A Pastoral Letter to This Pandemic
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ in the Central/Southern Illinois Synod,
Greetings to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
The rise of COVID-19 has created a challenge to the Church around gathering for Word and Sacrament and particularly around Holy Communion. Do we continue to gather for worship and dramatically modify what we do before, during, and after worship? Do we have worship, but not include Holy Communion? Do we cancel our worship services? If we cancel, for how long? Who decides? How do we decide?
In the ELCA, these are local decisions; bishops advise and recommend. In that spirit, I write this letter.
“Jesus Christ is the living and abiding Word of God. By the power of the Spirit, this very Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, is read in the Scriptures, proclaimed in preaching, announced in the forgiveness of sins, eaten and drunk in the Holy Communion, and encountered in the bodily presence of the Christian community. By the power of the Spirit active in Holy Baptism, this Word washes people to be Christ ‘s own Body in the world. We have called this gift of Word and Sacrament by the name ‘the means of grace’” (The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament).
I have been a proponent of “every service every Sunday” Communion for my entire ministry. Even now, a well-planned and carefully conducted Eucharist presents significantly less health risk than general church activities, such as the typical welcome to one another before worship and participation in the after-service “coffee”. Many of our congregations have recently taken giant strides forward in altering their worship practices to reduce the potential spread of the virus, including in their Communion practices. (One of my communications last week talked about controlling relative risks in how we distribute Communion.) And I believe that we cannot hear the words “given and shed for you” too often.
Nevertheless, our Lutheran confessional writings provide an additional perspective on this. The sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion are both God-given treasures. At the same time, though, the sacrament of Holy Communion is not necessary in the same way that Baptism is. Article 9 of the Augsburg Confession (AC) is on Baptism and states that Baptism is “necessary to salvation”. Article 10 is on Holy Communion and, while rich with expressions of the value of Holy Communion, nowhere states that Holy Communion is necessary. This theology explains why we have emergency Baptisms and we do not have emergency Communions.
It can be appropriate in this time of a pandemic for congregations to hold non-Eucharistic worship services if they continue to gather for worship, and for individual worshipers to forego receiving Communion if Communion is offered (a touchless blessing instead could be appropriate).
Congregations may choose to suspend gathered worship (as well as social events) or be ordered to do so by civil authorities, depending on the crowd size restrictions imposed. These civil orders are to be obeyed; they do not constitute suppression of religion. Another consideration for us is that Illinois Governor Pritzker has ordered that all schools be closed from March 17 through March 29. I have been advising pastors and congregational leaders to pay attention to what is happening with their school districts as an indicator of what would be best for their congregation’s decisions. This state-wide order is a significant consideration.
I recommend that congregations strongly consider suspending worship gatherings through the end of March. Here is sample wording for a pastor/council president message to a congregation if the decision is to suspend gathering:
God is with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Pause … for … a … moment … simply to reflect on this truth.
Currently, the risk of COVID-19 is relatively low. As a congregation committed to the wellbeing of our neighbors as well as of members, we want to do what we can to prolong this period of low risk. So, we are suspending our regular Sunday and Wednesday worship gatherings through the rest of March, and we will decide later what our next steps will be for April.
This does not mean that we are suspending being God’s church. In the spirit of caring for those who are most at risk and vulnerable among us, we will give the highest consideration to those most susceptible to health risks and to those who will feel isolated as a result of not coming together in worship.
Please remain connected to our church and our mission:
- Pray for the church, the world, and all those in need.
- Keep an eye out for communications – e-mail, our website, our Facebook page. Pass along news and information.
- Let the pastor know about members’ needs that you become aware of.
- Continue your offerings. Actually, we are likely to need some of us to step up our giving as others of us lose income due to the effects of this pandemic on us and our community.
As your congregation considers its options, I ask this of lay leaders. Be gracious with your pastor or pastors. It is likely that your pastor has heard from parishioners who are just shy of panic urging the pastor to cancel worship services; it is equally likely that your pastor has heard from parishioners who vigorously insist that the church has to stay open. Also, do not consider the time of suspension of worship, if the suspension of worship is what is chosen, as vacation time for the pastor. No. Suspension of worship services will require more work on the part of pastors to stay in touch with their people, to develop new paths to continue to communicate the gospel, and to interact with lay leaders of the congregation’s ministries and programs.
To pastors and deacons, our call does not change. We preach the Word; we administer the Sacraments in fidelity to the gospel; we teach the faith; we provide pastoral care. Looking again into our Lutheran Confessions, in The Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther puts the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints right up there with preaching, Baptism, Holy Communion, and Absolution as a vehicle for the gospel. I would anticipate a lot of checking in with members via phone and texting during this time – together with such ministry by Stephen Ministers, Befrienders, parish nurses, and others.
Whatever your congregation decides about worship services, now is the time to redouble our efforts – clergy and lay – in proclamation and the care of people. Methods need to be adapted, but ministry remains true. The witness of the church to the gospel goes on.
In the coming week, I will be working with synod staff and some of our congregations to establish online opportunities for worship, prayer, and devotion. Also, several of our congregations have live-stream capabilities already that, working together, we may be able to adapt for synod-wide resourcing. If your congregation is currently live-streaming worship, please let us know at email@example.com .
I leave you with this familiar prayer.
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us the faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Evening Prayer)
S. John Roth
Central/Southern Illinois Synod