The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) plans to send out a video worship service for Easter to congregations – with J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, preaching.
That’s one of the ways PC(USA) leaders are working to provide support for congregations, mid councils and pastors struggling to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic – a range of responses discussed March 26 during conference call meetings of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s coordinating committee and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA).
One reality is the recognition that some congregations are struggling financially – as more Americans lose their jobs, as giving to some churches goes down, as congregations struggle to collect and pay per capita.
Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), said the PC(USA) will work thorough Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to try to provide “some kind of relief to churches that are dealing with this crisis” – with PDA making grants to mid councils and “congregations on the margin,” as she put it. PDA is pulling $2.7 million from reserves in response to the COVID-19 epidemic – including $1.7 million for work in the U.S., $1 million for the international response, and $200,000 for needs of refugees and asylum seekers.
And during the Easter service Presbyterians will be encouraged to donate to One Great Hour of Sharing, Moffett said – which is one of the PC(USA)’s four Special Offerings, and is used to support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Self Development of People, programs that work to address issues of hunger, poverty and catastrophic need.
Moffett said work also is underway to develop webinars for pastors feeling stress and anxiety. In conversations with mid council leaders, “we have hear about the mental health strain on pastors,” she said. Also: the recognition that “some of the churches will not make it” – likely, small congregations that were already financially on the edge.
The Board of Pensions also is looking for ways to help. Board of Pensions president Frank Spencer, in a letter released March 25, stated: “Ensuring that small congregations can maintain pastoral leadership is especially important during this time of national distress. For those congregations that pay dues to the Board for one pastor under the required Pastor’s Participation structure, the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors will be considering a provision for dues relief at its meeting April 3. In the meantime, any congregation unable to pay current dues should call our Employer Services team to discuss the situation.”
Presbyterian Mission Agency Board members spoke of the fiscal pressures that Presbyterian camps and conference centers across the country are facing, with facilities closed or large gatherings cancelled because of the need for social distancing.
When the board meets virtually April 15-17, one of the items on the agenda will be a report from a consultant looking at the financial future of Stony Point Center – Moffett has presented a plan for redeveloping Stony Point and making it a focal point of the PMA’s Matthew 25 initiative, a plan that could call for a fundraising campaign to complete more than $10 million in capital improvements at Stony Point over the next decade.
Ray Jones, PMA’s director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism, has been leading a staff round table working on the Stony Point plan. “Everything was going really well,” until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and “everything has changed with the coronavirus,” Jones said. “We’re exploring all the options we can right now. We’re going to have to make some significant decisions.” Jones said the round table is working on preparing a “hopeful” report for the PMA board to consider, “and praying really hard.”
During the COGA meeting, members spoke of what they’re seeing on the ground. In Seattle, one of the first places in the U.S. where COVID-19 cases emerged, unemployment has skyrocketed, and the presbytery has acted to waive collecting per capita for at least three months, said Eliana Maxim, co-executive of Seattle Presbytery.
Staff members from the Office of the General Assembly have been calling presbytery and synod leaders, starting in areas with the greatest concentration of cases, said Jihyun Oh, director of Mid Council Ministries. Some mid council leaders and pastors feel anxious and overwhelmed, stressed both by their professional responsibilities and trying to care for their own families and friends, she said.
Mid council leaders are trying to provide support – helping people learn to use Zoom and other online platforms for worship and congregational work – and also to find emergency funds for those in most need. But some congregations that have been “avoiding making hard decisions” about whether the church should close “may actually be pushed to that because of the new realities,” Oh said.
Those making the calls are asking presbytery and synod leaders:
- How are you doing?
- What resources or other support do you need?
- How can we pray for you?
Nelson said the Office of the General Assembly is trying to lean into the realities of contextual ministry in the midst of a pandemic. On March 24, he released a new advisory opinion stating that congregations could celebrate communion during online worship – a change from an opinion issued just two weeks earlier.
Presbyterian churches are doing ministry in “extraordinary times, when people probably need the sacrament more than ever before,” Nelson said – when people are dying, when people are endangering their own lives and making difficult decisions trying to help. “They need something from us,” Nelson said.
Deciding not to follow the rules strictly was based on an understanding of contextual ministry, he said – on finding a way, “in this uncharted territory” to proclaim that the gospel offers much-needed hope, and the Lord’s Supper sustains now more than ever.
COGA also slated time on its docket for “General Assembly contingencies related to COVID-19” – but moved into closed session for that discussion. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced this week that the Baltimore Convention Center, where the PC(USA) is scheduled to hold its General Assembly June 20-27, is being turned into a COVID-19 field hospital.
COGA is expected to announce a decision about what will happen with General Assembly no later than April 15.