‘Not yet time to put aside concerns’ about Covid-19, Holmerud says

A white man with gray hair and glasses, wearing a long white robe and a green stole, with his arms outstretched.

Bishop Mark W. Holmerud, leader of the ELCA’s Sierra Pacific Synod, urges regional congregations to continue worshiping online until the end of July.

Worship guidelines issued by the state of California on May 25 prompted Bishop Mark W. Holmerud, of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to send this letter to congregation members on May 27. In it, he urges congregations to continue to worship online until the end of July, as the COVID-19 situation develops. He also encourages faithful people to continue their worship practices at home and in small groups, using masks and social distancing.

The Sierra Pacific Synod covers northern and central California and northern Nevada.

State worship guidelines to be re-evaluated June 15

A few days ago, Bishop Guy Erwin of the Southwest California Synod, Bishop Andy Taylor of the Pacifica Synod and I wrote a joint letter advising against re-opening our churches last weekend, in spite of the President’s declaration that this should happen. We felt some urgency in responding to what we believed was an ill-advised statement, given all the medical evidence that the COVID-19 virus is still spreading. This week, the death toll across our country reached 100,000 people lost to this disease. To date, 100,000 people in California and nearly 8,000 people in Nevada have been infected with coronavirus, with nearly 15,000 new cases reported in California this past week alone. Such statistics testify that this is not the time to re-open. 

On Monday of this week, Gov. Newsom offered guidance for houses of worship in response to the stated hopes of many that we “get back to normal,” including returning to in-person worship. While I wish the governor had waited to issue such advice, I am relieved that this guidance does not remove all restrictions from gathering for worship. In fact, it offers a number of directives and admonitions regarding procedures that must be followed for in-person worship to resume. This guidance is in place only temporarily, and will be re-evaluated by June 15.

As I read this document, I would sum up its guidance to houses of worship in one, simple phrase: “Just because you can gather for worship, doesn’t mean you should.” I agree with this sentiment – it is not yet time to put aside our concerns for the well-being of the most vulnerable in our communities – Seniors, Black and Latinx Persons, and people who live in poverty. Each of these communities has been dis-proportionately affected by the spread of COVID-19.

Re-opening houses of worship poses ‘great risks’

This document speaks directly to the great risks we take if we return to in-person worship too soon:

“This guidance does not obligate places of worship to resume in-person activity. Further, it is strongly recommended that places of worship continue to facilitate remote services and other related activities for those who are vulnerable to COVID19 including older adults and those with co-morbidities.

“Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”

Please, read this latest guidance from the state of California and discuss it among the leadership of your congregation. Gov. Sisolak of Nevada has issued a similar statement of guidance (see pages 9 and 10 of the document). Also, consult with County Health Officials in your area and medical professionals in your congregation.

You should know that, following Gov. Newsom’s announcement, the city and county of San Francisco issued an order that its limitations of public gatherings to no more than 10 people is still in effect, despite the permission given in the governor’s guidance for larger gatherings. I believe that in all cases where there is a conflict between the directives of federal, state and local officials, the strictest guidance for protecting people from the further spread of COVID-19 should be followed. I encourage all of our congregations to consider refraining from gathering for in-person worship until the end of July, and to continue what has proven to be a very effective tool for evangelism – online worship.

Online worship a ‘tool for evangelism’ – worship guidelines

Please remember, worship is not the only reason we come together as congregations. We have encouraged our members and our friends to connect for Bible Study, service opportunities, prayer, and kindredship. In conversations our synod staff members have had with a number of people from around our synod, we hear stories of people gathering in social distance for silent prayer, Bible studies and meetings to discuss hopes for ministry now and on the other side of this pandemic.

Such conversations have helped form an idea we wish to share for further discussion: before we move into trying to navigate all of the restrictions that are currently in place for in-person worship, perhaps our best time and energies could be spent gathering in groups of ten people or less, wearing our masks and sitting at least six feet apart, for Bible Study, services of contemplative prayer, and providing food for people in our communities who are in need. Imagine what might come out of such times of study, prayer and service that would inform how we will worship when we are able to safely gather again!

We are witnesses of hope

I don’t know about you, but I am weary of sheltering in place. I miss hugging our grandchildren (OK, and our kids, too). I miss gathering around the Table of Our Lord for Communion. I miss being “on the road” to visit the congregations and ministries of our synod. I miss having the chance to connect with you in another way besides Zoom.

And yet, I am hopeful. Hopeful when Debbi and I are helping our grandchildren online with their stay-at-home school work. Hopeful that the infection and death rates for COVID-19 will begin to decline and that our choices will have contributed to that. Hopeful that we as followers of Jesus will act with concern for the well-being of all. Hopeful because of the worship on Sunday mornings I have experienced when I have “dropped by” our congregations online. Hopeful because I have seen Christ’s presence in the care and concern that is being offered by our congregations and ministries to the many who are in need.

Thank you for your witness of hope. Thank you for your patience and wisdom in discerning what this time may be offering us in our journey of faith. Take care.

Bishop Mark W. Holmerud

More about the Sierra Pacific Synod

Peace Lutheran Church during this pandemic – worship guidelines