Advent has come into our churches and homes. Bishop David Bard shares a pastoral letter with The Michigan Conference as the state goes through the fourth surge of COVID-19.
Dear Friends in Christ in The United Methodist Churches of Michigan,
As we begin this Holy Season of Advent, I greet you in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit.
The Gospels share the story of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, protecting them from unseen danger. During Advent, we are also called to watch over each other. And so, I continue to urge you to promote public health, further the common good, care for the well-being of others, do no harm, do good, and love your neighbor, all in the name and spirit of Jesus.
On Monday, the number of hospitalized adults in Michigan with confirmed COVID-19 cases reached a new record high, near 4,200. This exceeds Michigan’s previous record set seven months ago. The federal government has deployed military medical staffers to help Michigan hospitals overrun by this fourth surge. With the emergence of new variants, we need to do all possible to protect those around us.
if you are eligible to receive a vaccine or booster, please do so. It is the single most important thing you can do to care for yourself and others. Those not vaccinated remain the most likely to be hospitalized and suffer severe illness or death because of COVID. They are also capable of spreading the disease for longer periods of time. Get vaccinated. Encourage your fellow church members to get vaccinated.
To our pastors, I particularly encourage you in the strongest possible terms to get vaccinated. Even if you have had COVID, health officials still encourage vaccinations to maximize your immune response and prevent a new infection. The very word “pastor” means shepherd. As a pastor, you lead your people in the love of our neighbors. As a pastor, you are vulnerable as you stay connected with the people with whom you are in ministry. As a pastor, you have the unique risk of being able to spread the disease widely if you are sick.
Given record numbers of COVID cases across the state, it still makes sense that our churches strongly encourage masking by everyone when meeting in person and indoors. Vaccinations, when combined with indoor masking, are proven to slow the spread of the coronavirus and keep the virus from developing into new variants. Together, masking and vaccinations will help us stem the rising tide of the coronavirus.
Some of you have asked if gathering in person is still advised. Each congregation should assess their local COVID infection and hospitalization numbers, vaccine rates, adhering to mask-wearing indoors, and other risk factors to determine if holding in-person worship is still advisable. Certainly, there are those who will be at greater risk for infection that will appreciate being able to safely attend Advent and Christmas services online.
Finally, let me also say a word about The United Methodist tradition and religious exemptions for vaccinations. The United Methodist tradition of the Christian faith does not provide much support for a religious exemption for vaccinations. John Wesley promoted the best cures and preventative measures of his day in his work “Primitive Physick.” Founding hospitals was a significant part of our history as Methodists. Our Social Principles assert that “health care is a basic human right.” I have consistently encouraged Michigan United Methodists to get vaccinated. It would be extraordinarily difficult to use our United Methodist tradition to substantiate a religious exemption claim for a COVID vaccination.
Friends, I continue to believe that by God’s grace, we can muster the resilience, the kindness, and the determination to do what needs to be done to get past this pandemic. As followers of Jesus, we can lead in promoting public health, furthering the common good, and caring for the well-being of others. When we act out of love for neighbor and care for our community, we offer a powerful witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
David Alan Bard
Michigan Area Bishop