March 17, 2020
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Greetings in the name of Jesus, our suffering servant! “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” During this Lenten season, we focus not on our fears, but on true peace in Christ; not on the sickness all around us, but healing in Christ. For the wounds of Christ are the only true cure for what has ailed humanity since the fall into sin. In the midst of our anxiety over the latest breaking news, we have a message of Good News that brings comfort to our troubled hearts weighed down by what our world now faces.
On Sunday, Missouri Governor has called for a ban on mass gatherings of more than fifty. This posed a challenge for many congregations to think through how to provide for the spiritual welfare of their members. But Monday saw the release of the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America which called for a limit of social gatherings to not more than ten people. While there is some question as to whether this applies to churches, we should certainly give consideration to these guidelines. As Lutheran Christians, we find ourselves at a complicated place where we are called to love God and His Word on one hand and to love our neighbor on the other hand. We are not being denied those rights afforded to us in the First Amendment. Rather, we are being asked to not make full use of our rights as St. Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9.
My counsel is that pastors and congregational leaders (usually Boards of Elders) meet to determine how they wish to demonstrate love for God and for their neighbors. We also recognize that not every congregation will come to the same decision, nor will all congregational leaders find themselves in agreement. While we may respond differently, we are united in our zeal for God’s Word and our concern for the needs of the weak and lowly among us during this pandemic. In Romans 14, St. Paul expressed concern for the weaker brother so that one would not pass judgment over another, but that they would bear with one another in love. This is certainly our Lord’s call to His Church for a time such as this. My hope is that we would not burden consciences but would be charitable toward one another as we seek to faithfully serve the people of God and our neighbors.
Here are some options that congregations should strongly consider but understand that the decisions ultimately rest with the local congregation.
• Congregations may find it wise to cancel Mid-week Lenten worship to focus attention on a plan for this coming Sunday.
• Many congregations are suspending worship for this fifteen-day period and directing members to their own livestream services or livestream services from neighboring congregations or The Lutheran Hour.
• Some congregations may choose to offer additional services but limit the attendees according Missouri Department of Health and Center for Disease Control guidelines. If the limit of ten people is lifted after fifteen days, this may be a path forward that many congregations were considering as we approach Holy Week.
• Many congregations are looking for ways to equip individuals and families for devotions in the home.
I would like to say that I feel better about the options that I have listed above. But as a Lutheran pastor, I always want the preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacrament be central to our life as the Church. But the Word and the Sacrament also lead us to show mercy to our neighbor in need. There is an obvious tension here for any decision that congregations make. But ultimately, the response of the Church during these exceptional times call for emergency measures. Many of you have recently read Martin Luther’s letter written during the Black Plague of 1527 as he masterfully holds love for God and neighbor in tension. More than a hundred years ago, LCMS congregations in St. Louis were faced with a similar crisis during the Spanish Flu outbreak and did close.
My prayer is that congregation leaders would hold in tension the love for God and His Word with the love for neighbor. But we can also be thankful for all of the ways in which we can still receive the Word of God. May God grant to these leaders a spirit of wisdom and understanding as they make their decision.
On our website under the banner of Coronavirus Response and Resources we will provide the following:
• A Brief Video Tutorial about Livestreaming services (will be posted on Wednesday 3/18).
• List of congregations that offer livestream services (will be posted on Wednesday 3/18 and updated).
• Devotional resources for individuals and families to teach the faith in the home.
• Link to Lutheran Church Extension Fund resource “Joyful Response,” an electronic direct deposit giving program for congregations.
• Information about support and care of church workers.
• Ideas for providing for Word and Sacrament ministry to God’s people that are faithful and creative.
• Additional guidelines for congregations to take steps to minimize potential contact and exposure of worshippers.
I held conference calls on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning with more than a hundred pastors from across the district. I will communicate with Circuit Visitors to continue to provide counsel to pastors throughout the pandemic. Please join me in praying that the Lord would strengthen us in our bonds of fellowship and our witness to the world!
Peace in Christ,
Rev. Dr. R. Lee Hagan
President, Missouri District