COVID-19: A Rapidly Changing Landscape

The last several weeks have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases in many communities in Arkansas. During the last two days, the number of reported and active cases, hospitalizations and deaths have dramatically increased. This new and dangerous landscape is the result of the Delta variant present in our communities, vaccines possibly being less effective and the fact that the number of people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 has plateaued at an alarmingly low rate.

I have worked closely with the Bishop’s COVID-19 Task Force to develop the latest guidance as your Boards of Trustees use the ARUMC dashboard, CDC guidelines and information about the vaccination rate in your congregation to make decisions about how best to keep those in your church safe. While none of us like having to remain vigilant after having such high hopes about the vaccine allowing life to return to normal, we must deal with reality the way it is and not the way we wish it were.

1. Utilize the ARUMC COVID-19 dashboard.

  • Check the county-focused dashboard that now contains vaccine data and may be found here: https://arumc.org/covid19/dashboard/
  • Be aware that the benchmarks do not account for the vaccine data, nor do they distinguish between non-vaccinated cases or vaccinated cases.
  • Consider collecting self-reported vaccine data from individuals in your ministry setting without asking any questions other than “Have you been vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus?” This may help you better understand how many of the people attending events at your church are vaccinated.

2. Continue to follow the safety guidelines set forth by the CDC.

  • Access the CDC links on the ARUMC website that are updated weekly and may be found here: https://arumc.org/covid19/
  • Strongly recommend, or perhaps even mandate, that those not vaccinated wear masks and socially distance by at least 6 feet.
  • Move events outside if members of your congregation test COVID positive.

3. Act to keep our children safe. Since they cannot receive a vaccine yet, children under age 12 should be considered high-risk for contracting COVID-19.

  • Create a ‘cocoon of safety’ by asking everyone – vaccinated and unvaccinated – to wear masks at church.
  • Encourage all individuals in your community who qualify to get fully vaccinated since this provides the best way to keep our children safe.
  • Follow the safety guidelines for children’s ministries may be found here: https://arumc.org/covid19/safe-church-reopening-guidance/ministries-with-children/

4. Think ahead.

  • Prepare for flu season by continuing to sanitize hard surfaces, offering hand sanitizing stations, limiting shared surfaces, and offering only pre-packaged foods.
  • Help people understand that there is a possibility for vaccinated individuals to require a booster dose of their vaccine later this year.

We do not wish to alarm you, but we believe that churches need to take the lead in keeping people in our congregations and communities safe. Just yesterday, an Arkansas United Methodist Church learned that 4 fully vaccinated members wearing masks who attended worship last Sunday have been diagnosed with COVID.

We are grateful for how Arkansas United Methodists have led the way in responsibly addressing the COVID crisis the past 18 months. It is time for us once again to step forward and make a positive difference in our congregations, communities and state as we proactively address the rapidly changing COVID landscape by getting vaccinated, socially distancing and wearing masks. We join you as you pray for each other and care for each other.

This statement has been compiled and shared by Bishop Gary Mueller
and the Bishop’s COVID-19 Task Force

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact Amy Ezell at amy.ezell@arumc.org.

 

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Bishop Mueller Updates COVID-19 Guidelines, Announces New FAQ Tab on Website

LITTLE ROCK, ARK. (March 19, 2021) – Since March 2020, when the first reported case of COVID-19 appeared in Arkansas, Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church has worked with health care professionals, conference leaders and staff to provide clear and concise guidelines for safe gatherings for Arkansas United Methodist Churches. 

The ARUMC “Stages” worked well for our local churches and were very helpful to their Boards of Trustees as they navigated safely during the pandemic. However, because of new data that has recently been released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the coronavirus and vaccines, as well as the increasing number of vaccines administered and declining COVID cases and deaths, Bishop Mueller is updating guidelines. 

“Our pastors and laity have demonstrated outstanding leadership in ‘doing no harm’ and keeping people safe. I am removing the “Stages” guidelines that were applicable to the entire conference in order to better allow local churches to determine, based upon their individual contexts, what is best for the safety of their congregations.” Bishop Mueller stated.

“I will continue to insist that persons attending in-person church events wear masks, safely distance, and keep hands and surfaces clean, even if Governor Hutchinson lifts the statewide mask mandate,” shared Mueller. “Although more people are receiving vaccines, we still do not fully understand the consequences of ignoring these basic precautions or the possible impact of variants of the virus. When Arkansas has reached herd immunity as defined by the CDC, we will take appropriate actions. Likewise, if the situation worsens again, we will respond as needed.”

The webpage for the ARUMC COVID-19 Guidance has been updated to reflect the most recent guidelines and recommendations, as it will continue to be on a regular basis.  A “Frequently Asked Questions” tab has been added for convenience.

If you have any questions regarding the guidelines, please contact Amy Ezell, Center for Communication.

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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

How To Worship During A PandemicArkansas Churches Share Their Reopening Strategies During COVID

How To Worship During A Pandemic
Arkansas Churches Share Their Reopening Strategies During COVID

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

When the first confirmed case of COVID-19 appeared in Arkansas on March 11, 2020, churches across the Arkansas Conference, and Arkansans in general, wondered how this would change the way we worshipped for the next few weeks. Many of us never dreamed that this pandemic would last for the majority of 2020 and that the way we were having to worship in March would be the new normal for Methodist Churches for the foreseeable future.

Bishop Gary Mueller and the Arkansas Conference Cabinet issued guidelines soon after statewide guidance was issued by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and in the past 7 months, the Conference has consistently put out updated guidelines to ensure our churches are able to reopen safely and effectively.

In our current Stage 2.5 guidelines, churches are allowed to hold in-person worship services with a limited number of people, based on the size of their sanctuaries. Additionally, sanitization, masks, and distancing guidelines are still in effect.

And although many churches have decided to resume in-person worship, others have moved more slowly to reopen again. For some, totally virtual worship services have become the norm, and continue to be an effective way to worship together. Still others find virtual worship to be difficult to manage, or they are in more rural areas of the state where internet access is unavailable or shoddy at best.

First UMC Mountain Home

The sanctuary during traditional worship at First UMC Mountain Home.

“We were already streaming before this all hit, so when we closed, the staff only led one blended service every Sunday, which we streamed. We had previously been doing one contemporary service and one traditional service,” said Laura Law, Director of Communications for First UMC Mountain Home.

For First Mountain Home, the transition was easy, and they were able to adapt and expand on their already existing online service.

Law said they pushed even more for online giving and added a drop box outside the church for anyone who wanted to write a check or donate cash.

Eventually, Law said they opened up a contemporary parking lot worship service where worshippers could tune into a radio transmission and listen in their cars.

But after careful consideration, the church decided to resume in-person worship services on June 28. Law said having two worship spaces at the church, their main sanctuary and a contemporary worship center, allowed for them to have two worship opportunities on Sunday morning without having to clean the spaces between services.

“We started back both services at a limited capacity and with social distancing restrictions and brought back a limited team to join our staff in leading worship,” Law said. “We also asked folks to register for in-person worship online, for contact tracing and to control numbers.”

St. James Sanctuary

The sanctuary at St. James UMC Little Rock during traditional worship.

production st. james

The production team at St. James UMC Little Rock oversees audio, lighting, and live streaming during St. James’ traditional worship service.

St. James UMC in Little Rock, one of the largest churches in the Arkansas Conference, was also prepared to transition to online services when COVID hit, but only recently opened up their worship spaces to in-person worship on Sept. 20.

“A lot of things led to that decision,” said the Rev. Claire Caldwell, associate pastor at St. James.

Caldwell said they first started a Relaunch Task Force made up of lay members, staff, and clergy at St. James. The task force came to the agreement that they wanted to resume in-person worship, but only if all of the guidelines from the CDC, Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Governor, and ARUMC COVID Stages were considered.

St. James now has two services, one traditional at 9 a.m. and one contemporary at 11:15, with both services limited to 50 or fewer people. Caldwell said they require people to sign up for one of the services online in order to limit the number of people inside, and they also strictly stick to safety precautions issued by health experts.

“Everyone that attends services must wear a mask, is screened at the door, is seated by an usher so that social distancing can be maintained, and we ask people to park using every other space in the parking lot. We are exiting the worship spaces row by row, and not congregating in the hallway or outside,” Caldwell explained.

In the Southwest District, the Rev. David Moore — senior pastor of Asbury UMC in Magnolia and McNeil UMC — started live streaming the Asbury worship service on the church’s Facebook Page when the pandemic hit. Moore said the McNeil congregation, which is much smaller and more rural than Asbury, tuned into the live streaming service as well.

“Within a couple of weeks, we moved outside to the big parking lot and offered a parking lot worship service while still streaming the service. Our attendance was great using both methods,” Moore said.

Asbury then transitioned to in-person services on July 5, with a 35-minute service and a maximum of 45 people, but continued to offer live streaming and the parking lot option for those who were cautious to worship inside the church.

Moore said that the Center for Communication and Methodist Foundation for Arkansas grant helped them to purchase a better camera for their live streaming, and they were also able to purchase a small band FM transmitter so people in the parking lot could hear the worship service.

According to Caldwell and Moore, the response has been generally positive, but they still have many people who are anxious to resume in-person activities and worship in a larger capacity.

asbury magnolia

Asbury UMC in Magnolia holds a parking lot service for their members to safely worship together.

“Some people were ready to be back in worship, others are not yet ready. A few of our services have been at a capacity of 50, but not every service. So we will continue to offer in-person and online services,” Caldwell said.

Law said that First Mountain Home’s congregation has been very supportive and thankful for the church’s careful reopening strategy. Before reopening, The Reopening Task Force sent out a survey to gauge people’s thoughts on which strategy they felt worked best for their church.

“That was very much appreciated,” she said.

Regardless of which strategy a church chooses for reopening, many will notice that not everyone will feel comfortable returning to in-person worship just yet. But maintaining a clean and sanitary environment for those who do decide to come back is a key component of keeping everyone safe in the long term.

“It is impossible to predict how long this pandemic will last, if the virus will change, or if infection rates will continue to rise. Our goal is to provide a safe, healthy environment for all using reasonable measures and with the best interests of the church as a whole in mind,” Caldwell said.

If you’re curious about the current safety guidelines issued by the Bishop and Cabinet, visit https://arumc.org/covid19/safe-church-reopening-guidance/. This page is continually updated to reflect the most recent recommendations issued by the state of Arkansas and the CDC.

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