These are unbelievable times for us all. As one who could not imagine canceling worship services, I cannot remember a circumstance in my lifetime when churches were asked to suspend worship services and meetings.
As I watched social media this weekend, I marveled at the creativity and leadership of our churches and pastors. The Alabama-West Florida Conference is filled with Christ- centered followers. It is a blessing to be your bishop.
Yet, I write to you today specifically around the COVID-19 pandemic. Health experts warn us that it is in the best interest of church members, especially those in the high-risk categories, the community, the states of Alabama and Florida, our nation, and the world for us to stop assembling for a time of worship services and other group meetings. We have been told the best time to slow down the spread of the contagious coronavirus is now. We need to take measures to avoid large gatherings of people along with practicing social distancing. Many of you did that this past Sunday by canceling worship services and using social media to reach your congregation and beyond.
It is out of the plea from national and local health officials that I urge and request for at least the remainder of March all our Alabama-West Florida United Methodist Churches suspend in-person worship and other large gatherings. We will assess the situation week-by-week to determine when it is safe to resume worship services. It is a day-to-day, week-to-week and at times hour-by-hour situation.
In the spirit of this request, we have already planned to close conference office for meetings. Staff are working remotely except for a few people each day. Click here to read the full statement.
Though we are calling for a suspension of in-person church worship services, the church will continue to be in ministry. Some of our churches offer on-line and Facebook live stream or video service. I have been blessed by the number of our churches already reaching out in creative and caring ways. I have heard several stories of how churches are assisting the neighborhoods where they are located. The conference staff has put together a tool kit and resources of how to assist you in carrying out the mission of the church in these uncertain times. Click here to access this information.
Please remember that although worship services are canceled for a season, our relationship with Jesus and the Church continues each day. Be mindful, expenses of each local church continue everyday as well. Please look for a way to give electronically or simply mail in your tithes and financial offerings. Click here for information about electronic giving methods. Your continued faithful giving will ensure the church is ready to respond to the needs as they arise. In fact, I feel the church will be asked to do more in these days. Therefore, your faithful giving is critical. As I think about all these things, I continue to recall this scripture from Ephesians 3:14-19 NLV, When I think of all this, I fall on my knees and pray to the Father. The Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And you may have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
Thank you for being who you are. I just believe amid all we are going through that this will be one of the church’s greatest moments that we have seen in a long time. Revival!
David W. Graves
Effective Thursday, March 19, 2020, many employees of the Alabama-West Florida Conference will temporarily transition to remote work as a result of the spread of COVID-19. All staff will continue to serve local churches and conference ministries in their normal capacity.
The conference recognizes that there are some staff members who need to access the office in order to carry out their job functions. This small group of employees will work on staggered schedules and in separate parts of the building to minimize in-person interactions.
“The safety of our staff is a top priority,” stated Bishop David Graves. “We are facing unprecedented times and are all navigating this situation with care and concern. While we do not wish to succumb to fear and panic, our desire is to abide by health and safety recommendations to fight the spread of this virus. I continue to pray for our nation and other countries who have been impacted by the coronavirus.”
All staff will be monitoring email during regular office hours. A complete staff listing may be found here. To access cell numbers, please first correspond through email.
In a previously released announcement, all conference and district events/meetings are cancelled through March 31. This guideline will be reassessed on April 1. Each local church is encouraged to consult with local health officials in determining what is best for holding worship services, congregational events and office hours.
Click here to access resources related to the coronavirus.
Adapted from the information from the North Georgia Conference:Dear Clergy and Church Leaders,
As we hear about cases of COVID-19, pastors and churchgoers alike are asking very important questions about how faith communities can continue in their mission while protecting the health and safety of both church and community members. Here are a few practical considerations for your church as you consider what precautions you could take to keep people safe, reduce unproductive fear, and maybe even move the mission forward!
- CLEANLINESS AND DISINFECTION. Follow CDC guidelines for cleanliness and disinfection of people and property.
- Encourage hand washing. Many churches and church schools have used this as an opportunity to teach people of all ages good hand hygiene practices. Post signs in restrooms. Use positive and encouraging language. Remind people that this is for their own safety, and the safety of those they will encounter when they leave the restroom. Post lyrics to popular hymns, praise songs, and liturgical prayers that can be sung or spoken to measure out the recommended 20 seconds of washing time.
- Review and increase standard cleaning procedures with any facilities staff, trustees and volunteer cleaning teams. Pay special attention to the regular disinfection of interior and exterior door handles and nobs, spaces used frequently by children and/or by senior adults (including your worship center seating between services), any area where food is prepared, publicly used keyboards and kiosks, etc.
- Move from self-serve to volunteer-staffed food and hospitality stations. Yes, people love the open box of donuts. Especially the kids. But let’s consider how to improve both hospitality AND health. You can keep serving edibles, but instead of a free for all, have a gloved volunteer hand them out instead. This reduces accidental contamination. It also increases the relational contact between volunteer and attendee! And isn’t that what hospitality is supposed to do?!
- Communion. Prayerfully consider the sacraments. Ours is an open table, and we must always strive to pull down barriers that would keep people from coming to receive. If you do decide to offer communion, consider the following:
- Pastors: Incorporate the use of hand washing/sanitizer as part of the table preparation for you and for any helping serve. Do this in full view of the congregation. This helps model cleanliness and mitigate fear.
- Encourage those who would receive to use hand sanitizer beforehand as well. Make it available in each pew, or at stations prior to the communion serving stations.
- Consider alternatives to sharing a common cup. Offer the congregation individual cups of juice, prepared by someone beforehand wearing gloves and facemask, and then covered until used. Or purchase and use prepackaged communion elements, such as these. Or simply forgo the cup during this season and offer just the bread.
- If you have those in your congregation whose immune systems are compromised, allow them to receive first.
- Hug Alternatives: Tons of you have already developed some helpful and downright clever language around encouraging alternatives to hugs in church. This is useful in general because it helps people broaden the ways they interact with people who have varying levels of comfort with being touched. Let this be a season to really teach your congregation what this moment of peace-passing, greeting, and forgiving can offer! Elbow bumps, waves, the ASL sign for “thank you” and “celebration”… how else might you teach people to communicate welcome and thankfulness to God and one another?
2. COMMUNICATION. Use any and all forms of communication to keep your church and community constituents informed. This could include email, social media, spoken announcements, printed mailers, posted video, and text.
Above all, make sure your messaging is consistent: Offer transparency and sound guidance by communicating the precautions you are taking and health you are modeling. Manage and mitigate risk without indulging or promoting overreactive spirits of fear. The Bible reminds us repeatedly “do not fear.” Jesus calls to be at peace.
- Pay attention to communications for your local health officials, school districts, and government. Follow local closure recommendations and communicate to your congregation and constituency that this is your policy.
- In your communications, highlight the measures you are taking to clean and disinfect the physical property.
- Encourage your staff, volunteers, attendees, and anyone who frequents your property to practice the golden rule when it comes to health: if you do not feel well, do not come in. No one is above this rule. No one. Pastor, who is tempted to believe it can’t happen without you? Or that it’s just a slight fever and you’ll power through? Work from home. Join us online. Remind folks who they can call or email to share prayer concerns or simply have someone to talk to. Hold the church in prayer from your personal prayer closet. Don’t risk other people’s health.
- COMMUNITY IN THE DIGITAL AGE. The decision to suspend worship, even for one Sunday, is a tough one. And not just as a precaution over illness. This could be the result of inclement or dangerous weather conditions as well. It’s a hard call to make, especially if your worship, discipleship, and giving systems are primarily dependent upon in-person gatherings. This is also weighty when it comes to basic pastoral care. One of the heartbreaking realities for many of those most at risk during this time is the following statement: “I long for Sunday church. It’s the only hug I get all week.” But depending on the advice of your community, and the discernment of your leadership, this may be something you have to do. How might we retain community and connection even if we limit in-person interaction?
- Move preaching, teaching, and meeting online.
- Stream worship, preaching and teaching through social media and/or your church website. Encourage people to engage with your services this way. Have someone dedicated to monitoring the live chat to encourage further connection.
- Not ready to stream? Try videoing your sermon/teaching and posting it to social media or your church website. Include suggested discussion questions, spiritual disciplines, or personal reflection to help people respond.
- Instead of meeting for study or even committee work in person, try a conference call. Google Chat, Zoom, and Skype are just some of the *free* options out there you can try. (Zoom is free for calls under 40 minutes.)
- Amplify Media. Did you know Cokesbury and Abington Press have launched a digital streaming service of their entire study library? Check this out. You might experiment with a digital Bible study experience. Imagine: everyone streams the same Bible study video on their own time, and then comes together for a digital meet up (see suggestions on video conference calling) to discuss! Click here to learn more.
- Pastoral Care. Adapted from the Greater Northwest Area of the UMC The local church is a place where people connect — with God, with each other and in the community. People naturally turn to the church in times of a crisis seeking meaning, peace, and healing. A church that is prepared can help mitigate the emotional and spiritual impact of a disaster and may be a place of hospitality and sanctuary in times of critical need. A plan can speed the immediate response and help lessen those feelings of confusion, loneliness, and isolation that are so common after disasters.
Here are some suggestions to stay “Church Connected”:
Prepare a method of checking on the congregation of the church, i.e. developing a “telephone tree” or utilizing “prayer chains” communications. Develop an “Outreach Committee.” Update and make church directories available.
Check on shut-ins and most vulnerable church members first
Call, visit, reach out to family members to make contact with church members. Notify the local rescue squad if there is a call for concern, giving all pertinent details.
Arrange for people (volunteers) to serve as companions for vulnerable or disaster-affected people. Companions should be prepared to listen, run errands, make phone calls; anything to help church members feel more comfortable and ease the anxiety. If possible, arrange for persons with skills in signing for the hearing impaired, and translators for non-English speaking people.
- Giving. Giving to your local church means giving to your local communities. Passing the offering plate in church on Sunday mornings is a physical and symbolic reminder of Jesus’ commitment to ministering to all those around us. When church attendance is slowed or completely stopped, though, to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, offering online giving is a way to continue to feel connected to your local church and its many ministries. There are several easy steps churches can implement right now to create an online giving platform. Visit this link to read about many options available to your church:http://www.umcom.org/learn/make-giving-easy-services-credit-card-readers-and-more
4. PRACTICE YOUR FAITH.
- Pray. Pray for the health of friends and strangers alike. Pray against the spirit of fear. Pray that God would use this season to deepen your dependence upon and obedience to God, your delight in God’s presence, and your appreciation for small blessings. Pray for our church. Pray for our mission. For your kids, your neighbor’s kids, and for the village raising them. Especially if schools are closed. Pray for the vulnerable: the elderly, the infirm, those undergoing cancer treatments, and others with compromised immune systems: the food unstable, the housing unstable, those with limited access to clean drinking water, let alone hand washing supplies. Pray for those serving on the front lines of illness and disaster response including medical professionals, civil servants, caregivers, and custodial staff. And then pray again: pray for your own courageous faith in uncertain times.
- Practice faithful stewardship. In the event of closure, how you will practice faithful stewardship of your income and space? Which needs and services can be suspended? Which non-salaried staff members will be affected by closure? Which rental agreements can and should still be honored, and is payment still expected even if space is unavailable due to closure?
Thinking specifically about church preschools: Can/should teachers and hourly staff still be compensated as a matter of justice and care? Should families still be charged for closure dates, or can that tuition be excused, noting they too might be missing work? Preschool Boards and church Finance and SPRC teams should work together to discuss the practical implications of such decisions, how long they could sustain them financially, and what other revenue streams could be tapped to make this possible.
- Read Luke 12. In this passage, Jesus directly addresses finding that balance between preparedness and worry. He warns against leaning too far into worry that you begin hoarding goods out of fear. Take a look at the supplies you have collected. Then ask yourself: what does this say about the amount of control fear has over me right now? Consider, how could you conquer fear by practicing generosity? Who around you could benefit from your preparedness? Have your local schools, nursing homes, shelters, clinics, the church, etc. asked for donations of hand soaps and sanitizers? You might consider making a donation.
- Continued Outreach. Your neighbors and community members may need help, too. Continue to reach out to those in need as best you can in a safe yet compassionate way. In a time when jobs are shut down temporarily and wages are stopped, schools are not providing free meals to children, and access to food and supplies are hampered, what supplies can you provide to those in need around you?
Your Alabama-West Florida Conference Office and District Office are here to support you as you lead your local congregation faithfully through this season. Please let us know how we can help by contacting your district office. And if you’ve discovered a great solution for creatively safeguarding health while forwarding the mission, let us know that too!
The 2020 United Methodist General Conference will meet May 5 -15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.* General Conference is the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church which meets once every four years. The conference can revise church law, as well as adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. It also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs.
In the coming weeks there are several notable dates and events to consider. Those events are listed below. All information related to general conference will be posted to www.awfumc.org/gc2020.
Upcoming Dates and Events
Strength for Today: Bright Hope for Tomorrow with Tom Berlin, March 17 CANCELLED
Reconciling Ministries Regional Gatherings, March-April
General Conference 2020, May 5-15
*As of now, general conference will meet as planned. The Executive Committee of the Commission on the General Conference is monitoring developments in the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) and will collaborate with public health authorities regarding any recommended health and safety precautions that should be taken to reduce exposure or transmission of illness when the 2020 General Conference meets. Please continue to follow our Website for updates at www.awfumc.org.
All Alabama-West Florida Conference and district events are postponed as of today March 12, 2020, due to the threat of the coronavirus. We will reevaluate this guideline on April 1, 2020. At this time we are not making recommendations for local churches within this conference. We encourage churches to consult with your local authorities and school systems to decide what is best for holding worship services and congregational events.
Should you have questions about this announcement or need guidance in determining what is best for your church, please contact your district superintendent.
The conference is praying for you, your loved ones and all affected by this outbreak.