Update – Presbyterian Ministers’ Response to COVID-19 – 21 March 2020

Our response as ministers to Covid19

I’m am writing this of my own initiative and conviction. Not from a position at Presbytery or GA, but simply as your colleague. I write with humility but also a sense of urgency. I want to offer some thoughts and ideas, simply because I think it is really important that we consider the issues clearly. I don’t wish to insinuate or pretend that I know more than others. I’m just sharing my thoughts in the simple hope that it will be helpful and no offence is intended at all. You may not agree with me – and I don’t expect that.

The Moderator and General Secretary of General Assembly circulated very helpful responses at the beginning of this week. Their guidance has been very helpful.

As the week has unfolded :

  • I learned that 60% of Korean infections were caused by a church that didn’t close temporarily as requested.
  • I heard about  a South African “pastor” who gathered over 300 in a church in Walkerville last night and preached that Covid19 was a plot and that they should shake hands and hug each other to show that God would protect them.
  • I’ve had conversations with colleagues, some of whom have decided to cancel services for 1-2 weeks and then restart, while others have decided to continue holding services adhering to the less than 100. Still others are still wrestling with the decision.

The president announced disaster measures on Sunday which included limitations on gatherings of more than 100. There has mostly been positive reaction, but some negativity.

I want to start by giving my interpretation of the President’s strategy.

The measures taken by our President fall into a general strategy to “flatten the curve”. The first benefit of this approach is to delay and slow down the viral infection rate early on to buy as much time as possible. The second effect is that these kind drastic measures make society sit up and take notice, recognise the urgency and change behaviours like handwashing, social distancing and the like. It is a “kickstart” to social transformation.

There are some who don’t agree with this approach and I respect that.

Bear in mind that, because the disease has a two-week window for incubation, we’ll only be seeing the true effect of the President’s policies by about next week Sunday. (i.e. The cases identified today were infected about two weeks ago) (The curve we are on will only start coming down next week.

I believe, at this point, that we should not only co-operate with government policy “to the letter” but also “to the spirit” of the policy.” The spirit of the policy is to make a decisive early intervention and make a powerful statement that this is not “business as usual.” Today religious leaders, including our General Secretary pledged to doing this.

The data shows that early decisive action and distancing slows down infection rates so that health facilities aren’t over-run.

My view is that if we can radically limit contact for two weeks, we really slow down the infection rates. Furthermore the “discomfort” of these extreme measures will mean that everyone will be more aware and careful because they’d prefer to avoid further measures.

The UK did not take the need for distancing seriously enough.
Now they’re in total lockdown with soldiers in the streets.
Italy had 450 deaths in one day.
Iraq has drastic infection rates and deaths and has had to release 85,000 prisoners.

I think there are three thoughts to consider when we think about the limitations on public gatherings – even if our congregation is less than 100.

  1. Some say we must stand up for Christ because the gospel is at stake. But this is not persecution – this isn’t because we are Christ-followers, but because of our numbers. (Shebeens are being limited to 50!)
    Truthfully, this isn’t so much about a threat to us, but making sure we aren’t a inadvertently a threat to society.  
  2. Not giving up meeting together (People need the encouragement)
    There is great truth in this. This is why I would not be in favour of long term closures.
  3. Love for our neighbour. (Prioritise our wider community (and vulnerable) over our need for meeting)
    This is the point our congregation has departed from, but we will move to include point 2. For now we want our members and adherents to get a clear signal: Covid19 is serious and we need to think about others and put them before ourselves.

If we’re honest about the first point, it is actually that we think more about ourselves (and possibly our concerns about losing offering money) than about the world we are called to reach.

So at Emmanuel we’ve decided to close everything (Bible Studies, Services) for a week (maybe two, but this is unlikely)  and ask our staff to work from home. This is to “flatten the curve” and set an example.
Then slowly we’ll get everything back in place.

Here’s what I wrote to our congregation:
Dear Members

While we could still have services on Sunday and spread all of you over our Emmanuel, Grace and Evening Services to stay under the 100 limit, our elders have decided to follow not only the letter of the President’s plan, but the spirit of it. For Sunday 22 March we are cancelling all three services. We feel that this significant step emphasises the urgency of the situation but also is a demonstration of our love for our neighbours. In effect we are saying: We love our community and especially the vulnerable in our community so much that we will sacrifice our privilege of gathering together for a period of time to help “flatten the curve”. We believe that we should be careful that we don’t make it about ourselves and make sure we are thinking about our community.

We’ve also called the congregation to thoughtful service and prayer. We set our alarms for 8pm each night and stop and pray when the alarms go off. (If you’d like to see the full letter I wrote to the congregation let me know.)

The stats in the graphs on the right are concerning. The global infection rate is ramping up. The death rate in China was 2% – they’re obviously tougher and have better health care, but now the death rate is over 4%.
Statistically, if 25 people in your congregation get the virus, one of them will die.
It also seems that people are taking longer to recover.

South Africa had 34 new cases today. We are up to 150 infections. A number of these were school kids which validates the President’s decision to close schools.

My point? We have to take this very seriously. We have not yet seen what the virus will do in a country where many are immune compromised and the health care system is already under strain.

As ministers I believe we have pastoral responsibility to comfort those who are afraid and sick. But we also have a responsibility to be clear about what is happening and to teach/coach people through it while avoiding the bad science and bad theology that social media bombards us and them with. Let’s leverage our platforms!!! Brenda and I chatted to two cleaners in Checkers on Monday who knew nothing of the President’s speech and only had a vague idea about the pandemic. We explained. As ministers this will be a big part of our job.

One last point: There is a lot of fear, fake news, bad science and very bad theology doing the rounds.
I have started posting daily entries to my eDevotions blog where I am providing practical inspiration and addressing some of the bad theology I’m seeing.
Go to https://emmdev.blogspot.com/
Entries start with the most recent on top and work backwards. Again this is offered in the hope it will be helpful.
When you encounter issues I’ve already covered, you are welcome to cut-and-paste from or link them to the blog.

To conclude:

I believe our approach should include:
– Prayer, Faith and Trust in God;
– Simple practical procedures like washing hands;
– Responsible social distancing so that we don’t endanger others;
– Being ready to serve those who need help 
– and trusting God to be with us in life or death.

Back in 1527, a deadly plague hit Martin Luther’s town of Wittenberg and he wrote a letter to a friend (Volume 43, Pg. 132: Whether One Should Flee From A Deadly Plague – To Rev. Dr. John Hess), explaining how churches should deal with such complicated circumstances. His his advice (below) includes all of the above steps.

Luther – “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
God bless and Love,

Published by St. Columba's Presbyterian Church Hatfield

St Columba's Presbyterian Church in Hatfield, Pretoria, South Africa is a Christian Church. Our vision is to be a Christ-centred, bible-believing church that calls all to come and experience the love of Christ, in a welcoming and caring body of believers.

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