Friends in Christ:
As we pass the one-year anniversary of the first case of COVID-19 in the United States, it’s safe to say that most, if not all, of us are weary from the many changes and restrictions the pandemic has brought about. Our congregations, communities, and leaders have worked diligently and tirelessly to find new ways to worship, learn, connect, and serve. We have sought to stay true to our mission while following the guidance of our public health professionals. We have tried to find the right balance between the desire to gather with the need to do so safely. Through it all, we have been guided by our call to love our neighbor as ourselves. I am deeply grateful for all your efforts to continue faithful ministry in these unprecedented times.
You may recall that, on November 11, 2020, I encouraged the congregations of the Greater Milwaukee Synod to discontinue indoor gatherings for worship or other activities until at least January 2021. In recent weeks, we have seen the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in Southeast Wisconsin plateau and decline a bit. We have also witnessed the release of two COVID-19 vaccines, which give us hope that the pandemic may someday come to an end.
In light of these developments, I know that many congregations are reviewing their plans for whether, when, and how to return to their buildings for worship and other activities. While I am also encouraged by recent trends and developments, I want to encourage congregations to continue refraining from holding in-person, indoor gatherings. I offer this recommendation based on the guidance provided by our partners in the Wisconsin Council of Churches. They have recently released an updated set of recommendations, “Returning to Church 2.0” (linked here). These recommendations are based on an extensive review of the scientific data and public health wisdom.
Here’s a brief summary of their recommendations:
- Pay attention to these three indicators: vaccinations, new cases per 100,000 of population, and percentage of positive test results.
- There are three phases to consider: Unsafe to return, Safer, and Safest. Based on the most recent indicators, we are still in the “unsafe to return” phase in all counties of Wisconsin.
- When at least 50% of the population is vaccinated, new infections are less than 10 per 100,000 people, and the test positivity rate is less than 10%, we can begin to explore returning to in-person, indoor gatherings.
- Even though vaccine distribution is uneven across the state, encourage people to get vaccinated whenever it becomes available to them.
- The use of masks, distancing, hygiene and other safety protocols will need to continue for the foreseeable future.
The WCC documents include references to reliable sources of updated information that will allow you to track these numbers in your area. Based on current trends, it is likely that we are still several months away from being able to consider safely returning to indoor gatherings.
We will be offering several opportunities to discuss these recommendations in more detail. On Tuesday, January 26 at 1:00 pm, we will host the Rev. Kerri Parker, Executive Director of the WCC at our weekly Zoom meeting for rostered ministers. There will also be an opportunity for a Zoom conversation with other congregational leaders from across the synod on Wednesday, January 27 at 7:00 pm. Links for both of these gatherings will be sent to pastors and deacons.
I recognize that the prospect of yet another Lent and Easter season without worshipping and gathering in person may be discouraging. I encourage congregations, leaders, and rostered ministers to consider the following:
- Regardless of what you decide, pay attention to how you decide. Work to create an environment in which people are able to speak, be heard, and understand which factors led to the decisions made.
- Recognize that this has been and will continue to be a stressful time for all of us, and the levels of weariness among your leaders is high. Be gentle with one another, and make sure that your pastors, deacons, and other staff have the support they need and that they are able to take time away. Consider allowing staff to roll over unused vacation time from last year to this year, or even granting additional vacation time this year.
- Trust that the Church is resilient, and God’s Holy and life-giving Spirit has been with us every step of the way and will continue to guide, nourish, and embrace us whatever 2021 brings.
I continue to be grateful, proud, and hopeful for our congregations and our communities as we confront and respond to the many challenges of this pandemic. We’re in this together, and I look forward to the time when we will be able to come together, in person, to discover what the next chapter of God’s story will look like for us.
In faith and hope,
Bishop Paul D. Erickson