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TORRINGTON, CT (SZS) Taking care of our health and looking out for others is at the center of being faithful steward leaders and members in Christ’s church. Our synod is unique. Our membership and our congregations are located across seven states and provinces in different regions of our country and Canada, each area exercising varying degrees of precaution and having diverse coronavirus hotspots. As the coronavirus situation continues to evolve, we remain focused on addressing the concerns of our members across the synod.

Because a vaccine against COVID-19 is not expected to become widely available until 2021, a key part of managing the COVID-19 pandemic is trying to decrease the epidemic peak, known as flattening the epidemic curve. The recent spike in uncontrolled transmission within a short amount of time points to the vulnerability and pressure on our healthcare resources and personnel, stressing their operational limits and posing a significant risk to our population. By doing our part in flattening the epidemic curve, and controlling transmission as best as possible, we help decrease the risk of health services being overwhelmed and provide more time for a vaccine and treatment to be developed, possibly on a more expedient timetable. And most important of all, we do our part in looking out for the health and well-being of all, being especially mindful of the most vulnerable among us – those who are of increased age, or with underlying health conditions.

Our Slovak Zion Synod Bishop Wilma S. Kucharek had this to say in regards to the latest coronavirus developments:

“You are all in my thoughts and prayers during these trying times. As the church, we are the body of Christ called to love God and care for our neighbor. You have my support as you make decisions affecting your worship and congregational life based on your local circumstances and the guidance of your state and medical authorities. At the same time, I encourage you to exercise an abundance of caution to slow the spread of this virus and protect as many people as possible, especially the aged and those with underlying health conditions. While we are separated by physical distance from each other in our congregations, let us take comfort that we can still meet with each other and our gracious God through other means and especially our prayers. May our Great Physician of body and soul be with the sick, the fearful, the vulnerable, and the grieving, and guide our pastors, congregational leaders, medical professionals, and governmental authorities, that all may experience the healing presence of Christ.”

Limiting social contact by maintaining physical distance as well as washing our hands and not touching our face is an important practice for the foreseeable future. In addition, those who show signs and symptoms of the illness, commonly including fever, cough, and shortness of breath, need to call their healthcare provider for guidance and refrain from exposing others in the community.

The recommended precautions within our houses of worship include foregoing physical contact during the sharing of the peace, adapting distribution methods for Holy Communion, and regular deep-cleaning of common areas, handrails, pews, communion rails, and other frequently-touched surfaces. While it is the stance of the church that the Body and Blood of Christ do not communicate illness, the same cannot be said about improperly handled bread or wine, our hands, or the surfaces or people we touch. Additional practices to be re-evaluated include the means by which the offering is collected, and how coffee hour is practiced. In addition, caution should be taken regarding social and other church meetings and gatherings, especially when they involve people being in close proximity to one another and depend on those most vulnerable to be present or participants.

Therefore, until the epidemic curve is decreased, it is our recommendation to all clergy and church leaders within the Synod to take seriously the recommendations of the governing authorities in your locale regarding mass gatherings. While the decision to suspend regularly scheduled worship and congregational events properly lies with the congregation’s Pastor and Council, we are asking you to follow the recommendations of the States of Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Michigan, Ohio, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and Her Majesty’s Provincial Government of Ontario, regarding travel, worship, and/or social gatherings when these are discouraged and in some areas outright prohibited.

Whenever it occurs that worship in person is not possible, it is recommended that alternate ways of pastoral connection and communication among members be developed. These include the enhanced use of telephone, email, social media, and digital technology to maintain connections and conduct meetings, Bible studies, spiritual devotions, parish communications, and prayer. Congregants are encouraged to continue their financial support of the congregation by mailing in their tithes and offerings. Those congregations that utilize the Synod’s website design and hosting service are reminded that they already possess the ability to livestream Services of the Word, sermons, and other resources, and can contact the Synod Office to coordinate with the Communications Desk to facilitate livestreams to their websites should they wish to do so. In addition, care must be taken to stay in touch via telephone and other means with the elderly and medically vulnerable regarding their spiritual and physical needs.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s resources on caring response in times of public health crisis include prayers, updated worship and planning suggestions and checklists to reduce the potential for spreading illness; Presiding Bishop Eaton’s statement about the situation can be found by clicking here. Her video message for this public health concern can also be viewed below. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring the outbreak and will continue to publish updates on their webpage found here.

Due to the spread of the coronavirus across continental Europe and the concerns of those who would potentially be traveling there, we have postponed our planned familiarization tour for the Central European region, “EuroTour 2020”, for a time in which we are fully confident that travel will not only be safe but also enjoyable. The itinerary, planned stops, and price points will remain the same, but the trip will now be known as “EuroTour 2021” with the main trip now taking place from May 26, 2021 through June 4, 2021. The webpage for EuroTour has been updated to reflect these new dates.

By contrast, at this time we do not expect any impact on our upcoming summer term for this year’s Student Immersion Program. Host congregations are encouraged to apply if they intend to host a student this summer (if they have not already applied), as the students have already applied and are looking forward to this experience. In the meantime, we have implemented additional reasonable health checks on our students and will continue to coordinate with the seminary in Bratislava and our partner churches, while following the guidance of the U.S. State Department; should anything change, we will provide further updates on this matter.

We are continuing with our plans for the next Synod Assembly which we anticipate to take place later in the fall, as originally planned. We will be announcing the dates and location for the assembly and opening registration within the coming months as details become available.

Presiding Bishop Eaton stated that Martin Luther “emphasized the duty to care for the neighbor, the responsibility of government to protect and provide services to its citizens, a caution about recklessness, and the importance of science, medicine and common sense.” We pray that you may find comfort in the thought that, in spite of all the challenges confronting us in these days, we remain members together of Christ’s church, connected to each other through the love of Christ.

Let us pray: O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (ELW; Evening Prayer)