March 19, 2020
Joseph, Guardian of Jesus
Dear Siblings in Christ,
I want to express heartfelt thanks to all our leaders, both lay and rostered, working diligently under difficult conditions. You are maintaining ministry and caring for God’s people in so many ways: feeding the hungry with take-out meals, organizing care for the vulnerable, restricting in-person gatherings, meeting electronically, using digital technology to provide worship and faith formation, and so much more. It is a blessing to witness how we are being church in extraordinary times. Thank you!
Complying with our governor’s mandate that non-essential businesses remain closed, I am extending until March 31 the recommendation that our congregations suspend in-person worship and meetings. Synod lawyers have advised us that churches are non-essential businesses and would be in violation of the mandate to hold worship.
As for Holy Week in April, we will continue to monitor developments locally and nationally, and I will make a recommendation next week. Because this crisis is unfolding hour-by-hour and day-by-day, it would be wise for congregations to start contingency planning in the event there are no Holy Week or Easter services.
We need to remain creative and flexible during this crisis and make plans to keep everyone safe. In that spirit, we have decided to gather virtually for the Renewal of Vows service on April 7 instead of a traditional in-person worship service. (Watch for details next week.)
In an abundance of caution, and not knowing how long this COVID-19 crisis will last, the “Days of Edification” that were to be held on May 16 and 30 are cancelled. As of now, Synod Assembly will take place on June 6 at Messiah College as planned. Synod Council will make its recommendation regarding Synod Assembly at its meeting on April 18. Please watch for announcements.
Keeping God’s people safe means we may have to take extraordinary measures that run counter to our instincts to serve the most vulnerable. I recommend that ministers suspend in-person visitation, especially of shut-ins, the ill and other at-risk populations.
At the same time, we may serve our neighbors in new and creative ways. Some congregations have organized volunteers to run errands – such as to the pharmacy or grocery store – for their aging or vulnerable members who may not feel comfortable leaving home. It’s a great idea!
We are wise to remember that many of our neighbors may be laid off or furloughed without pay during this crisis. As a result, it’s important to be especially generous in supporting our local food pantries.
Similarly, please be generous and consistent in congregational giving, and encourage others to do so as well. A congregation’s payroll, mortgage and utility bills continue despite COVID-19, so regular offerings are crucial. If your congregation does not have an online giving option, this crisis presents a good reason to start. The ELCA has two “preferred providers” offering such services, Tithe.ly and Vanco. Both are reliable companies and offer special pricing and plans for ELCA congregations. (Click here to watch a webinar recorded Tuesday about Vanco’s services.)
A number of faithful ministers have inquired about Eucharist and how the Lord’s Supper may be celebrated during live-streamed worship. The ELCA offers this guidance:
In cases of virtual worship gatherings, the sacrament of Holy Communion is not to be celebrated. “The Use of the Means of Grace” reminds us that Holy Communion takes place in the assembly (Principle 39). Even in times when a community cannot gather to share the sacrament, Jesus shows up, and we are still part of the body of Christ. Consider how to honor the body of Christ in your virtual community.
Moreover, while Article IX of the Augsburg Confession states that baptism is necessary for salvation, Article X does not make that claim for the Eucharist. The church allows for emergency baptism under extenuating circumstances, but not “emergency” Eucharist. In the history of the church, it was not uncommon to fast from Holy Communion during Lent. This could be a helpful precedent in this COVID-19 crisis. The COVID-19 crisis should not be an excuse to throw out our Eucharistic theology. (One of our church’s eminent Luther scholars, the Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, has explored this issue thoroughly in an essay he wrote this week. Click here to read his thoughts.)
Lastly, I would ask that you be sure to care for yourself in the midst of this crisis. Please give yourself time to rest and rejuvenate, as well as time “unplugged” from phone, computer and other devices.
And please remember that I, as your bishop, and our entire synod staff are holding you in prayer as you continue to do God’s work in this difficult time.
Yours in Christ,
† James S. Dunlop, bishop
Lower Susquehanna Synod ELCA