Pastor Tim McKenzie’s 5.5.2020 Letter:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)
May 5, 2020
Dear Friends in Christ,
Greetings in the name of the risen Christ. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has extended the Stay at Home order until May 8, continuing a ban on gatherings of more than ten persons, and a continuation of six-foot social distancing. Governor Cooper also unveiled a Three Phase Plan for the eventual lifting of social restrictions. Places of worship are included in Phases 2 and 3 of the plan. On May 2, ELCA North Carolina Synod Bishop Timothy Smith also wrote to churches, urging them to continue suspension of public gatherings until May 31. Bishop Smith’s May 2 letter has also been uploaded onto our website.
St. Mark’s Executive Committee has taken into account these directives and has decided to continue the suspension of public worship in the church building until a future date between June 7 and July 12. The Committee regrets not being more definitive, but the reason for this timeframe stems from the lack of a specific start date for the Three Phase Plan. Under this plan, worship gatherings (at reduced capacity) will be allowed to begin in Phase 2, at least two to three weeks after Phase 1 is implemented. Phase 3 will allow worship gatherings (at increased capacity) at least four to six weeks after Phase 2 is implemented.
In addition, the ELCA North Carolina Synod Council will be appointing a Task Force to produce a document outlining what “in-person re-gathering” for worship and church events might look like. St. Mark’s Executive Committee has also begun discussing what worship might look like and is committed to producing guidelines for worship and building usage during an ongoing pandemic. Our primary concern is the health and safety of everyone in our church.
Therefore, St. Mark’s next scheduled Sunday worship will be a future date between June 7 – July 12. In the meantime, we will continue to stream a live Service of the Word every Sunday at 9:30 am on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/SaintMarksLutheran/). You do not need to join Facebook to view this. It can also be viewed later on the above Facebook page.
The Executive Committee’s previous approval of the Soup Kitchen’s continued distribution of bag lunches every Thursday is ongoing, as is our continued collection of non-perishable food items for the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry. Thank you to everyone who continues to be involved in this!
St. Mark’s staff is also working with a combination of onsite and remote work to carry out the church’s ministry. St. Mark’s staff remains easily accessible via phone and email. Church office hours are Monday-Thursday, 10 am – 2:00 pm. (Office phone: 704-375-9185; Office email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
In an anxious world, the peace of the risen Christ be with you ☩
Rev. Dr. Timothy McKenzie, Ph.D.
Bishop Tim Smith’s 5.2.2020 Letter:
Beloved and faithful synod congregations, rostered ministers, members, and affiliates,
First, a word of gratitude and admiration. You have all been more patient, creative, and faithful than we could have imagined through these drawn out pandemic fears, griefs, and restrictions. As promised, God is indeed about to do a new thing in, with, and through us. Even so, it’s not yet clear when that will be and what that will look like.
When our Synod Council met in March and recommended no gatherings of more than 10 in congregations through May 12, we so hoped that there would be no restrictions past that date. Though talk and reality of “re-opening” abounds all around us, we have carefully studied Governor Cooper’s recommendations of a 3-phase reopening of North Carolina based entirely on the recommendations of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the CDC for the “3Ts”: Testing, Tracing, and Trends.
The governor has extended NC’s stay-at-home orders through May 8 at the earliest. IF the trajectories of the 3Ts are encouraging, Phase 1 of his re-opening plan could begin May 8 at 5 p.m. and last for at least 2-3 weeks. During Phase 1, there would still be no public gatherings of more than 10 people allowed. If, during Phase 1, the 3Ts go well, we might enter Phase 2, which would last a minimum of 4-6 weeks. Houses of worship would be allowed, with reduced capacity (number not yet named), to re-gather. That means our congregations might begin carefully transitioning into some kind of in-person worship then. Finally, if the 3Ts continue positive trends through June, Phase 3 would further loosen restrictions on numbers in gatherings, including houses of worship.
In accordance with these guidelines, and in great concern for not only our NC Synod but for all people while this virus is still present and dangerous, our Synod Council met this morning and approved the following three recommendations for the NC Synod:
Synod Council extends the no-gatherings in person of more than 10 in NC Synod congregations guideline and expectation through at least May 31.
Synod Council will appoint a Task Force to produce a document/process to flesh out what in-person re-gathering in congregations and worship might look like.
Synod Council adopted a guideline for calling and conducting congregational business meetings in a time of pandemic. This guide is both constitutionally faithful and acknowledges “pandemic grace.” If you need to have a congregational business meeting soon, consult with Michael DeNise in our office and/or our COVID-19 response webpage.
God in Christ hold, bless, protect, and keep you,
Bishop Tim Smith’s 3.30.2020 Letter:
A Pastoral Word about Virtual/Online Communion
Way back in the summer of 1983 I did my required summer of Clinical Pastoral Education in a hospital. There were 14 of us from various traditions there as chaplains. The main theological and ethical debate of that time was, “Is it appropriate to baptize babies after they have already died?” Proponents insisted it was the only compassionate and pastoral thing to do for the assurance of the already-devastated parents. Detractors begged the question of the bigger picture. How LONG after a death can we baptize that person? Can we baptize just babies after they die, or grown-ups, too? How about the ones who made it clear in their lifetimes they did not want to be baptized? And so on. We spent several weeks tossing this around my senior year in seminary as well in a pastoral theology case-study class called “Pastor as Theologian.” Most often in that class there were no easy and simple answers.
Fast forward now over 35 years, and the dilemma is now with the other Lutheran sacrament—Holy Communion. For 35 years I have staked my ministry on the preciousness and frequency of Communion. I turned down two calls because the congregation insisted that my children couldn’t commune there, and I turned down others for refusing even to consider weekly Eucharist moving forward. Each congregation I served eventually moved to weekly Eucharist. I consider myself as sacramental as Lutherans come.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton and the ELCA’s official statement on Worship in the Time of a Pandemic clearly discourages the practice of online communion. Just last week, the Lutheran World Federation issued a very well-written discouragement for the whole Lutheran communion not to be hasty in jumping into online virtual communion without considering the ongoing implications. Thinking back to Pastor as Theologian class questions, how is this time of crisis so different from any other time and crisis in the history of Lutheranism and crises that some have changed their minds about the gathered assembly? More important than providing consecrated elements to soldiers in foxholes via short-wave radio? Than over the telephone for congregations without a pastor and three hours away from the next-nearest pastor during World War II? Furthermore, by ELCA policy, a minimum of six weeks without opportunity to receive the sacrament is the minimum time before consideration that we have a eucharistic emergency. This is, in no small part, because we know that as precious as communion is, it is A means of grace, not THE means of grace. We are, as of today in NC, only three weeks into any of our congregations having not gathered in person. I wrongly assumed we had at least six weeks to consider this before issuing a statement.
I not only choose to believe but truly discern that the above official ELCA policies are increasingly unpopular and somewhat ignored by congregations, clergy, and even a few bishops due to two admirable motivations: 1)the earnest desire among laypeople to receive the precious sacrament of the body and blood of Jesus, especially in such an anxious and unknown time. Again, I myself helped catechize into that perspective over a lifetime of ministry. 2)The genuine deep pastoral concern our clergy have for their parishioners and others and the chance to reach them like never before amid said anxiety, fear, etc. with the fullest possible tangible promise of the real presence of the crucified and risen Christ through the sacrament. A great article on this side of the debate comes from St. Olaf College.
And yet, I hear Dr. Krodel pressing me in Pastor as Theologian: Can (should) I then baptize someone online? Ordain someone? Marry a bride and groom online while they are in two separate countries? (A real question that came up last week.) And what about the recording of that online virtual communion service that is available in archived perpetuity? Can (should) anyone on the internet be able to Google virtual communion and play that years from now and consecrate their at-home bread and wine? Is a recording gathered community? Could (should) I have friends over for dinner and just celebrate a little eucharist together via last week’s recorded service? And when this crisis is past, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, will it ever go back in? Should it? And why should we ever go back to in-person church when it’s so much more convenient to listen to it and consecrate our elements at our own convenience, on-demand fashion, in our pajamas?
Lastly, I should say that I want to be gentle with all congregations and pastors during this time, again assuming all are doing what they have deemed best in a situation like none of us has ever before seen. If virtual communion is celebrated, which I don’t endorse but do understand and about which I have read many compelling arguments, I urge that it be done in real time, making sure word is included. Just as in the Small Catechism, Luther wrote that it’s not the water that does such great things in baptism, but the word. So it is with the Eucharist, it’s not the bread and wine, it’s the word. Even better to include confession and forgiveness. And when we’re through this wicked crisis and have time to ponder in retrospect, I pledge no ill will toward any decision a congregation or pastor has made in this time—only honest insights to you and my earnest listening ear in discerning together the why, what, and how of this practice as together we move into the future as a Word and Sacrament Church that God in Christ already holds. Interesting times, to say the least.
Bishop Tim Smith
Pastor Tim McKenzie’s 3.31.2020 Letter:
March 31, 2020
Dear Friends in Christ,
Last week North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper cancelled public schools until May 15, and also put into place a “Stay at Home Order” which went into effect on March 30. North Carolina Synod Bishop Timothy Smith also wrote to churches again last week strongly urging them to suspend public gatherings until May 12.
Therefore, seeking to lessen the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) and in cooperation with the directives of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, and the Bishop of the North Carolina Synod, ELCA, Bishop Timothy Smith, St. Mark’s Executive Committee has suspended all worship and church gatherings until Sunday, May 17.
The next scheduled Sunday worship is May 17, the sixth Sunday after Easter (8:30 am and 10:30 am). However, in the meantime, we are streaming a live Service of the Word every Sunday at 9:30 am on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/SaintMarksLutheran/). You do not need to join Facebook to view this. It can also be viewed later on the above Facebook page.
Further, in an effort to embody Christ to our neighbors, St. Mark’s Executive Committee has approved the Soup Kitchen’s continued distribution of bag lunches from the lower level every Thursday between 11:15 am-12:15 pm. The Soup Kitchen coordinator has a system in place for staffing a five person crew each week, which will practice the social distancing requirements of the State of North Carolina in preparing the bag lunches and in the distribution of them.
Like many workplaces today, St. Mark’s staff are also working with a combination of onsite and remote work to carry out the church’s ministry. St. Mark’s staff remains easily accessible via email. Revised church office hours are Monday-Thursday, 10 am – 2:00 pm (Office phone: 704-375-9185; Office email: email@example.com)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) The light of the world, Jesus Christ is always with us no matter our circumstances. As Easter people we remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!
In an anxious world, the love and peace of Christ be with you ☩
Rev. Dr. Timothy McKenzie, Ph.D.
Bishop Tim Smith’s 3.23.2020 Letter:
Dear rostered ministers of the NC Synod,
For my message to you this Monday, I simply, sadly, yet with firm support and conviction,
commend to you the three strong recommendations for which the NC Synod Council used
the language of not only “commends” but “expects” of its congregations.
Following the directives of President Trump, Governor Cooper, and the Centers for
Disease Control (CDC), we urge no gatherings of more than 10 people in any NC
Following the CDC and the recommendations this week of our ecumenical partners,
we recommend this “no gatherings of more than 10 people in any NC Synod
congregation” policy be extended until at least May 12.
The Synod Gathering will not be happening in May. We are still committed to
gathering as a synod this year if that is possible. A decision will be made at the
Synod Council meeting in late May.
Bishop Timothy M. Smith
Pastor Tim McKenzie’s 3.13.2020 Letter:
Dear Friends in Christ,
Earlier today, Bishop Timothy Smith of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA published a letter concerning the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In this letter Bishop Smith recommends that churches temporarily cancel worship services in order that we might practice the social distancing necessary to help avoid the spread of this virus, and help save lives in society at large. As your pastor, I am very concerned that we do all that we can as a church to cooperate with national and state government as well as with civil health organizations in attempting to combat the spread of this virus. I encourage you to read Bishop Smith’s letter below.
In light of Bishop Smith’s recommendation, the Executive Committee of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church has decided that, effective immediately, all worship and all gatherings, including circles, Sunday School classes, choirs, Lenten suppers, Lenten services, and all church sponsored events (both inside and outside the building) will be cancelled through the end of March [exceptions to this need to be approved by St. Mark’s Executive Committee]. Accordingly, the next scheduled Sunday worship will be on April 5, Palm Sunday. The Executive Committee will reassess this schedule in light of any future recommendations from the Bishop’s Office as well as those of our secular governing authorities. If you have questions or concerns please do not hesitate to call the church office.
St. Mark’s regular church staff will be at the church daily to answer email and telephone communications with St. Mark’s members and friends. The church office hours of 9 am – 2:30 pm Monday – Friday will remain unchanged. As your pastor I remain available to you for conversation, counsel and prayer.
Though we are temporarily unable to gather for worship and fellowship in the church building, we can continue to build one another up through prayer and communication. I encourage members and friends to stay in contact with one another by phone, texting, FaceTime, and email. I encourage you to remember one another in prayer. Toward this end, we plan to continue to send out the weekly “This Week at St. Mark’s” email, and I am committed to making the Sunday message available via email and online. The staff will also prepare a Lenten email devotional resource that can be used to help us pray for one another and the concerns of the world. Let us continue as the body of Christ to pray for one another, our families, our community, and the world. Together, let us continue to be the body of Christ – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church!
As St. Paul writes, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
We live in a time of great anxiety and concern over a worldwide pandemic and its effects. News changes daily, even hourly. However, we also know that Christ’s presence and love for us never changes, because the love of God is always present with us. During Lent let us continue to walk the way of the cross with our Lord and with one another in the confidence of Christ’s Resurrection. May the love of Christ continue to give you hope and surround you with courage to be light for the world!
In the grace and peace of Christ,
Pastor Tim McKenzie
Bishop Tim Smith’s 3.13.2020 Letter:
Dear NC Synod members,
As you know, the past 48 hours have been a whirlwind. COVID-19 is officially a worldwide pandemic. Cancelling March Madness and banning all travel from Europe underscore the secular seriousness. To be clear, this is no longer merely a “fear.” It is a reality that is already here and multiplying at light speed.
How do Christian communities respond most faithfully? The governor said no gatherings of more than 100, including worship. My Methodist bishop colleague in Eastern NC requests that congregations not gather, including worship, for at least two weeks. The Virginia Synod, ELCA, strongly suggested the same today. Some of our congregations have already canceled in-person gatherings for the short term. Several synod events scheduled for this weekend, including an ordination, have been postponed.
Unlike with some of our ecumenical partners, in the ELCA neither the synod nor the churchwide expression can dictate what you do. Congregations must make their own best decisions in their contexts. But the ONLY way to even slightly flatten the curve of infection and save as many lives as possible is through social distancing. I suggest, for the sake of the most vulnerable among us and with cumulative public health advice:
No in-person congregational gatherings at least through March, including worship.
Congregations, if possible, use live-streaming, FaceTime, etc. for worship & meetings.
That people 65 & over not go out in public, including worship, for the time being.
That folks make every effort to give online or mail in contributions to your congregations so that bills and salaries and local helping ministries are supported.
That if worship is held there be no physical touching of any kind. Sick folks stay home.
Remember that as the economy sinks, the first and worst affected will be the poor, food insecure, etc. Check with your local food pantry for how to help/best practices.
Yes, I understand that the above measures seem rather severe. I do not recommend them in panic or reactively but as a measured consideration of the alternatives. Yes, our resources are and will be severely impacted. But if one person lives because a congregation takes these measures, wasn’t it worth it? Blessings to all who navigate these uncertain and frightening times, especially those with the virus, anxious about it, caring for someone with it, or grieving someone lost to this illness. We trust always that God, in Christ, holds these times and holds each of us.
Your partner in ministry,
Bishop Timothy M. Smith