Dear Holston Friends,
We are all in this together. Holston Conference has churches in three states with three different governors which causes a lot of confusion. The confusion is created when some government officials state that everything can be reopened by May 1, 2020. Other health and government officials have disagreed with that timetable. There are so many things that we still do not know about the Covid-19 Virus. We do know that certain populations are more at risk. We do know that social distancing is making a difference. We do know that persons may not have any symptoms of the virus, but may be spreading it to others. We do know that there is no vaccine or treatment to date. It is important not to quit, after we have come this far. We do know that a Life Care Facility in Athens, Tennessee has fifty residents who have the virus. That came from somewhere.
Today in a Zoom meeting with the district superintendents, I learned that our United Methodist Churches are just as confused by the mixed messages as everybody else is. Please hear me. This is not an easy decision, but the Cabinet and I do not want our United Methodist Churches to be open at this time. Lives in our communities need to be protected. This virus has taken the lives of little children, medical personnel, young adults, older adults, African Americans, Hispanic persons, those with compromised immune systems, and so many more. Our United Methodist Churches are not to be open. We will reopen our churches when it is safe to do so across the entire Conference. We all yearn to be able to gather together again.
I have been to the funerals of two family members and they were very limited graveside services. I have spoken with Bishops in other denominations about the need to continue to practice sheltering in place. They indicated that they were not going to reopen their churches at this time as well. It is just difficult when there are competing reasons to reopen everything.
As states begin to loosen “Stay at Home” orders and phase in the reopening of businesses and organizations, there will continue to be differing opinions on the best process to follow that will keep communities safe while, at the same time, provide economic stability. As an Annual Conference, we are aware that many people in our churches will have differing opinions too.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conference has worked to keep health and safety as the top priority when making decisions pertaining to church, district, and conference activities.
Keeping those priorities in mind while, at the same time, realizing a continued rise in case numbers and deaths, and realizing that people can be carriers of the COVID-19 virus without knowing it or exhibiting any symptoms, the Cabinet and I continue to believe that church buildings shall remain closed to the public until further notice. This applies not only to times of worship and church activities, but also to outside organizations as well, such as, but not limited to day cares, preschools, support groups (AA, NA, Al-Anon, Grief Share, Etc.), food pantries, and Scouts.
I know that pastors are being pressured to reopen daycares for parents who are needing to go back to work. Friends, our schools are closed across Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia for a reason. I know that our United Methodist Churches are committed to doing incredible outreach in their communities.
We understand that people are eager to worship together again. We also know the Holston Conference encompasses three different states in which the Governors of those states are not working on the same timeline for the reopening of their states. We feel the best decision for the Conference is to “reopen” in a unified and measured manner. Even then, it will not automatically be back to being fully open from the start. We will work on and submit guidelines to implement a gradual reopening so we can continue making the health and safety of our church people as well as our communities the highest priority. As Conference leadership, we do not take this responsibility lightly. We have to look at the bigger picture.
We understand these are difficult times but we also know we have a witness in our communities even in these uncertain times. Thank you for the creative and innovative work you are doing to keep the church together during this time of separation. Your ministry is allowing the church to be a bright beacon of light to guide God’s people through this challenging time.
Please know that your Cabinet and I are praying for the pastors and congregations across our beloved Holston. We trust that you are praying for us as well.
God’s grace, mercy and peace are always more than sufficient,
Bishop Dindy Taylor
The United Methodist Church