A Pastoral Letter: March 25, 2020
I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
The LORD will not let your foot be moved;
the LORD who keeps you will not slumber.
The LORD who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; the LORD will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
March 25, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). It seems to me that communication today, on the one hand so needed, is yet on the other hand like the water to that mariner: everywhere (phone, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, Zoom) and yet as hazardous as it is sustaining. Be careful out there.
That said, I would like to communicate a few items:
- I “attended” online worship with five of our congregations this past Sunday. What a joy it was to see the creative, uplifting, and enthusiastic preaching and worship put out there for members and others. Not flashy or slick. But genuine. And these broadcasts were a testimony that the gospel can be well preached in a variety of contexts and styles. Synod staff will continue adding to the list on the synod website of congregations doing various broadcasts as we learn of them. We know that many of our congregations are not able to broadcast worship or sermons. Please let your people know that they are more than welcome to join in with any of our synod congregations that do livestream or broadcast. If you are livestreaming or plan to livestream worship services, I encourage you to look at a resource produced by ELCA churchwide staff for various considerations you may not have thought about.
- Pastoral synod staff has begun a systematic schedule of phone check-in with rostered ministers and with presidents of congregations that do not have a called pastor at this time.
- We have begun a weekly “drop-in” with the bishop for all pastors and deacons in the synod. These Zoom conferences take place on Tuesdays at 1:00 p.m.
- I continue to receive questions about Holy Communion. On social media in particular, there is considerable debate, discussion, and assertion of what should be done or not done about Holy Communion while social distancing precludes gathering at our places of worship. I fully grant that people across the spectrum of views on the question of “online communion” care deeply about ministering to the people in their congregation, want to be respectful and reverent in their Eucharist practice, and strive to serve God faithfully. ELCA churchwide organization staff has produced an insightful document entitled “Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns: COVID-19/Coronavirus” updated March 20; the same document referenced above); Presiding Bishop Eaton’s guidance to the ELCA on this is embedded in this document in the section “Virtual worship and Holy Communion”. Here is the guidance I offer. 1) Please keep in mind that there are many considerations to be weighed and addressed (e.g., our understanding/definitions of community, our understanding of Holy Communion as a meal of the community, the transitory nature of our current need for social distancing, our relationships with sister Lutheran churches around the world and with our ecumenical partners, the “necessity” of Holy Communion in our worship services, fidelity with the teachings and practices of the saints who have gone before us, what it means to be church together, and the presumption of privilege when we assume the availability of online access). 2) Be gentle and humble with one another. There is no one view that can clearly and unequivocally be identified to be God’s will here. We are human; we are in a situation unprecedented in our lifetime; and it is rightly going to take time to sort this out. We are less than three weeks into shelter-in-place. There is no emergency forcing us to take up a practice of which we have not given considerable mutual discernment. 3) In an earlier communication, I spoke of my advocacy for Holy Communion every Sunday in every service; I still hold to that in times when physically gathering is possible. In times of shelter in place, my soul is at peace “trusting that the Word itself is full of the presence of Christ” (as one of my mentors puts it). This trusting is what I commend to you.
- Finally, let me urge you to continue to hold up your church in your financial stewardship. These are uncertain times financially, too. Some of us may have little or no income during “stay at home” conditions. Others of us have seen a large decline in the value of our investments. Nevertheless, God has blessed us – blessed us to be a blessing. Please don’t let the anxiety of the present keep you from practicing the generosity that is in your heart.
“Our help comes from the Lord,” sings the psalmist. As you continue to be in ministry, whatever your vocation, and wrestle with the massive uncertainties brought about by this pandemic, please know that you are in my prayers. But more importantly, hold onto the promise that “the Lord will keep your going and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”
If synod staff can be of help to you, please let us know. A pdf version of this letter can be found here.
Yours in Christ,
S. John Roth
Bishop, Central/Southern Illinois Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America