The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. (Exodus 16:1-2)
Most of us are engaged in a daily, ongoing conversation about the pandemic. Our response to the COVID-19 raises more questions than it answers. “How long will this go on? When can we return to our churches? Will we be back in time for Rally Day, for fall activities, for our suppers and sales, for Advent and Christmas? Aren’t our churches “essential” services? Can we go back if we follow all the guidelines and precautions?” These are all good questions, and none of them invite simple answers. As the Bishop, I am asked for my guidance, for my “ruling,” for my decisions. When we wander together in discomfort and uncertainty, we become desperate for clear answers, but in the words of Paul from the letter to the Philippians, we are “work(ing) out (y)our own salvation with fear and trembling.”
However, as your bishop, I want you to hear my reflections clearly and concisely, so you know my thinking and my recommendations. We are all working hard to journey faithfully through our wilderness so that ALL may emerge together in God’s promised land future.
- I am deeply grateful and appreciative for the hard work of our COVID-19 Task Force and all the resources and information they provide
- I am deeply grateful and impressed by the faithful leadership of our clergy and laity to find creative ways to continue in excellent ministry and service.
- I pay very close attention to health experts and the excellent information and instruction coming from the Center on Disease Control (CDC), National Health Institutes (NHI), and the World Health Organization.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge the pain, suffering, loss, and grief people are suffering by not meeting together in person. No one takes this lightly, and we are doing everything we can to return safely to regular church engagement and attendance. With this in mind, I give you my recommendations:
- Our guiding value and practice must be to preserve and maintain life, health, and well-being of our members and friends.
- We should err to the side of caution as a witness to our community and world that our love for our neighbors is one way we love God and all God’s creation.
- Our clergy and laity should follow the strictest guidelines – including not worshiping in person – until the New Year. All indications point to a very bad autumn and winter as we continue with COVID and enter the new flu season. No in-person worship is advised until 2021, and then only after thorough review and reevaluation.
- Setting a clear target date for reevaluation and return help provide clear communication and can avoid unnecessary disappointment. Clergy and laity leadership can then plan creatively for the fall, for Advent, and for Christmas. Perhaps we will join the Wise Men on their journey to arrive on Epiphany…
I want to emphasize that these are recommendations, but they are strong recommendations that I deeply believe to be good and appropriate. As Bishop, along with the entire cabinet, I will not prevent any church from returning to in-person worship before the New Year, as long as the highest standards of precaution are maintained and enforced. We realize that the worshiping reality of churches across this Conference are very different. There are places where safe reentry can happen much earlier than in other places. It is in consideration of the most vulnerable and at risk that we establish the start of 2021 as our target for safe return.
Historically, our Christian movement began in “house churches,” individual households where prayer, reflection on teachings, fasting, and singing occurred. Our current situation reminds us that sanctuaries, chapels, and cathedrals came later. Congregating, the way we have come to expect as normal, was a rare thing that we have come to value so much more for its absence. Regardless of our ability to be physically together, by God’s gracious Spirit, we are “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” God will see us through this difficult time, so take care of yourself, take good care of your neighbors, and give thanks to God!
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).