November 13, 2020

Greetings in the Name of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ!

I am writing today with a heavy heart. This morning, Mary Hughes, wife of Berryville pastor Andy Hughes, died as a result of being infected with COVID-19. Her death makes very personal the reality we are facing: the pandemic is surging out of control. Governor Hutchinson just announced that there have been 2,312 new cases since yesterday and hospitalizations are now at a record high.

Sadly, though, things are not getting better. In fact, they are getting worse. Far worse. And they will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future – especially as we move into the holiday season. Governor Asa Hutchinson shared earlier this week that, “The numbers aren’t good. The trend is not good… and we are in for a very challenging time.”

In spite of this reality, there are still individual Christians and congregations focusing more on what they consider to be their religious rights than on the public health crisis. In fact, they refuse to wear masks and gather unsafely as forms of protest. I want to be abundantly clear. We are not in a battle to protect religious freedom. Rather, we find ourselves in a dangerous moment and, as people of faith, are called to demonstrate that we are more concerned than anything else with loving our neighbors like Jesus instructs us to do by acting in ways that keep people safe.

The updated guidelines for churches issued by Gov. Hutchinson earlier this week are virtually the same as the ARUMC Stage 2.5 guidelines that we have had in place for several months. Here are the key components of ARUMC Stage 2.5, along with recent updates to the guidelines.

  1. Masks must be worn for all indoor and outdoor church activities. 36 square foot bubbles for each family unit must be used for any indoor or outdoor in-person gathering. Plans must be in place for the safe entrance and exit of all activities. Hand sanitizers must be available and adequate sanitation utilized between events.
  2. The Board of Trustees of each congregation must approve all plans related to addressing COVID-19. Congregations must keep their District Superintendent apprised of their plans and of any instances of COVID-19.
  3. Lists of participants for each event must be kept so that contact tracing can be undertaken if needed.
  4. Churches should be aware that their local situations may include a higher positivity rate and develop closing policies based on:
    • the number of active cases and hospitalizations in their county
    • actions of their local school districts – if schools go virtual, worship should go virtual as well
    • probable exposure and contact tracing guidelines from the ADH and CDC
  5. Singing should only be done with masks in place. Choirs should not participate in worship for the foreseeable future. Special music should be offered by individuals.
  6. No candles should be blown out at any Christmas services, even if done outdoors. Battery operated candles are an acceptable alternative.
  7. In-person events (including nursery, children and youth) should last no more than 60 minutes if held outdoors and 45 minutes if held indoors.
  8. Overnight trips for youth, college students and young adults are not recommended through at least April 30, 2021.
  9. Arkansas Department of Health directives must continue to be followed for all weekday programs, nursery and childcare.
  10. Recently updated resources:
    A map indicating the number of active cases per 1,000 population for each county: https://public.tableau.com/profile/arkansascenterforhealthimprovement#!/vizhome/CityTable/Community
    ADH guidance:
    https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/covid-19-guidance-for-faith-based-organizations https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/images/uploads/pdf/Holiday_GuidanceFINAL11.10.20.pdf
    CDC guidance:
    https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/faith-based.html
    https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community/COVID19-events-gatherings-readiness-and-planning-tool.pdf
    ARUMC guidance: https://arumc.org/covid19

I don’t have to tell you that your congregations need to continue to lead with consistency, compassion and strength for the foreseeable future – because you already know it. While it will be a challenge, I know that Arkansas United Methodist lay leaders and clergy can do it. In fact, I will be praying for you every day. More importantly, the Holy Spirit will help you do what you need to do, when you need to do it, in just the way you need to do it.

Finally, I want to make sure you understand that I know how hard these past eight months have been. Some of you have been ridiculed – even attacked – for your caution and leadership. No wonder you have a deep weariness, and are just ready for life to return to normal. I am grateful for all the ways the laity and clergy of the United Methodist Church in Arkansas have led the way in showing Jesus’ love by putting the safety and well-being of people first.

Grace and peace,

Gary E. Mueller
Bishop