March 13, 2020
Dear Friends and Members of the West Virginia Conference,
Today, the Honorable Jim Justice, governor of West Virginia, directed the closure of West Virginia Schools due to the growing concern over the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The schools have been closed in order to reduce the risk of transmission from person to person. These closures, and President Trump’s declaration this afternoon of a national emergency, have raised questions about Sunday worship services.
I encourage pastors and church leadership to have conversations about what is best for each particular community regarding whether or not to cancel worship services. If congregations do decide to have their regular weekly worship services, please follow the recommendations I made in my previous letter (read more here), and the recommendations that have been put out, and continue to be updated by the Centers for Disease Control for community and faith-based organizations.
Please keep in mind that many of our congregants are in the demographic that is most vulnerable to COVID-19: adults over 60 years of age, and persons with compromised health for other reasons. Encourage persons in these at-risk categories to stay home and then provide Facebook Live, Vimeo or YouTube streaming, or even connect those persons by way of telephone so that they can be a part of your worship gathering.
In the midst of this situation, please plan for how you will maintain contact with the members of your congregations. Plan for how you will continue your mission and ministry to your community, which will need to be continued, though you will potentially need to discern new delivery systems for these services.
We do want to do our part as United Methodist Christians to prevent our medical systems from becoming overwhelmed. Therefore, at this time, it is not a good idea to open child-care in your church buildings in response to school closures. It is a good idea to think about how to provide meals to children in your community, if needed, by means other than communal gathering.
Please consider preventive social distancing practices (not shaking hands, avoiding crowds, communicating virtually) as expressions of Christian care for the most vulnerable among us, and as loving acts that support our medical professionals who are caring for the sick. We are … “the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (I Corinthians 12: 27, NIV) Each one of us has an impact on the whole and each one of us has a responsibility for the health and care of the whole community.
If you choose to have weekly worship, please put a plan in place to do your best to make sure that the sanctuary is clean and encourage people to sit and participate while maintaining a distance between participants. The CDC recommends a 6-foot space. Request no shaking of hands or any other physical contact. Encourage washing of hands regularly, use of hand sanitizer, and remind people to refrain from touching their faces.
As the Coronavirus impacts your congregation’s attendance, there will still be expenses that will need to be covered. Please plan for the on-going financial support for your ministry and mission during the disruption caused by the pandemic. Our Conference Staff have put together some helpful suggestions that can be found here on the wvumc.org website.
While this will be a time for us to take extra precautions, this disruption does bring new opportunities to be attentive to our neighbors, to reach out to the vulnerable and isolated, and to find ways to move toward others in safe ways. Students, at-risk populations, health care workers, and leaders in the community and government need our help, support, love, care, and prayers.
As the Bishop of the West Virginia Conference please know that you are in my prayers, and I am confident you will make the best prayer-filled decisions for your congregations. I will keep you in my prayers as we move through this constantly changing situation together.
Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball