Friends in Christ,
It has been quite a week! Already it seems like a month since the decision to close churches. I am grateful for the stories I am hearing of people who are going out of their way to reach out to each other, especially by phone or video. Likewise I have heard of at least two instances where people ran bible studies and/or worship on video only to discover that the group was twice as big as normal, in part because shut-in people could join in as well as people who no longer live in the area. It may be worth keeping this up even after the doors open again.
In terms of worship, I am grateful for the number of churches who have made online worship available to their communities and beyond. Our National Offices are posting a list of participating churches here: https://presbyterian.ca/online-worship/ if you want to take advantage, or submit a link to your church.
As we look to the weeks ahead, a couple of thoughts. First of all, let me reiterate that everyone providing worship every week for every congregation might not be the best use of every person’s time. I understand the need to connect as a community and to hear the word of a beloved minister but, in these new circumstances, things can and will need to change. Not every church can do it and not every person can do it well, and for those who can, it is still a steep learning curve. Perhaps a bi-weekly devotional email (like they are doing at my church), or a streamed bible study is a better use of time and resources. Perhaps you could connect with a colleague or two and take turns leading an online worship service for a cluster of churches. I am concerned that this new reality will last longer than few weeks and that we should develop good habits around this.
Speaking of good habits, many are continuing to use their church buildings for broadcasting worship. While the Ontario law says that places of worship must be closed for all public gatherings (except for critical outreach ministries to vulnerable and marginalized communities), which has happened, it also says that employees should be sent home to work remotely. It is easy to argue that ministers are alone in the building or that they are practicing social distancing with others who are needed for music or production. However, this seems to be neither the letter of the law nor the spirit of the law. We are not simply called to keep ourselves and each other physically safe at this time. We are also called to set the example. It is hard for a child to understand why she can’t go to the park and play – even if she is playing alone – when her minister is standing in the church building. If you are continuing to stream worship or bible study, please set the example and do so from your home.
I mentioned earlier that I am concerned that this will go on longer than the two weeks initially imagined. Therefore I would like to offer some thoughts on stewardship. Already I have had conversations with churches considering laying off support staff and even ministers. Ministry and Church Vocations are in the process of developing guidelines around this which will be passed on as soon as possible. In the meantime, especially with support staff, while I can’t offer a definitive answer I would suggest that this be dealt with not only as a financial decision but a spiritual and moral one as well. Many of our staff will not be eligible for unemployment insurance due to the nature of their contracts or the few hours served and yet may rely on even their small income. Perhaps this could be a time to have people working at home on things the church has always hoped they might get around to but couldn’t given the busyness of their job.
As this continues I likewise believe it is appropriate to begin to talk with our people about stewardship. There will be those who will just keep their offerings until such time as worship resumes. Encouraging people to mail in their offering regularly to the church building or treasurer would help the church balance the books more consistently. However, increasingly people do not carry cash or use cheques. This crisis is a perfect time to implement online giving. E-transfer and Paypal are two very easy ways to forward money to the church. In either case I would suggest that you create a dedicated email for the money with the giver then separately informing the treasurer of the gift. Another option is Canada Helps (www.Canadahelps.org) This charitable website is already set up with your church’s name and information and people can donate right away. There is a small fee but right now that fee is a small price to pay to continue receiving gifts and offering. Finally there is PAR (pre-authorized remittance) I have attached a copy of the most recent PAR forms if you wish to distribute them.
At a time like this people forget that the expenses of the church continue even when church is not in session. It is appropriate in a helpful and hopeful way to remind them of this opportunity to be generous. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that foodbanks and shelters and other charities are also hurting financially and that for them, especially foodbanks, money goes much further in terms of buying power than actual gifts of food. Stewardship is one of the ways that we can make a difference in these days and I would encourage you to encourage others.
As we move forward on this, again be assured of our prayers and we are as close as email or the phone if we can support you in any way.
John-Peter & Tori Smit
PS Every year congregations are required to submit a T-3010 Charities Information Form to Revenue Canada. This year congregations have until December 31 to do so, a change from June 30.
An Addendum to This Pastoral Letter (emailed to all CNOB ministers on March, 27, 2020)
I have had a few people email to note that Ontario churches CAN livestream from their buildings. I am grateful for this input.
However, I still want to balance this, both with the example we set to our communities and a concern that we are trying to duplicate, in cyberspace, the full life of the church. I was grateful for this Facebook post that seems to summarize my thoughts.
“We need to stop trying to carry out every single meeting, task and activity online. Some things just need to be let go. ‘Flattening the curve’ also means ‘lowering the bar’ and prioritizing wellbeing above productivity.
This crisis is unbelievably stressful for all of us (Including Tori & I!) If for no other reason than that, let us prioritize the very best and most needed ministry we can do – and only the best of these.
John-Peter & Tori