Dear Friends and Colleagues in Baltimore Presbytery—
And warmest greetings especially to our faithful pastors and elders serving on Sessions! We are so grateful for the work you do, day and day out, year in and year out, in service to the Church. But particularly in a challenging time such as this, we give thanks for your ministry.
And one of the greatest challenges of these days is the rapidly changing situation in which we are living. Since the Presbytery’s last “official” statement, Governor Hogan has issued new regulations closing schools and limiting the size of other public gatherings, including religious services. But although these guidelines (gatherings of more than 250) may legally apply only to a few of our larger congregations, many if not most of our other churches will have many members and worshipers whose age or health puts them at high risk of contracting Covid19 in community gatherings.
The Book of Order is clear: it is the responsibility of Session to set the time and place of worship services. Up to this point, we have urged Pastors and Sessions to use your own best judgment in any decision to cancel worship or other meetings. That advice still holds. However, the new regulations remind us of the serious nature of the illness with which we are dealing, the rapid pace with which it is spreading, and the vulnerability of all of us.
Therefore we want to urge you now to take a long look at the implications of opening your doors on Sunday morning to 30, 50, 100 or more people, many of whom fall in the category of the most vulnerable in our community. You should feel free to make the decision to close for two to four weeks or more, depending on the progress of the epidemic. Presbyterian theology holds that we need to be good citizens and neighbors our communities, to cooperate with the authorities, and to exercise appropriate caution in times of national danger. To close the doors to public worship for a few weeks might be our most faithful response.
At the same time, we urge you to think also of the implications of closing: for some, church is their main social contact. Each person who shows up for worship comes with a set of needs, hopes, burdens, and challenges, and we may need to find other ways to meet those needs. Some creative ideas mentioned recently include streaming worship, pastoral care by phone, small groups meeting by Zoom or Skype.
One practical concern: Most small and mid-size congregations depend on the weekly offering; many worry about what will happen if we are not able to “pass the plate” on Sunday morning. So in your communications with your people we urge you to be bold in reminding your folks to send in their offerings, or to contribute online, if you offer that option. The faithful people you serve so faithfully will understand.
Please know that you all are in our prayers: you who are pastors and elders and leaders in your congregations, as well as the people you lead. We hope this message may be useful in your ministry.
Jacqueline Taylor, General Presbyter
Jack Carlson, Stated Clerk
Mary Gaut, Deputy Stated Clerk