Read the announcements from Bishop Fisher
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 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
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.
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.