by Erik Alsgaard
Churches throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference will continue to operate under restrictions that mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through May 15, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling announced in a State of the Church webinar today.
The bishop said that she is following guidance from health officials and local governments in making the decision. Previously, the bishop had requested that churches refrain from gathering on-site for worship through April 26.
Her announcement came during a “State of the Church” webinar in which BWC leaders offered new information and updates to the conference’s on-going response to the coronavirus pandemic. More than 850 people viewed the webinar, which is available online.
Bishop Easterling said that thanks to the resilient efforts of churches throughout the conference, “we have saved lives. Thank you for being good neighbors to one another.”
The bishop named the hard reality of the current situation.
“Let us not be afraid to name our truth right now,” she said. “We are exhausted, some of us are struggling with sleep, fighting weight gain, and we are living in a time of uncontainable sorrow, immeasurable grief, and being held together only by the unleashed glory of God. It’s alright to say that we’re not alright. But we know who holds our hand.”
The bishop said that the BWC’s core mission remains unchanged.
“As the people of God, this is not the time for the church to merely survive, this is our time to thrive,” the bishop said. “We must be meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among us and be preparing for our very different future together.”
The bishop also spoke to the inequity of how COVID-19 appears to be disproportionately affecting the poor and people of color; those whom the bishop said were already living paycheck to paycheck and are now living paycheck to ‘I’m not sure how I’m going to make it.'
“We as the church need to meet their needs and speak to the systems in our society,” she said, “speak to the way our systems in our society continue to maintain the lack of access, unequal medical care, food deserts, and things that continue to create the haves and the have-nots. We have to find new ways of addressing these ills in our society. We cannot canoe these mountains.”
Christie Latona, director of Connectional Ministries, highlighted several ways churches and individuals are creatively meeting needs during the pandemic. From pop-up food pantries to online Bible studies; from making masks to providing flowers at a hospital, United Methodists throughout the conference are in ministry, she said.
“Pastors and churches of the Baltimore-Washington Conference have been reaching out in mission and ministry with their communities in relevant and innovative ways,” Latona said. “The urge to connect and help in this time of pandemic has called forth the very best in our people.”
To assist local churches with some of the work, Latona said, a micro-grant program has been established, offering up to $500 for assistance with feeding and clothing programs, and caring for people in crisis. So far, 28 churches have received approval, totaling $14,000.
Sixty-four applications for the micro-grant were received in the first five days and, to continue funding new grants, more donations are needed. New donations will be doubled, Latona said, using mission share money from the conference. Money for the initial grants came from Peace with Justice funds previously given by United Methodists in the BWC.
Delores Martin, BWC’s lay leader, stressed that laity, now more than ever, need to be praying for their pastors and checking in with them, asking, “how can I help?”
“Now is the time for laity to partner with clergy,” she said. “Stand up and say, ‘Here I am’.”
Martin encouraged laity to do their part for the church’s ministry and for clergy to put them to work.
“As the pastors live into the mission of empowering leaders to be the hands and feet of Jesus,” she said, “we, as (Certified Lay Ministers), Lay Leaders, and, quote, ‘even pew warmers,’ must be ready and willing to assist.”
Paul Eichelberger, BWC treasurer, and Phil Potter, chair of the conference’s Council on Finance and Administration (CFA), updated participants on the current financial picture, plans already put in place, and future possibilities. See story here.
Last month, CFA approved a $1.1 million, or 8% reduction, in the 2020 budget, effective immediately. CFA also approved a reallocation of $615,000, or 4.4%, in the 2020 budget to local church relief. Learn more.
The Conference Board of Pensions already has put in place one key program to assist local churches. For the months of April, May, and June, the board will pay for local church’s benefit payments for its clergy and other staff. That alone saves the BWC churches $2.6 million, according to the Rev. Carey James, chair of the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits.
The board has also given out more than $312,000 in grants to small membership churches who do not pay benefits to their pastor. That assistance has already been paid.
At the end of the webinar, Bishop Easterling was asked to close the meeting with prayer.
“I want to close with a prayer that is often said in a different context,” she said, “but one that I believe speaks to use richly and deeply right now. It is not unfamiliar. ‘God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; courage to change the things that we can; and the wisdom to know the difference.’
“God is with us as we walk through this wilderness,” she said. “We’ve been in deep study (as a conference), asking the question, ‘Who Are We?’ and I think as we are living into these days, we’re finding out who we are. We are a resilient conference, we are a bold conference, we are a brave conference, and we are a conference filled with overwhelming love.”