means for church leaders, I invite you to join me and the synod staff to do all that you can to shift your work and your daily life to your home place, as we have been asked to do to slow the spread of this insidious virus. The Saint Paul Area Synod office will close at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, March 27, and will remain closed until April 13 or whenever the Governor signals that we can reopen our office doors. Synod staff will keep working but will do so remotely.
As your bishop, I have been asked what this stay-at-home order means for the work of pastors and deacons. The technical answer is given in a section of the Governor’s Order entitled “Exemptions – Critical Sectors” and a subsection on “Faith leaders and workers.” Read the full order.
The substance of that text is this: “6. Exemptions – Critical Sectors. All workers who can work from home must do so. Workers in the following Critical Sectors, who are performing work that cannot be done at their home or residence through telework or virtual work and can be done only at a place of work outside of their home or residence, are exempted from the prohibition in paragraph 1 as set forth below. These critical services exemptions apply only to travel to and from an individual’s home or residence and place of work and an individual’s performance of work duties that cannot be done at their homes or residence. Travel may include transportation to and from child care or school settings as necessary to ensure the safe care of children. This list of Critical Sectors may be clarified, as deemed necessary by the Governor, to ensure the health, safety, and security of all Minnesotans.”
And then this clarification: “v. Faith leaders and workers. This category includes officials, workers, and leaders in houses of worship and other places of religious expression or fellowship, wherever their services may be needed. This category also includes workers necessary to plan, record, and distribute online or broadcast content to community members.”
For the sake of our neighbors and our own well-being, the most important sentence is this: All workers who can work from home must do so. It behooves those of us who are pastors, deacons or church leaders to be role models for those who may underestimate the present public health crisis. This is not the time to use membership in a critical sector to ignore the Governor’s request or to privilege our calling over the well-being of our neighbors.
Those who have inquired about going to the church building to record worship services will see that they may do so under this order. The same is true for offering pastoral care in extreme circumstances, if an in-person visit is urgently needed and care cannot be offered by phone, digitally or by coordination with an institutional chaplain. As the bishop (not the governor), however, I ask you to weigh carefully the necessity of such work-related trips outside the home.
As I have said to many of you in Zoom calls this week, we must also be ready to do funerals in new ways during this time of the pandemic. I have conferred with the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association, whose website can be found at www.mnfuneral.org/page/coronavirus. While small-sized funerals and burials are allowed at present, it is important to balance the risk of exposing mourners to the COVID-19 virus with the heartfelt need to gather together in times of grief. This is especially true for those who are more vulnerable to infection with this virus because of age or medical conditions.
I encourage every congregation’s leaders to create a policy now for how funerals will be hosted (or postponed) so that such decisions do not need to be made in the throes of a family’s fresh grief. At present, it is possible for 10 persons to gather, provided they keep the 6’ distance from one another. Help families determine who these 10 persons will be. Consider using video to help others participate without being physically present. And in all cases, look ahead to times later in the year when a larger faith community could gather to remember the person’s life and to celebrate together the promise of resurrection life in Christ. (The Massachusetts Council of Churches has a good example of such a plan.)
A few Sundays ago many congregations heard these words in worship – “… suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5). Most of us did not understand even then the changes we would need to make to quell the deadly impact of this pandemic. But then as now, we know that God’s love enables us change routines, stay-at-home, and follow all the social distancing and hand-washing routines that mark our lives today. We do so to keep our families safe; we do so to keep our neighbors well.
Thank you for stepping up and doing your part. I am grateful to be your colleague and fellow Minnesotan.
Bishop Patricia Lull