In June, a task force was established for the purpose of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and giving guidance about in person worship. The document they put forth assisted congregations in making wise decisions about proper protocols and protections. You can re-familiarize yourself with it here.
As many congregations have resumed some in-person worship and activity, it has gone reasonably well and great appreciation for being together has been expressed. After all, we are meant to be in fellowship with each other to worship our Lord and to serve our neighbors.
I am mindful that across the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences there have been ministers and laypersons who have contracted the virus. We give thanks for the recovery of many and grieve the loss of life among us that has been experienced in our churches.
As I am sure you know, the virus is spiking in areas across our future Tennessee Western Kentucky Conference. Therefore, I felt it wise to offer further guidance to assist your decision-making based on your context.
Some of our churches are making decisions about in-person worship based on data points such as the positivity rate, which is the percent of people being tested who receive a positive result.
Across Tennessee and Kentucky, we are seeing average positivity rates of over 13%. In Tennessee, 84% of our ICU beds are in use. These increases warrant consideration of suspending in-person worship for a season.
The wisdom of Dr. Scott Morris of our Church Health Center is that in-person worship should be suspended in favor of virtual worship for those communities with a positivity rate of 5% or higher.
You may find the rates for Tennessee and Kentucky from local media. You may also visit https://covidactnow.org/ where data points at the state and county level including positivity rate, transmission rate, ICU usage and more are available.
As the numbers increase in each community, more precaution is necessary. It is wise to await a 7- to 14-day trend of significant decrease in new cases before we relax safeguards.
If both clergy and lay leadership agree that it is safe to continue in person worship, it is important that each person in worship wears a mask. This is because we know that not all people who have contracted the virus show symptoms, which increases unknown spread.
All of these actions, virtual worship, mask wearing, social distancing, additional surface cleaning and frequent hand washing help to reduce the strain on our healthcare systems, and by so doing we are loving our neighbor well – in a tangible way.
I acknowledge that there are some who dismiss the threat of COVID-19, and that there are more still who are very anxious in this time. What we know to be true is this: 12 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 – almost 4% of the US population. There have been 256,000 deaths due to COVID – about .08% of the US population. On average, you have a 99.92% chance of not dying from COVID-19. You don’t need to be paralyzed in fear. However, most experts believe that these numbers can be decreased based upon the precautions we can take to reduce the spread of the virus.
Also, please take precautions during the Thanksgiving season to protect your family and friends. Our family has determined it is best not to gather in person.
As I reflect on the hardships of so many during 2020, I pray for those among us who have suffered diminished health, economic hardships, loss of employment, and loss of life of family and friends. I pray for our children, youth, and young adults who are struggling with their education as well as for those teachers and professors who are providing instruction in this environment. I pray for parents who are strained with childcare concerns and workloads. I pray for our healthcare workers as they provide care for those in their communities under stressful conditions. I pray for our pastors as they shepherd their congregations through these difficult days while in search of the green pastures and still waters that will surely come.
I pray for all of us to live with a spirit of gratitude as we approach Thanksgiving, knowing that, for many of us, Thanksgiving will look very different this year. I am grateful for the many ways you have continued to reach out in your neighborhoods to meet the needs of your friends and neighbors.
Last Sunday during worship at Collierville First, we sang “Give Thanks,” the popular chorus that calls us to give thanks with grateful hearts, thanks to the Holy One, because we have been given the Christ. In the Liturgical Calendar, our American tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving always falls near Christ the King Sunday. In some years, the first Sunday in Advent follows Thanksgiving, which always makes us feel a little disjointed. On Thursday we are celebrating a secular holiday and on Sunday we are lighting the Advent Wreath and placing the Chrismon Tree in the sanctuary. It is a bit of metaphor mixing at best.
And yet, at the core of our theology is gratitude. Indeed, all we are and all we do is in response to the gift of God’s amazing grace in Christ. Paul writes in that powerful second chapter of Ephesians: “God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things we did wrong. He did this because of the great love he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6 CEB). Christ the King, the coming of the King and giving thanks for God’s good gifts of creation all are wrapped up together in the next 10 days. In a world that has grown distant from this reality, perhaps it is not too much to pause and reflect on all we are and all we have with gratitude for the good gifts of God.
Today we will gather with family around a bountiful table. We will eat more than we need. We will laugh. We will remember those who are no longer in our midst. We will welcome new members to the family who were not among us last year. We will offer prayers of thanksgiving for all that has transpired in our lives over the last twelve months.
Sunday morning, Christ the King Sunday, I will preach at my home church. As a preacher’s kid, First United Methodist Church, New Albany, MS, is my Bethel. It is the place, more than any other, where I met God over and over as a teenager. The laity who taught Sunday School and led UMYF, my mother-in-law who led the youth choir, Rev. James T. McCafferty, my pastor (my dad was a District Superintendent during those years), all played a part in my faith formation. It will be the first time to worship there and to preach there since being consecrated as a Bishop in the Church. My parents will be present as will my mother-in-law and other family members. There will be high school classmates and young people now adults who were in the youth group I led as a young pastor. Yes, I came home to my home church in my first appointment out of seminary. Those young people, now adults with college students, make me feel older than I want to feel.
So, my heart is full this Thanksgiving and I offer gratitude for:
- Those who loved me with an unconditional love until I understood the unconditional love of Jesus Christ
- The congregations of my childhood: Belden, Bruce, West Point, Fulton, New Albany.
- The places I have been privileged to serve in ministry: Jackson: Broadmeadow, Gainesville, GA, New Albany, Lambert, Southaven: Getwell Road, Philadelphia, Madison: St. Matthew’s, Tupelo, and the Seashore District.
- The gift of being elected to the Episcopacy by the Southeastern Jurisdiction and assigned to the Nashville Area of the United Methodist Church
- Those colleagues in ministry with whom I am now serving who are teaching me every day the bountiful goodness and grace of God and the blessings of 200 years of Methodism in Tennessee.
I leave you with this: Abraham Lincoln’s declaration – written during the trials and tribulations of the Civil War, actually, by Secretary of State William Seward:
The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
So, I give thanks with a grateful heart for all the gifts God has given, but especially, this day, for the place and the people with whom God has given me to serve.
I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:3-6 CEB
With Gratitude for your partnership in the Gospel,