January 6, 2022
A Pastoral Message to All Clergy and Warden
Dear Colleagues in Ministry,
It is hard to believe we have entered the third year of this pandemic. I am so grateful for your faithfulness, your resilience, your belief that, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).”
As Omicron seems to be everywhere, many are asking, “So, what do we do now?” There are tough decisions being made about church services and meetings. Sometimes, they are being made the night before as local data changes quickly from town to town. Some churches are staying in-person, at least for now. Some churches are choosing to go entirely online for a few weeks or the entire month of January. Please know that I support your leadership and your tough decisions – every one.
I, and most of my brother and sister bishops, now believe that these difficult decisions are best made locally. You know how large or small your church building is. You know how many people have been attending services in recent months. You know the anxiety of your people or the lack thereof. The Bishop of New Hampshire, Rob Hirschfeld, describes their policy as “guided autonomy.” We are taking the same approach here in WMA. The precautions below should guide you if you choose to continue in-person workshop during this winter wave.
• Masks should be mandatory except when reading or preaching
• Physical distancing is encouraged for people not of the same family
• Consider making the liturgy shorter: one or two less scripture readings, fewer hymns, the sign of peace should be a wave or a bow
• Holy Communion in bread alone
• “Coffee Hour” should be conversation only with everyone masked
If someone in your congregation does test positive, I invite you to follow the wisdom contained in this document from our deans. Our first response is always pastoral. Our second is to communicate effectively. I have seen how this information is guiding our rectors as positive cases continue to rise in our congregations.
Some have asked if permission is given to hold The Annual Meeting online. Yes, you have permission. You will need to ratify what you decided in your next in-person Annual Meeting but yes, you may meet on line and have valid elections and make decisions as many of you did in 2021.
With the author of Psalm 91, we pray, “May this plague pass us by.” But it has not. And yet, we are in a better place than we were a year ago. So many of us, who are medically permitted to do so, have acted for our health and for the common good by getting vaccinated and following current guidance and getting a booster shot. We will get through this, with God’s help. And, in the midst of this, God is with us and for us. In the Season after Epiphany, we focus on moments when God is made manifest in Jesus. May our congregations – gathered safely in-person or online – likewise be places where God may be found in the love of Jesus and the hope of the Holy Spirit.
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
Bishop of Western MA
December 21, 2021
From the Deans: What to do when congregants report testing positive for COVID-19
With news of the Omicron Variant and Christmas services nearing, we know that there may be some anxiety rising. The good news is that we have done an excellent job following recommendations of public health officials and over time we have come to know how best to care for our congregations. We can do this.
We know that the cold weather and holiday travel has led to rising cases in the past, and so it is wise for us to be ready to face this reality. It also seems more clear that the Omicron variant is proving to be more transmissible. That makes this a very good time to review our COVID policies and make plans for how to address where we are now.
Some congregations may find themselves affirmed in their choices, some may want to tighten up their restrictions. We are in a very different place than we were last Advent – most eligible members are vaccinated and even boosted. Our best defenses against COVID are masks, ventilation, vaccination, and testing as needed.
Even with these precautions, it is clear that there will be times in the upcoming months when parishioners will test positive for Covid-19. Below are some reminders of what we can do to let people know about the possible exposure. We’ve also included some sample language for emails and communications below.
June 29, 2021
Lifting All Diocesan COVID Restrictions Except One
Dear Friends in Christ,
I will be forever grateful for the faithful ways our congregations have responded to the challenges of the Pandemic. It has been a long journey. Yet even when our buildings were closed, the mission of the Church was wide open. Your decisions as to how to conduct worship were guided by science and love of neighbor. In the process, we remembered together that the Church is the people.
The world around us is now opening up again and restrictions are being lifted. This, also, is being guided by science and love of neighbor. Thank God for the vaccines that have brought us into a new and freer era. In my last written statement about in-person worship (March 24, 2021), I encouraged church leaders, ordained and lay, to make decisions based on your local contexts. We are one in Christ, but our circumstances are not the same. Since that time, our congregations have been moving back into their buildings at their own pace, with my full support. In your context, you may choose to continue to wear masks. Church leaders are encouraged to be in dialogue with families with young children to see what they need to feel safe in church. With God’s help we will continue to find ways to move forward.
Along the way, we have learned much about how to do on-line worship well. It requires work and attention. It is worth it. Again, depending on your context, see if you can continue on line presence in addition to in person worship. I have heard so many stories about shut-ins and others, near and far, who have been able to feel a part of our communities because of this good work.
With one exception, I write to you now to say that I am lifting all diocesan restrictions previously placed on in-person worship. Here is the one guideline we will keep in place: I encourage you, at least for now, to continue to offer Holy Communion with bread only. This is a guideline and not a mandate. Our people have many different perspectives on receiving from the Cup at this time. I know that some really want the return of the Cup. Others do as well, but see it as too risky. Holy Communion expresses our unity in Christ: though we are many, we are One. Yet it seems to me as if, at least for now, the common Cup may be a source of division and anxiety. I think of St. Paul’s wise council to those followers of Jesus in Corinth, when he wrote that all things may be lawful but not necessarily beneficial. I encourage you to wait a little while longer before restoring this vital element of our worship.
Throughout the Pandemic I have relied on advice and counsel from our Deans (Aileen DiBenedetto, Tanya Wallace, Michael Tuck, Nancy Webb Stroud and previously, Peter Swarr) and Canons Rich Simpson and Vicki Ix. Their wisdom, deep faith and generosity of time have been a great grace to me. Our weekly meetings helped me, and all of us, to model for our diocese what it means to be guided by science and love of neighbor. While we are taking a break for the summer, our meetings will resume on a regular basis for prayer and reflection as we face the work that now lies ahead of us. We remain, through it all, blessed to follow Jesus in his mission of mercy, compassion and hope. I am inspired by your faithful commitment to the Good News that the Living God is with us in all things.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western MA
March 24, 2021
A Word to Our Wardens and Parochial Clergy
Thank you once again for resilient, courageous, and faithful leadership in this pandemic. Because of your leadership, the mission of the church has continued. You have fed thousands, sheltered the homeless, opened your parish halls to children needing Wi-Fi for school, and communicated the Good News of Jesus through Zoom, live streaming and outdoor liturgy in parking lots. You have stayed in touch with parishioners who don’t have computers with letters and phone calls. I am so inspired by you. History will remember the lives you saved and the grace you conveyed.
Understandably, many are asking, “When will our churches re-open?” Our churches never closed. We necessarily suspended indoor worship and indoor gatherings. God was worshipped with great energy and creativity in this last year. Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope was present among us in powerful ways.
We long to see one another and pray together in our church buildings. In my last communication, I asserted that there is reason to hope we can gather together indoors after Easter, in small groups and in some church contexts. We closed buildings because of science and now we are moving toward re-opening based on science-not just because we are all so very weary of this pandemic. Vaccinations continue at a much improved pace. Although infections have not decreased in recent weeks, they have leveled off and hospitalizations and deaths have continued to decline. I encourage and support outdoor worship on Easter Sunday for congregations that feel ready to regather in-person. After Easter, some congregations will begin indoor worship attending to the most current measures of public safety. With regard to the distribution of Holy Communion, the sacrament of Baptism and Pastoral Care, the Expanded Guidelines for Stage 2 remain helpful.
I fully support those church leaders who cannot have indoor worship at this time. You know your context. Your church building might be too small to gather safely. Perhaps it does not have proper ventilation. Your community might be an “at risk” population. Your priest might not yet be vaccinated. There might be anxiety about doing this now. Given these concerns, it is better for some of our congregations to wait. Some church leaders have told me they will continue with outdoor worship or live streaming until the fall. That is a good and wise plan, too.
If you have gotten some feedback on your regathering plan, “go for it.” If you are creating a plan for the first time, I suggest you run it by a colleague. My staff, the regional deans, and I are all here for you to talk these decisions through with you.
With gratitude for all you have already done, with prayers for your continued love and care for the safety and health of God’s people, and with constant commitment to Jesus Mission, yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
Bishop of Western Massachusetts
February 25, 2021
A Pastoral Message: The Worst is Behind Us
Even though it is Lent, I am so tempted to shout “alleluia.” I’m hearing some health experts say that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. 1.7 million people a day are getting vaccinated. Pharmaceutical companies are ramping up production of vaccines. Another major company may join them upon approval soon. Wearing masks and physical distancing is working.
Thank you for staying faithful for so long. It has not been easy being faith communities without gathering in person. And yet you have stayed resilient. You have zoomed and live streamed the Good News of Jesus Christ. You have checked in on parishioners who can’t get on line. And you have stayed true to Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. You have partnered with other social agencies to address food insecurity in our neighborhoods and provided warm clothing for those in need during a very cold winter. The generosity of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in Western and Central Massachusetts is an inspiration to me.
It is my sincere hope that we can go back to in-person church services in the Easter Season. We would still have to follow all the guidelines we have provided. The first gatherings would be limited and then could grow as the risk of the disease lessens and lessens. We will still be wearing masks and practicing social distancing. And we might have to revise this new timeline if the variants cause the virus to surge again. If that happens, the Spirit will give us more resilience to do the right and loving thing.
The challenges we face remain contextual. One size does not fit all. Some buildings are more conducive to moving indoors than others; some of our congregations have big parking lots and others do not. Most importantly, we continue to pay attention to the science and the numbers and the rollout of vaccines. One of the things we’ve learned along the way, however, is to work together and to support one another. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is to let go of the temptation to be ‘lone rangers.’ And what we do in one parish affects, for good or ill, what happens in the neighboring one. For this reason I urge you to continue to have these honest conversations regionally, with your deans, who continue to gather weekly with me and Canons Rich Simpson and Vicki Ix as we have throughout this pandemic.
Thank you for your patience during all these months. You saved lives. We will gather in person for worship soon, I sincerely hope. Even in Lent we pray from the All Saints liturgy: “In the multitude of your saints, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might run WITH ENDURANCE THE RACE THAT IS SET BEFORE US, and together with them receive the crown of glory that never fades away.”
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western MA
January 21, 2021
A Pastoral Word From the Deans: Ash Wednesday
This year, we will be observing Ash Wednesday on February 17 at the end of 11 months of church life in the midst of global pandemic. We, the regional deans of our Diocese of Western Massachusetts, admit to weariness as we face yet another liturgical celebration with a pandemic difference.
Many, if not most, of our parishes offer the imposition of ashes at services on Ash Wednesday. Many parishes also have teams that offer “Ashes to Go” in public areas such as bus stations and shopping centers. Often, the ashes are created when a group meets at the church the night before for a “Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper” and the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday are burned ceremonially in the parking lot before everyone goes home. It is still not safe to gather for fellowship or worship, and we realize that we have to re-think what we are used to doing.
We offer these ideas about Ash Wednesday in the spirit of collegiality, knowing that each of us has learned much about public health and safety in the last year, especially within the context of our own parishes. We suggest that safely imposing ashes raises many of the same issues as safely offering the Holy Eucharist. Plan your observance of Ash Wednesday with the same care that you plan your Sunday morning celebrations and all shall be well.
- We remind you that the Book of Common Prayer does not require the imposition of ashes. (See page 265.) A blessing for the ashes and words of imposition are only offered as an option.
- Because of the difficulty of maintaining social distance, we suggest that clergy do not impose ashes on the foreheads of the people.
- Likewise, we suggest that there is no pandemic-safe way to offer Ashes to Go.
- Ashes may be blessed in advance by the clergy, placed in small containers, and distributed to households before Ash Wednesday, perhaps included with a prayer for imposing ashes on oneself or as part of a remote act of worship.
- The people may be instructed to impose ashes on their own foreheads or to impose ashes on the heads of others in their households.
- Ashes are a symbol of our mortality, and the Cross is a symbol of Christ’s victory over death. Are there other symbols of this tension that might be employed in your context?
If you have other ideas you would like to try, we encourage you to call your dean and talk it over. And we invite you to share your ideas with your colleagues.
Finally, a brief note about masks and physical distancing in remote worship: please remember that because so many of our services are posted on-line or even broadcast on cable television, how we wear masks and observe physical distance makes a statement beyond our local context. Even if we know that two people in our worship service belong to the same family, others might see a lack of masks as loose adherence to COVID protocols. As public leaders, we have a higher responsibility to ensure that we promote the practices that reduce the virus’s spread in our communities. Thank you for your continued care for God’s people in these exceedingly challenging times.
The Rev. Aileen DiBenedetto, Worcester
The Rev. Tanya R. Wallace, Franklin-Hampshire
The Rev. Nancy Webb Stroud, Hampden
The Rev. Michael Tuck, Berkshire
November 19, 2020
A Pastoral Word from the Episcopal Bishops in Massachusetts
with Updated Pandemic Guidance
Dear people of the Dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts,
Our first word to you is one of deep gratitude. In the past eight months our churches have responded to the challenges of this pandemic with commitment and creativity. You have found new ways to worship, continued to provide life-sustaining ministry in your communities, and remained in supportive fellowship with one another. Despite widely shared anxiety and fatigue, you have nonetheless remained faithful to the core identity of the church. We are grateful beyond measure. God bless you.
Our second word to you is one of grave concern and utmost caution. Over the past several weeks, the spread of the coronavirus has increased dramatically in the Commonwealth. Infection levels have returned to levels not seen since spring. On November 2, Governor Baker issued revised measures, imposing stricter controls on gatherings in both private and public settings. As we move into colder weather and flu season, we believe that clear and present risks in our communities demand a similar response from people of faith to help protect ourselves and one another. Jesus’s Law of Love simply must be our foremost and abiding concern. […]
The guidelines below represent our hope that renewed restrictions, while causing short-term disappointment, will help us all traverse the coming months in greater health and with genuine care for one another, as Jesus has commanded.
We know and grieve that the timing of these restrictions means that Advent and Christmas simply will not be observed with many of our cherished traditions this year. Instead it will be a year for small, quiet, contemplative possibilities – perhaps not unlike the lonely stable in Bethlehem shared by that little family at the Incarnation, where Christ first came to meet all our hopes and fears.
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop Diocesan, Diocese of Western Massachusetts
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop Diocesan, Diocese of Massachusetts
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan, Diocese of Massachusetts
August 6, 2020
Bishops Expand Guidelines for Stage Two
Dear People of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts,
The attached document, “Expanded Guidelines for Stage Two,” is offered as a supplement to “A Journey By Stages,” the document presented to our two dioceses in May 2020. This supplement provides protocols for the administration of the two dominical sacraments, Holy Communion and Holy Baptism.
We know well the deep yearning for full sacramental practice in the church, and your bishops share the grief many of you are experiencing due to the pandemic-imposed Eucharistic fast. The enclosed guidelines provide for limited administration of Holy Communion and Baptism in places where they may be practicable. A word on Confirmation will be forthcoming. […]
Even as we prepare to issue these guidelines, however, sobering reports suggest the need for extreme caution. Daily case counts, seven-day average test rates, and hospitalizations are all rising in the Commonwealth. Many experts predict a second surge soon. Given these realities, we underscore the following:
1. Permission, not Persuasion: The following protocols for cautious administration of the sacraments, as vetted by health care experts, are authorized at this time. Nevertheless, no clergy or congregational leaders should feel pressured or obliged to undertake them. […]
2. Prepare to Reverse: Every congregation should be prepared to return to the restrictions of previous stages in the event of future surges or positive tests and contact tracing within the congregation. Neither faithful prayer nor wishful thinking allow us to risk the well-being of self or neighbor. […]
3. Consider the Most Vulnerable: Many congregants and staff members will be advised to remain at home on account of risk factors, or will feel safer doing so. […]
The weeks and months ahead remain shrouded in uncertainty. But we have learned much in the past five months about how to worship the God who sustains us; how to remain in community with one another; how to serve the world around us; how to be the church even in these trying times. May we continue to live with patience, forgiveness, sacrifice and courage.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
Bishop of Western MA
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
Bishop of MA
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris
Bishop Suffragan of MA
June 25, 2020
Deanery Metrics for Entering Stage 2 of “A Journey By Stages”
July 1 is approaching and the suspension of in-person services has been reconsidered on the basis of measurable data in each deanery provided by local health officials. The metrics are the same as those used by our Commonwealth. Our deaneries are distinct counties with the exception of Hampshire-Franklin deanery which encompasses two counties. Local data of the towns in each deanery has been interpreted by health care professionals. I am grateful to our deans who have risen to the challenge of this time with faith and clarity of purpose. And to members of our churches who work in the medical field who are assisting our deans with this important work, I give you thanks for your time and service to the Church.
Dr. Donna Barten
Dr. Rachel Walker
Bernadette A. Brusco, MA Public Health
It is critical here to restate what has been written in “A Journey By Stages” Part 2.“No congregation will be forced to make changes or to hold public services or events. Individual congregations may always choose to remain under the policies from an earlier stage. All congregations should be prepared to move back to a previous stage should public health conditions worsen.” It’s important, too, to remember that our stages are distinct and separate from the “phases” of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
If the metrics indicate that a congregation may enter Stage 2 after July 1, the leadership may submit the completed plan to the dean for collegial support, and await final authorization from my office to begin in-person services as they are permitted in Stage 2. Congregations may also elect to remain in Stage 1 for a time or until metrics allow for Stage 3 worship. Several congregations have already decided to continue worship online until after Labor Day.
Many around the nation are just beginning to experience a surge of COVID-19 cases. We have lost 7,938 souls to COVID-19 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This number represents an unimaginable loss. We are marking the deaths of the faithful here in our diocese. COVID-19 has also created an economic tidal wave of joblessness and the collapse of many small businesses. The pandemic has revealed the weakness of our social safety net and the internalized racism in our systems. We have much work to do and the Church is uniquely positioned to be part of the mending of the fabric of the common good.
We cannot know what lies ahead, but we surely know the cost of this virus. Permission to enter Stage 2 may be granted, but I urge continued caution and consideration for our most vulnerable people and clergy. I urge you to make every decision with the wisdom of science and the guidepost of love. I urge you to give priority to the needs of the newly poor and listen to the voices of those who have been silenced for too long.
There is so much about this virus that medical professionals do not know. All of our recommendations and guidelines are based on the best information we have at this time. The situation may change in the fall. We need to be nimble and ready for such changes. We all hope and pray that science will prevail soon and a vaccine will become available. In the interim, love of neighbor means doing our part to model best practices as individuals and as communities of faith.
We are in new territory as Church. The gift of digital ministry has become clear as we engage people who have never crossed our threshold. I give thanks for all of you – for your faith, for your patience in these difficult days and for your bold witness that the mission continues.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western Massachusetts
June 10, 2020
Letter to Clergy & Wardens: Worksheet and Guide for A Journey By Stages
While the Bishops’ Pastoral Directive, A Journey by Stages , provides specific guidance about how to operate as congregations during this time, that document was issued as just that: to guide Episcopalians across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in our two dioceses. Yet context matters. This letter and the COVID-19 Congregational Checklist are intended to provide further support to our congregations in the work that lies ahead. Of course there will be unusual circumstances and special situations. We hope that many of these issues will be addressed by local clergy, in consultation with lay leaders and the shared wisdom of deanery clergy. We are entering into a time where we need to rely on your experience, wisdom, and the gifts you have been given.
Nothing in these guidelines supersedes guidance from the CDC, MA DPH, or your local Boards of Health. The goal is to provide more detailed guidance as a follow-up to A Journey By Stages to help you make faithful decisions as local Christian communities.
While the length of this document and the magnitude of the work ahead of us may seem daunting, we recommend that you use the following worksheet as you engage with parish leadership in conversation, decision making, and preparation. Engaging the worksheet together can help provide direction forward and shape conversations. The finished product will be what’s submitted to your dean for further conversation and approval.
Your colleagues in ministry,
The Rev. Dr. Richard Simpson, Canon to the Ordinary
The Rev. Vicki Ix, Canon for Communications
The Rev. Aileen DiBenedetto, Dean of the Worcester Clericus
The Rev. Peter Swarr, Dean of the Hampden Clericus
The Rev. Michael Tuck, Dean of the Berkshire Clericus
The Rev. Tanya Wallace, Dean of the Franklin-Hampshire Clericus
June 10, 2020
Resources from the June 10, 2020 Financial Town Hall (Zoom meeting) with Canons Steve Abdow and Susan Olbon
- Director’s and Officer’s Coverage
- Letter to rectors, wardens, and treasurers about remote giving options
- Coronavirus: Safety Tips for Religious Organizations
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Benefits
- PDF of slides from the Financial Town Hall
May 18, 2020
Bishops Issue Guidelines for Resuming In-Person Worship
Read the guidelines here
This evening we are sharing guidelines for returning to in-person worship. I have worked with Bishop Alan Gates and Bishop Gayle Harris of the Diocese of Massachusetts so that the Episcopal Church in the Commonwealth can walk together in these days. The canons and deans of both dioceses have been an integral part of this work, and I am particularly grateful for the leadership of Canon Bill Parnell of the Diocese of Massachusetts and our own Canon to the Ordinary, Rich Simpson, throughout this process.
While the Governor’s plan goes into effect tomorrow, I remind you all that no congregation may return to in-person worship before July 1, and only when the criteria for readiness have been met, affirmed by the deans and approved by diocesan leadership.
Following the Governor’s announcement this morning, the Boston Globe reports that several epidemiologists have said that “a second wave of infection is possible, likely even. They noted that a return to church and worship services could be especially problematic.” It is reported that several large outbreaks in other states have originated in churches. Gathering is still not safe. Our first priority remains the health and well-being of our communities. We must be deliberate and comprehensive in our preparations. Our deans are developing a checklist specific to our congregations that will be part of preparing for Stage 2. This checklist will be sent to rectors and wardens as soon as it is complete.
I continue to be grateful for your faith in this time of pandemic. We have continued to be the Church in new and hopeful ways. I bid your prayers for those who have died from this virus and for all who grieve them. Doctors, nurses, essential workers are living icons of God’s love for us, and they need our prayers especially. Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope continues with passion and creativity. It is good for us to imagine gathering again as God’s people. We will undertake this journey in stages trusting that God goes before us and beside us
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
May 9, 2020
Pastoral Directive from the Bishop: Love of Neighbor Guides Our Way Forward
To the faithful of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts:
A prayer from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, minds and souls, and love our neighbors as ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and sorrow. Amen.”
I have prayed that prayer every day for these two months because it speaks so powerfully to the present moment. Three things are true. These are days of emotional tension, with gigantic problems and chaos. It is true that God is with us. And at the heart of following Jesus is love of neighbor. It is all true.
Thank you for loving your neighbor in these days. Our doctors, nurses, hospital staff and first responders, and all essential workers are truly saints. I have witnessed incredible generosity and pastoral care from all of you. Thank you for staying at home and practicing physical distancing when you are out. And thank you for being faithful people of prayer, in your private prayer and by gathering with others online. The Church is truly open and at work in the world.
How can we continue to be faithful followers of Jesus regarding our worship in our church buildings in the days, weeks and months ahead? Here is where we do not want to be “chaotic in detail.” I am meeting with a team in our diocese and with Bishop Alan Gates and his team in the eastern diocese (which includes two of the top epidemiologists in the Commonwealth) to develop a plan going forward. The plan will always be open to adjustment as circumstances require. Here is what is certain right now:
1) Our church buildings will remain closed for worship through July 1. Listening to medical experts and loving our neighbor make this decision clear. It also allows our congregations to settle into online worship which has developed quickly and faithfully. Remember every church does not have to conduct these services. We can collaborate with other churches locally and with our National Cathedral. During this time, our team will be working on plans for moving forward toward safe in-person worship in our church buildings and we will coordinate those plans with our sister diocese to the east so there will be one plan for the Commonwealth.
2) We commit to having guidelines available to our congregations by July 1 so that may mark the beginning of phasing in worship in our church buildings. What those phases are and how long each one will take, is yet to be determined. The priority each step along the way will be safety and love of neighbor. We had hoped it would be an “Easter reopening” with our doors wide open to everyone but Church leadership throughout the nation has already said, with clarity and faithfulness, that is not safe and not possible. If science tells us that July is too soon, we will watch and wait and continue our suspension of in-person services.
3) Pentecost. You are invited, all our church members and your friends, to a very special Diocesan Pentecost Liturgy online on May 31 at 10 am. We will feast on the Word, renew our Baptismal Vows together, and experience music from many voices across our diocese. It will be my joy to preside and preach, to gather us all as one flock on this holy day.
Remember our church buildings are still closed but Jesus’ Mission of Mercy, Compassion and Hope continues even as we grieve the unimaginable losses- all the saints who have been taken from our midst by COVID-19 and those who have died from other causes and for whom we have not been able to mourn in our comforting traditional liturgies. God’s mission continues as we gather online for prayer and bible study, as we reach out to those who are not online in creative ways, deliver food to the hungry curbside, and wear masks for the love of strangers. If you are feeling depressed or anxious or know others who are, our clergy and lay pastoral care ministers are here for you. Jesus’ Mission is as important as ever. Come Holy Spirit and make us a New Creation as we face new challenges. Love is stronger than death.
The Right Reverend Douglas J. Fisher
April 20, 2020
Paycheck Protection Program Loan
We have good news to share with you. The federally funded Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides payroll loans available to not-for-profits, including churches, to cover compensation and employer-paid health and retirement benefits for eight weeks.
For payroll purposes, the IRS recognizes the Diocese as the sole employer of all of our congregations’ employees. Because of this we were able to successfully apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan on behalf of all our congregations with a single application.
This loan will turn into a grant at the end of the eight-week period if employment and compensation levels stay within 90% of where when we began. We are confident that the total payroll and employee count for the diocese as a whole will remain as it was when this started and the loan will become a grant. We will use figures for all the congregations combined and not for each individual parish so don’t worry if there has been a small change in your staff. Having said, that, however, the next two months is not the time to reduce staff; this Act is meant to provide not only individuals but local communities with some level of economic security in precarious times.
All employees who receive a W2 from the Diocese are covered, including preschool employees and clergy. The intent of this loan program is to help organizations keep their employees whole over the next few months so that the organization remains properly staffed and can continue to operate as the crisis subsides. The goal is to keep people employed for the long run. We are proud that you have been able to maintain staffing levels and we want you to be able to continue that while we discover what our ministries will look like going forward.
The payroll and benefits for the week of April 20 will go out to employees as it normally does, but your bank accounts will not be debited by the Diocese.
This funding from our government, along with the forgiveness of your April and May assessments to support our common ministry will give all of our congregations some relief from the financial pressure we are experiencing. To say this is highly unusual would be an understatement. Please take this time to review your budgets and financial projections for the period following these two months. Canon Steve is available to assist you.
We are in uncharted waters now and will need to use our creativity and know-how to make plans to continue our ministries at the very time that the world’s needs are so great. Our neighbors need us to be the Church more than ever, and we were made for times like this! By the time we get to the fiftieth day of Easter, the Feast of Pentecost, we pray that the Holy Spirit will be helping us to get clearer about what it means to do the work God has given us to do in this time and place, and always with God’s help. May we look more and more like resurrection and not just resuscitation. To do that, our budgets going forward should reflect our plan for ministry both locally and globally.
May the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up and what was old is being made new. As we move through our fears and step into faith, may we see this as a time of revitalization and not merely of survival, for our diocese and for each and every congregation.
April 2, 2020
Our Diocese will file for us all.
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act impact on the congregations of the Diocese of Western MA
The federal government is providing the country with $2 trillion in financial relief and support. There are a number of options for employers to choose from as to how to apply for and receive aid. Employers can only choose one option.
The Paycheck Protection Program (one option in the CARES Act) offers loans to not for profits including churches for two months of payroll expense. The loan is forgiven and becomes a grant if eight weeks after the loan originates the employee count is the same as it was at the start of the loan. The intent is to get organizations through two months so they are in a better position to successfully operate afterwards, and to keep people employed.
Since we do payroll for the entire diocese under one tax ID, for payroll purposes the IRS considers all employee to be employed by the Diocesan office. We believe that parishes would not be successful seeking payroll relief on their own since their tax IDs are not recognized by the IRS.
Therefore we are in the process of submitting ONE APPLICATION FOR THE ENTIRE DIOCESE. Parishes should not seek relief through the CARES Act on their own. We have a strong relationship with our SBA Lender bank. We have received counsel that this is a realistic path. Our bank tells me they will be ready to accept applications on Monday.
Please utilize existing resources to keep your employees whole while this unfolds. If it goes how we hope it will be a great benefit to our ministries.
March 26, 2020
Council Approves Assessment
Forgiveness for April and May 2020
We understand the financial pressure congregations are facing these days. This afternoon Diocesan Council voted to suspend the collection of Common Ministry assessments for a period of two months. Assessment payments for April and May have been forgiven. We will cancel those two scheduled EFT withdrawals.
If your congregation is making ends meet and you are able to continue supporting our Common Ministry, we will gratefully accept all or some portion of your assessment. Your contributions will be used to support other congregations. You may send a check, if this feels right. Regardless, we offer this suspension to enable you to continue God’s mission locally.
March 24, 2020
Governor Baker’s Executive Order Regarding Non-essential Businesses Effective Noon Today
Colleagues in ministry,
Yesterday our governor notified the Commonwealth that a stay-at-home order went into effect at 12:00 PM today. The closure of all non-essential businesses is part of a strategic effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. In addition to suspending in-person services, I encourage you to proceed as follows:
1. Close all offices in all parishes and worshipping communities of our diocese and direct all staff to work from home as much as is possible. Some who work from home still need to go to the church office to check mail or gather other paperwork to bring home. This is acceptable as needed.
2. Continue finding innovative ways to share regular worship in our parishes and worshipping communities using online technology. In all circumstances, the directives to practice physical distancing and healthy and safe behaviors to avoid the spread of COVID-19 should be observed. Worship should include no more than ten in-person leaders, standing six or more feet apart. Ideally such in-person worship leadership would be limited to one ordained person and one other facilitator/videographer/acolyte/reader, etc. as necessary.
3. Parishes and worshipping communities are urged to continue as much as possible, following physical distancing and healthy and safe behaviors to avoid the spread of COVID-19, their ministries with/to 12-step communities and those who are food and housing insecure. We have several congregations offering 12-step “meetings” via ZOOM. Others are welcoming participants to enter the church building with very specific directions related to physical distancing and cleaning the space afterward. We now must work within the Governor’s instruction, so no more than ten persons may attend such meetings. Food pantries around the Commonwealth are creating new protocols to continue to provide food to the hungry and working poor in our communities. I encourage you to support their efforts, if possible.
For people of faith, being Christian community is our essential service and we are already doing that in new ways. I thank you for your creativity, faithfulness and perseverance in the most challenging ministry context of our time. Many are staying connected through a daily email prayer. Some are utilizing Facebook LIVE, ZOOM, and YouTube to pray The Office or to stream the Holy Eucharist. An ever-growing list of these “gatherings” may be found here. There is no wrong way to minister at this time. There is only the call to tend our sheep in whatever way feels right for each community of faith.
Pope Francis has asked people of faith around the world to engage the prayer that Jesus taught us as a means of connecting us to one another and to the God who is in the midst of our suffering. So I ask you to invite all Episcopalians to pray The Lord’s Prayer at 12:00 PM on Wednesday, March 25. If every follower of Jesus turns to God in this way, with one voice, what a moment that will be. In a time of Eucharistic fasting, the words, “Give us this day our daily bread” have special meaning. They remind us that the Word of God is life for us and sustenance in these days. Know that I will be praying with you and for you as these days unfold.
These are days that require us to take a long view, and to pace ourselves for a season of intense ministry. These moments of shared prayer are no less important than the good work being done on new platforms and in cyber spaces. No one needs to be doing it all. The opportunities to partner with others are even greater in virtual spaces. I am grateful for the experimentation but I also encourage you to do something you know I struggle with myself: slow down. Make time for processing grief and loss. Stay with what is essential to your ministry and to your well-being and let some other things lay fallow for a time. I know that’s hard. I also think it’s crucial as we prepare to face the days, and weeks, and months that are ahead of us. Be still, and know that God is still God.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western Massachusetts
March 19, 2020
Suspension of In-Person Services Extended to Include April 12 – Easter Sunday
Colleagues in ministry,
On March 13th I encouraged the suspension of in-person services for a period of two weeks. Since that time we have come to understand more about the trajectory of the pandemic. Today, with our Presiding Bishop, I strongly encourage us all to refrain from gathering in-person through and including April 12. Our physical separation must be extended to ensure that we make every effort to “lower the curve” of the virus, and protect our healthcare system from being overloaded. This pastoral directive includes adaptations of liturgy that place the priest closer than the recommended six feet required for effective social distancing. My hope is that we will continue to model complete observance of what the WHO and CDC recommend. As their prescriptions shift, ours must too. There are positive cases in every corridor now. Many of those in our care are highly vulnerable. We do not want to be the reason people leave their homes – even if it is for a spiritual good.
This means that we will not gather in person to live the mystery and wonder of Holy Week. It means, too, that we will not share the joy of Easter in our beloved worship spaces. This is a poverty and a source of sadness. At the same time, our congregations have been adapting to being Church now in creative ways. We are continuing to be Church in new spaces and grounding our days with common prayer. Nothing can replace the power and joy of gathering as God’s people, but we are moving through this wilderness together. Connections are being nurtured and deepened. What constitutes pastoral care has been expanded. We have been unrelenting in our prayer and in our “presence” to one another.
We are in the initial stages of a new dream for our Holy Week and Easter. We will let you know as plans take shape. I want to thank you all for your courage and faith in these days. This is, indeed, a very holy Lent. And, Easter will come in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. We can’t know what the Great 50 Days will bring, but we trust in the One who will be with us no matter what.
Be assured of my prayers for you as you faithfully serve God’s people. I encourage you all to take your day “off” and to keep a healthy balance between the work that feels so vital and your need for rest and the integration of this event into your own lives and families. I am grateful to you all and grateful to God for the faith that binds us.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop
March 13, 2020
Two-week Suspension of Services: Be Witnesses of Hope
Colleagues in ministry,
I have been hearing from many of you about the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. Many of you have expressed concerns about gathering for worship, and as I said in my last posting, I support you in responding pastorally to your local needs. Others are finding ways to gather together, with care, and I want to support that response as well. Things continue to change, however, and there is increasing anxiety and fear for many about gathering in person for Sunday worship. Liturgy should not provoke fear and anxiety. Therefore, I encourage congregational leadership to suspend public worship services, and other gatherings of congregants, for the next two Sundays – March 15 and March 22. After two weeks we will reevaluate based on the recommendations of local and state health officials. I encourage all of our congregations to do this, not just those in areas that have positive cases of the virus. If you feel you can gather safely and without anxiety, I support you. This is not a mandate.
Even as we embrace the need for social distancing, we are called to keep holy the Lord’s Day. I invite us all to explore new ways to pray together, using the tools of this age and The Book of Common Prayer. I invite our churches to develop networks to check in on one another and offer pastoral care. It’s important that we stay connected to one another as we navigate these days of uncertainty. Our faith is our greatest gift and best defense when the global community is rocked by fear. We may use these two weeks as a time to go deep in prayer, to reach out to the isolated and fearful among us in creative ways, and to be witnesses of hope.
I have been in virtual meetings with the House of Bishops all week. This was by no means easy or commensurate with the experience of being with my colleagues and friends in person. I know the adaptations we are making cannot replace the power and joy of gathering as God’s people, but we take this time apart because of love. As we move forward, may we do it in love for one another, and for this world that God so loves.
Let us pray:
Your love is living water
flowing through us.
In these days of separation,
water the seeds of contemplation
and move us to compassionate action.
For the good of your beloved ones
who wait, and long, and pray,
and for the creation groaning
with new life beneath the dust,
in Jesus’ name we pray.
The Rt. Reverend Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western Massachusetts
March 11, 2020
Diocesan Meetings and Events During the Outbreak
Today we are considering some practical issues as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds in the Commonwealth, and in our diocese. With the Executive Team, I am making the following adaptations for the health and well-being of our communities.
- Diocesan Council, Fresh Start, commissions and committees will meet via the ZOOM platform, as much as possible.
- I have given diocesan staff the option to work remotely.
- We are cancelling the gathering of clergy here on Tuesday, April 7 in favor of a virtual gathering for prayer and the blessing of oils. The oils will be shipped to our deans for local pick-up/distribution.
- Clergy Conference is “on” for now. We’ll keep you posted.
Due to the pastoral nature of my visit with Worcester clergy on March 19, this event at All Saints’ will take place, as planned. My own schedule of meetings will be adjusted as we go along, with my pastoral responsibilities as determinant.
We are facing a challenge for which the Church came into being. We have the opportunity to comfort and assure one another that God is God, and this epidemic will not go on forever. There are wonderful resources surfacing that confirm our pastoral role and help us all think outside the box in terms of communication, and what it means to worship “together.” For now, finding ways to reach out, stay connected and preach the Good News is our work.
I realize that all of you are struggling with these same kinds of decisions. “Should the vestry meet?” “What about clericus?’ “Is Coffee Hour a good idea right now?” “Should we be worshiping on Sunday at all?”
This is a rapidly evolving situation and we may not be able to keep up with the minute-by-minute advice from the Commonwealth, the CDC and the WHO. I want to be very clear. I believe in you and I have faith in your capacity to make the local decisions, as I have done at 37 Chestnut Street. Know that I will support you in whatever decision you make for the common good – even if you decide not to worship in person on Sunday. I am listening, learning and praying along with you in this. I am doubling-down on my prayers, too, for you and for the grace and wisdom these days require from us all.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western Massachusetts
March 10, 2020
Pastoral Directive in Response to COVID-19
March 10, 2020 Clergy, lay leadership and people of God, The impact of COVID-19 can be felt around the world, and the suffering of those in the countries in which it was first identified should be in our prayers. We have been communicating the precautions issued from the Centers for Disease Control and from our Commonwealth. For the love of our neighbors and the good of all people in our communities, I am issuing the following directive regarding the celebration of the Eucharist.
Effective immediately, and until further notice, I ask all priests, of and serving in our diocese, to consecrate a small amount of wine. When it is time to minister the bread and wine to the altar party and congregation, the cup of wine is to be left untouched upon the altar as the bread is distributed. Christ’s abiding presence in the breaking of the bread and in the one cup of our salvation is to be preserved, but the consecrated Blood of Christ should be returned to the earth and not consumed. It is important that the priest and altar party not be an exception, but rather abstain from the wine in solidarity with the assembly. I am grateful to the Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, Bishop Suffragan and Ecclesiastical Authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, who may be the first among the House of Bishops to find a middle way that reflects our tradition and our deep concern to address the developing science around this virus as we make our thanksgiving. I reiterate the following precautions as our communities continue to gather on Sunday.
- Priest and all ministers of the table must wash hands before the service and use hand-sanitizer before the distribution of Holy Communion. Anyone who touches the bread must observe this protocol, including members of the Altar Guild.
- The Peace is to be expressed without shaking hands. Clergy are to refrain from shaking hands before or after the celebration.
- Please do not pass the plate, but ask ushers to reach in to the pews to collect the offering.
- Baptismal fonts must be drained, and disinfected before liturgical use.
- Please ask the Altar Guild to sanitize the altar rail before and after the liturgy.
- Please provide disposable gloves for Coffee Hour hosts to wear when preparing food and drink to be shared.
- Hand-sanitizer should be readily to the congregation.
- If you cough or sneeze, please do so into your elbow, or use tissue that may be disposed of at home.
- If you have a cough or feel at all unwell, please remain at home.
- Ask members to notify the Church if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, for both practical and pastoral reasons.
As the news about this illness changes day by day, and sometimes throughout a given day, we may find ourselves growing fearful and anxious. In addition to being a health concern, COVID-19 presents us with a pastoral opportunity to engage and be a non-anxious presence in our congregations. Here are a few things to consider now.
- Communicate with your congregations about precautions and protocols. Rather than simply send my directive, use your voice, your relationship with members to affirm that our Church is taking this seriously, but will not yield to panic.
- Be mindful of members who rely on an hourly wage and may experience a disruption in income.
- Encourage phone checks on those who may be most vulnerable to COVID-19. Elders among us seem to be at greatest risk.
- Consider some financial options should worship attendance diminish or be cancelled by local health authorities.
- Investigate online platforms that may be useful if physically gathering becomes impossible for a time, or to enable at-risk congregants to worship from home. Facebook LIVE, ZOOM, Google Hangouts are all good options for staying connected on Sunday and for maintaining connection during days that demand isolation. We know of at least three congregations who are live-streaming their Sunday celebration: St. Mark’s, East Longmeadow; St. Andrew’s, Longmeadow; Christ Trinity Church, Sheffield.
- Learn more about responding pastorally at this time. US Disaster Program – a part of Episcopal Relief and Development – is offering a webinar on March 13.
These are challenging days for us all. Fear of something like this is truly human, but as followers of Jesus, we know we can give this to burden to God – even as we do all that is ours to do. Do you remember when we talked about “doubling-down” on prayer? Let’s do that. Let’s carry this together and send all our love out to those whose lives have already been effected. May we never forget that we are connected – all members of the Body of Christ. When one suffers, all suffer. Our Presiding Bishop reminded us today that “we are in this together, we can walk through this together, and we will find our way in our life together.”
Let us pray:
FOR PEOPLE CRITICALLY ILL,
OR FACING GREAT UNCERTAINTY
Adapted from A New Zealand Prayer Book
God of the present moment,
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to us
as we wait in uncertainty.
Bring hope that you will make us the equal
of whatever lies ahead.
Bring us courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
you are God, and we need you.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop
CHURCH PENSION GROUP PAYMENT DEFERRALS:
Church Insurance will be extending payments for 90 days beyond the effective/due date before cancellation. You may receive system generated notices during the extension. Please call the Church Insurance billing department at 1-800-819-2984 if you have any questions or receive a notice.
The Episcopal Church Medical Trust is providing a 90-day extension on employee benefit premiums for health insurance.
The Church Pension Fund is providing the same extension on pension assessments.
We encourage you to ask the members of your congregation to continue to financially support their church to the extent they are able, especially those among us who have pledged support for this year.
You will need to encourage remote giving which can take place in three ways:
- Members mail their pledge payment to the church office
- Schedule automatic payments through your bank’s online banking service (recurring payments are the most reliable and helpful way to fulfill your pledge)
- Provide online giving capability on your website through an established giving platform for either one time or recurring giving.
A recommended online giving platform is Tithely. They offer a discounted to members of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship of which all congregations of the diocese are members. They provide excellent support as a rule. There is no additional fee at all and you can get set up very quickly.
The Tithely TENS rate for credit card transactions is 2.75%+30c per transaction. Normally they are 2.9%+30c.
Other giving platform options can be found here.
The Episcopal Church is publishing updates.
Episcopal Church Foundation has a list of COVID-19 response resources that they will continue to update.
The MA Council of Churches has a tremendous list of COVID-19 response resources.
FROM THE TRUSTEES:
Here is a copy of the letter that Mick Kalber, Executive Director of the Trustees for the Diocese sent out a week ago:
In these uncertain and troubling times, I am passing along some information to you and your congregations regarding your Trustees funds.
As you recall, the Trustees’ spending policy calculates its quarterly disbursement based upon the average ending market value of the Fund over the past 20 quarters. The relatively good news is that the 1Q 2020 ending market value, while expected to be dramatically lower, will be largely offset by the previous 19 ending market values. Thus, the disbursements you will receive the end of April are expected to be only about 1% lower than the disbursements you received last January. I want to allay your concerns of a dramatic reduction of your 1Q 2020 disbursements.
Diocesan House closed today for the foreseeable future, with only some members of the staff coming in occasionally to perform tasks they cannot do remotely. Thus, to expedite any Trustees requests you may submit, please communicate electronically – not using the U.S. Postal Service. I am working remotely and will respond to emails and voice mails: firstname.lastname@example.org / 413-417-2339.
Don’t hesitate to call me with any questions you may have. I’ll do my best to minimize any service delays.
POTENTIAL PARISH ACTIONS:
Here are a few ideas about other ways to manage cash flow:
- Make sure the thermostats are reduced to be consistent with the reduced occupancy of the building. Consider turning off the furnace/hot water heater when it is warm enough and usage allows.
- Make sure the building is buttoned up – windows, doors.
- Minimize electrical usage – turn off all lights, unplug appliances.
- Revise cleaning intervals consistent with space usage
- See if you can preserve cash by changing utilities payments to budget plan
- Consider if any changes need to be made in the arrangements allowing creditors to withdraw amounts from your checking account without further authorization.