Updated COVID-19 Guidelines from Bishop Mueller

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

A Thanksgiving Pivot

A Thanksgiving Pivot

give thanks

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

2020 has been such a train wreck that any words I write will fail to communicate what it’s been like. The COVID-19 pandemic has infected millions, killed hundreds of thousands, and is surging. Life has been turned upside down, the economy is in freefall, and families are having to make gut-wrenching choices. Black citizens have been killed by police, political polarization continues to create a greater divide, and Congress is mired in posturing instead of working for the good of the nation. And if this weren’t enough, all of this doesn’t even begin to address your own very personal challenges and tragedies.

It’s going to be hard to be thankful this Thanksgiving. I don’t like admitting this, but it’s the truth. And it’s why I think 2020 is the perfect time to make a Thanksgiving pivot that changes the basis of your thanks from being contingent on how things are going to joyfully giving thanks because it grows out of your relationship with God who has gone all-in on the world’s behalf.

You can absolutely count on God. And God’s grace. And God’s passionate love. And God’s healing. And God’s second chances. And God’s ability to change hearts. And God’s longing to make God’s Will just as real on earth as it already is in heaven. And God’s gift of Jesus that means nothing that happens in life or in death will ever separate you from God’s love in him. And God’s hope.

Of course, struggles, grief, heartache, tragedies, injustice and pain will continue to take a devastating toll even after you have made a Thanksgiving pivot. There’s just no getting away from this. But something will also fundamentally change. Life’s most horrible junk will no longer have the final word. In fact, it doesn’t even have a prayer.

The Apostle Paul states this so clearly in the Seventh Chapter of 2 Corinthians as he explains the options you have as you deal with the distress that is a part of life,

10 Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets. (“The Message”)

You are going to have a hard time giving thanks this Thanksgiving if you let struggles, grief, heartache, tragedies, injustice and pain have the final word. However, you will be overflowing with thanks if you embrace the fact that God’s love always has the final word. So go ahead, make the Thanksgiving pivot.

Statement on Voting from Bishop Gary Mueller

Statement on Voting from Bishop Gary Mueller

October 9, 2020

I turned 18 in November 1971 while living in Pittsburg, Kansas. I immediately did two things. I registered for the draft, which was mandatory. I also registered to vote, which was not. By the spring of 1972, I was voting for the first time and also serving as a poll worker for the primary election.

I share this to illustrate my deep level of commitment to our American democracy and the right and responsibility of all people to participate in the election of our leaders. But this wonderful gift can only work if it works for all of us, whether we are Republicans, Democrats, Independents or members of some other political party. 

First, it is the duty of our government to make it as easy as possible for every citizen – regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or creed – to vote, and to ensure that no individual or representative of government attempts to deny anyone this right. I want to state in the strongest possible terms that this is especially important in light of the fact that too many times this fundamental American right has not been available to Black citizens.

Second, you should exercise your right to vote because it is a gift and a privilege. Study the issues, get to know the candidates and let your vote be an expression of your faith commitment. 

Paragraph 164 of The 2016 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church address both of these aspects of voting:  

¶164 A) Basic Freedoms and Human Rights – The form and the leaders of all governments should be determined by exercise of the right to vote guaranteed to all adult citizens.  

¶164 B) Political Responsibility: The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens. The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust.

While I assume you have all the information you need to exercise your right to vote, I want to share with you basic election information for Arkansas. 

Polling places:
https://www.voterview.ar-nova.org/VoterView

Arkansas voting rules:
https://www.sos.arkansas.gov/elections/voter-information/voter-registration-information/voting-in-arkansas

Elections always seem to become highly charged, but this year’s threatens to become more so because our nation is so divided. This is why I think there is great wisdom in what John Wesley wrote in his journal on October 6, 1774 about his ‘rules’ for voting:

I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,

  • To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worth.
  • To speak no evil of the person they voted against.
  • To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.

Please join me in praying for our nation as we vote between now and November 3.  

Grace and peace,

 

 

 

Gary E. Mueller
Bishop

Not An Easy Path – But the Right One

Not An Easy Path – But the Right One

path

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who is a bishop in the United Methodist Church. I am also an American citizen who loves my country. Both of these are realities in my life. How do I appropriately embrace both in a time of deep polarization and division in our nation, especially during a contentious election season?

This is a haunting question. It’s also a challenging one. Yet as I have prayed and reflected at length about this, I have come to the realization there are things I am compelled to do that simply are non-negotiable.

I will put everything in the larger perspective of my faith, and so will continue to proclaim that regardless of what happens God is still God, Jesus is still Lord and the Holy Spirit is still at work.

I will talk about how the Kingdom of God – which will fully come and yet is also here right now – is my ultimate home.

I will live in the reality of our world as it is, and not the way I would like it to be; and therefore speak out against the sin of racism, in support of our precious gift of democracy by voting and call all of us to love our neighbors in all we do, especially those who are most vulnerable.

I will demonstrate through my own attitude and behavior a basic respect for every human being as someone who is created in the image of God – even if my initial impulse is to rail against them because of the way they are behaving.

And most importantly, I will pray seeking to understand God’s will and where the Holy Spirit wants to lead me.

I’ll be honest, this is not an easy path to walk because it would be so much simpler to just retreat from the nastiness of the political process into my faith or jump into the political process as if it were the answer to all of our problems. But I cannot do that. Indeed, God will not allow me to do that. So I will do the only thing I can do – continue to walk this path as Jesus’ disciple with as much humility, discernment, trust in the Lord and integrity as I can.

Of course, I will stumble more than I would like, make too many mistakes and wish I had some do-overs – but it’s still the right path. And as I keep walking, I will do so with the confidence that comes from knowing nothing that will ever happen can possibly separate me from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

ARUMC Stage 2.5 GuidanceUpdated Guidance from Bishop Mueller

ARUMC Stage 2.5 Guidance
Updated Guidance from Bishop Mueller

September 13, 2020

Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

I continue to be grateful for the outstanding and responsible leadership you have given your congregation and community since early March. The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched and stressed you, unleashed your creativity and exhausted you, and been difficult and demonstrated that being the Body of Christ matters more than having Church. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I am writing to offer you my latest guidance concerning indoor in-person gatherings.

As you know, ARUMC Stage 2 has allowed for a maximum of 50 people utilizing the “36 sq. ft. bubble”. I now believe it is appropriate to implement ARUMC Stage 2.5. This keeps all previous guidance in place, including mandatory “36 sq. ft. bubbles,” masks, and sanitation. However, there will no longer be a maximum number of people allowed to gather. Rather, the size of the room will now determine the number of people that can attend indoor in-person gatherings.

  • Calculating the number of “bubbles” in rooms. Calculate the number of “bubbles” you can fit in a room by taking the square footage of a room and dividing it by 36, which provides for 6 ft by 6 ft physical distancing. This is the maximum number of people who can attend in-person events in this room.

  • Calculating the number of “bubbles” in sanctuaries and worship centers. This involves two separate calculations. First, calculate the number of 36 sq. ft. “bubbles” that can be fit in the area where worship leaders are located. This is the maximum number of pastors, liturgists, musicians, and worship leaders who can fit in the chancel or on the stage. Second, calculate the number of “36 sq. ft. bubbles” that can be fit into the sanctuary or worship center seating area. This is the maximum number of worshippers who can attend worship at any one time.
  • Adjusting your calculations for family units of two or more. You will have to make two adjustments because of families that want to sit together. The first is to create a bigger “bubble” to accommodate more people. The second is to make sure you have six feet in every direction between “bubbles.” You may want to create bigger “bubbles” as you plan for in-person events. This adjustment may result in fewer “bubbles” in the room, but allow more people to attend.

I continue to pray for you. Let me know what the Conference Staff, District Mission Strategists and I can do to support you as you make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.

Grace and peace,

Gary E. Mueller
Bishop