updated April 7, 2020
Resources available at the bottom of the page
Can congregations still meet for worship, small groups, and the like? Technically speaking, churches and other places of worship have been exempted from current restrictions on businesses and other gatherings. However, the recent guidelines from both Texas (no more than 10 persons gathered together) and New Mexico (no more than 5 persons gathered together) effectively discourage, if not prohibit, most of our congregations from gathering for worship, Bible Studies, or other small groups. Further, the first of our General Rules (“do no harm”), coupled with guidelines from both Texas and New Mexico about minimizing nonessential travel and gatherings, as well as caring for our congregants and our communities to minimize the spread of the virus, suggest that gathering for worship, study, or small groups is strongly discouraged. Churches and their leaders are encouraged to explore alternative ways of being community together (via online worship, email communications, Facebook/YouTube devotionals, or simple phone calls and text messages) through this season. Helpful resources on how to engage socially while maintaining safe physical distancing are available on the Resource Page.
What about Holy Week and/or Easter? On Sunday, March 29th, President Trump extended the “social distancing” guidelines through April 30th. Churches are expected to refrain from any gatherings (worship, small groups, etc.) that would violate the spirit of this guideline and continue to practice our first General Rule: do no harm. This includes the gatherings typical of Holy Week and Easter. Congregations are strongly encouraged to find ways to provide meaningful observations of Holy Week and Easter that do not require gathering together in a single place. Online worship options, email or video or Facebook devotional guides, etc. could be made available. One suggestion for Easter is that since every Sunday is a “little Easter,” we celebrate the Resurrection joyously on the first Sunday after the restrictions are lifted. We are Easter people year-round!
Can we serve Communion online? Most of our congregations celebrate Holy Communion on the first Sunday of every month. Those same congregations should not be gathering in person on Sunday, April 5th (first Sunday of April). Several years ago, our Council of Bishops issued a moratorium on “virtual” or online communion. Simply put, our theology of Holy Communion (summarized by the document “This Holy Mystery”) precludes a “self-serve” option, which would essentially be what happens via online or virtual Communion. While there are a variety of opinions on this, congregations are discouraged from celebrating online or virtual communion. Bishop Bledsoe requests that all clergy and congregations adhere to our core teachings and practices as they relate to Holy Communion. Alternatives such as the Love Feast (found in the Book of Worship on page 581 and online here) or a virtual “love feast” (such as this liturgy created by worship consultant Marcia McFee) can be offered as we fast from gathering together in person during this season. Celebrating Holy Communion only when the whole community is finally gathered together again would be a holy and meaningful re-membering of Christ’s Body.
What about baptisms? Our official teaching on baptism (summarized in the document “By Water and the Spirit”) precludes “private” baptisms. However, “When unusual but legitimate circumstances prevent a baptism from taking place in the midst of the gathered community during its regular worship,” representatives of the congregation should be present to fulfill the congregation’s promise to the newly baptized person. Further, as soon as possible, that baptism is to be celebrated within the gathered community so that the whole congregation can affirm their commitment and responsibility.
What about funerals or weddings? Funerals and weddings are pastoral offices and provide opportunities for clergy and congregations to bear pastoral and Christ-like witness to others. However, restrictions on gatherings larger than a handful of persons suggest that we should not practice business “as usual.” Delaying services until a time when restrictions are lifted (if and when feasible) could be an option. For funerals, smaller graveside gatherings could be provided, with a larger gathering scheduled for a later time. Clergy and congregational leaders are encouraged to contact and work with funeral homes in your communities to consider “best practices” in your context. Video recording or livestreaming of smaller gatherings for weddings and funerals can be a way to include a larger gathering in virtual forms.
We’re stressed about finances—what about giving and offerings? Everyone is likely to be stressed about finances. If your congregation has healthy reserves or a “rainy day” fund, having a plan in place now to soften this turbulent time is a good idea. If, however, things are getting tight, being realistic about what your financial priorities are and communicating the need to your congregation is vital. Discipleship Ministries recently published a list of five helpful tips for local church Finance Committees to consider as they deal with the stresses and strains of this season. They include addressing your income, your expenses, and your priorities.
The New Mexico Annual Conference has extended some support in the form of setting aside the congregational tithe (8% of your operational income) for the months of March and April of 2020, as well as suspending the billing for the local church’s portion of pensions and health benefits for clergy and retirees during the months of April and May (information available here). It is hoped that this will help keep some extra money at the local church level for ministry needs where you are. Also, now is the time to encourage online giving and/or other alternative means of financially supporting and sustaining the local congregation (asking for checks to be mailed or dropped off at the church, ACH or direct deposit options, etc.). The Annual Conference has also contracted with Bonnie Marden to provide online webinars on local church finance. Information and registration for these webinars is available here.
What do we do with our staff? Many congregations are concerned about supporting your staff members during this time. Typically, local church staff are not eligible for unemployment benefits. However, if staff members become sick, need to care for someone in their family who is sick, or need to care for a child who cannot attend childcare or school because of COVID-19 may be eligible for paid sick leave or extended FMLA under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that was passed and signed into law recently. A helpful memo from Wespath is available here. Congregations should be up-to-date and compliant on payroll taxes, and paid leave provided under these guidelines are supposed to be offset by deductions in payroll taxes this year. Layoffs and furloughs may be necessary but should be seen as a last resort and regrettable option (see below for payroll protection resources that may be available under the CARES act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump on March 27th). Congregational leaders are encouraged to be transparent with your community about continuing to financially support the work of the church and keep staff as much as possible. Asking paid staff members to “volunteer” their time is not permissible.
What about governmental relief for our finances? On March 27, President Trump signed the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security” (CARES) Act. Under this legislation, churches are eligible for short-term (through June, 2020) loans through the Small Business Administration (SBA). These loans are intended primarily (but not exclusively) for payroll protection and can be used to keep staff paid during the economic downturn and disruption caused by COVID-19. Churches apply for these loans through their local bank, provided those banks are eligible to distribute SBA loans. While details of this relief effort are still being worked out, the “portal” for banks to begin offering loans is anticipated to be open as early as Friday, April 3rd. Local churches will need documentation of payroll and finances for 2019 and the first few months of 2020 for the application process. Local churches are encouraged to contact your local bank about eligibility for these loans. If the funds are used for their intended purposes (especially payroll protection) and the church can provide documentation to that effect, the low-interest loan turns into a grant and does not have to be repaid. Additional helpful information (including a video interview) is available from Horizons Stewardship here. The United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) provides a very helpful Q&A here.
What if we cannot pay our pastor? If you find that you cannot pay your pastor, you must notify the pastor and the District Superintendent as soon as possible. Short-term efforts to shore up finances (a direct appeal to the congregation, enhanced/special online giving, etc.) should be explored first, but if these are not sufficient, short-term emergency grants from the Conference’s Commission on Equitable Compensation may be available. In order to make a request for a short-term grant, you will need the following information: (1) a letter to your District Superintendent and the Commission on Equitable Compensation requesting help with the amount requested, (2) your anticipated income and current unrestricted balance in checking account(s), (3) your anticipated expenses, and (4) a copy of your pastor’s Compensation Form that was approved at Charge/Church Conference in 2019. Your District Superintendent is the point of contact for this work
Will Annual Conference happen? Registration for the New Mexico Annual Conference (joint/concurrent with Northwest Texas), scheduled in Lubbock June 3-5 was supposed to go “live” on March 23rd. At this point we have held back registration in case we need to reschedule our Annual Conference session (depending upon restrictions in place later this spring/early summer and the ability or willingness of our venue to continue to honor our contract). In the event that the June event cannot take place, we already have plans for a shorter session of Annual Conference to take place later this summer. Stay tuned.
What about summer camps at Sacramento? Sacramento programming is currently in a holding pattern as regards to summer camps. While programming through early April (per New Mexico Department of Health guidelines) is suspended, depending upon future developments with the pandemic and with governmental responses, it is hoped that camping will resume this summer (when it is safe). Sacramento is changing their refund policy to allow folks to ask for a refund closer to the dates of camp (if camps are suspended or cancelled). Further information is available on the camp’s website (http://sacramentocamp.org/covid-19-response), and everyone is encouraged to be in prayer for our camps and our camp staff and leadership during this trying time. If you’re able to financially support the camp during this significant loss of programming income, please do so.
Is the Conference Office still open? Conference staff are working remotely and continue to be in touch and available via email. All Conference staff also have the ability to check voice mail remotely. One or two staff members will be in the building during regular office hours (Monday through Friday, 830am-430pm) to receive mail, phone calls, and otherwise be present in the space. The Office will not be open to receive visitors or guests. Email and phone are the best ways to contact Conference Office staff.
Will General Conference happen? The Commission on the General Conference has postponed the planned-for General Conference in Minneapolis, scheduled for May 5-15, 2020. At this time, it looks as if a date in 2021 will be set when arrangements can be finalized and new contracts with the venue can be confirmed. Stay tuned.
I’m stressed out. Where can I go to get additional help? It’s normal to feel anxiety and stress in this season of exponential change. Taking care of yourself is essential when you care for others. Practice self-care, tending to your mind, body, and soul. Exercise. Take time off as best you can. Practice sabbath rest. Dig deeper on the spiritual practices (prayer and study) that nourish you. The HealthFlex plan offered by Wespath includes an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for clergy, lay and their families. The EAP is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. Call 1-800-788-5614 anytime for confidential help.
Statements from the NM Conference Leadership
Bishop & Cabinet Statement - COVID-19
Video from Bishop Bledsoe & Cabinet – COVID-19
Provost Letter regarding COVID-19
Congregational Vitality Message - Friends in Ministry
From Conference Disaster Response Organizers: COVID-19 Initial Guidance & Getting Faith-Based Orgs Ready for Flu Pandemic
From our Insurance Company: Think HR When Business Threats Are Contagious – Coronavirus Safety - Houses of Worship
CARES Act & Financial Assistance
Local Church Resources for the Paycheck Protection Program
NMAC Financial Assistance Announcement
Paycheck Protection Overview
Paycheck Protection FAQs
Paycheck Protection Application
The CARES Act – Discipleship Ministries
Paycheck Protection App Example - Baltimore
Worshiping & Working Online
The Way of the Cross-Good Friday Devotional
Tips for Recording & Streaming Online
Telling the Old Story in a New Time Webinar – Jason Moore (Please do not share.)
CCLI Licensing Website
Remote Access – LogMeIn