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Advent and Christmas during COVID-19: A message from Bishop Ough

By: Bruce R. Ough, resident bishop, Dakotas-Minnesota Area, The United Methodist Church

Bishopough2015 New

Dear Dakotas United Methodists,

I am alarmed and frightened. The coronavirus pandemic is out of control in the Dakotas and most of the country. Our hospitals are overwhelmed. Our front-line health care workers are exhausted. In the Dakotas, over a dozen of our pastors have COVID and many others are burying COVID victims in record numbers.

I write to urge you to re-double your efforts to keep people safe and help suppress the community spread of this terrible disease. There is no room for delay. Now is the time to act. Now is the time to set aside our personal and political preferences for the common good. Now is the time to lead the way.

The North Dakota Department of Health and the South Dakota Department of Health are reporting increasing numbers of new cases daily. John Hopkins University and the Harvard Global Health Institute report that North Dakota ranks first and South Dakota ranks second in the nation for the number of new cases per day per 100,000 people. Here are some sobering statistics.

  • There is an average of 177 persons per 10,000 people in North Dakota that have COVID.
  • North Dakota is averaging 1,346 new cases per day, representing a 21% weekly increase.
  • There are 161 persons per 10,000 people in South Dakota that have COVID. 
  • South Dakota is averaging 1,424 new cases per day, representing a 23% weekly increase.
  • In both North and South Dakota, all counties are at high-risk for community spread. A rate of community spread of 30 percent or higher is considered high-risk. COVID is no longer a disease limited to more populated areas.
  • If 100 people come to in-person worship or similar gathering, statistically at least 12 people are going to be infectious right now. The advice given by the Center for Disease Control is to meet virtually instead on in-person

The next six to 12 weeks will be critical, according to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts.

So, I am making a difficult ask. I am strongly, urgently requesting that every United Methodist congregation make plans to celebrate Advent and Christmas online. 

Group and family gatherings have been the most significant source of the spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks. We have the power to help change the trajectory of this pandemic in the Dakotas. Doing no harm, acting for the common good, and protecting the most vulnerable among us is how we love our neighbors. We can give rise to the light in the midst of the darkness of this disease.

I understand the challenge this will place on our churches and particularly our pastors and church leaders. But given all the data before us, I believe this is the most prudent, responsible and faithful course of action. The Dakotas Conference has several ideas and resources available on the website (access here).

I know some will choose to continue to worship in-person.  If you make that choice, be vigilant in enforcing health protocols: masks, physical distance, provisions for hand washing, and getting contact information for those gathered in case someone present is diagnosed with COVID.  At a very minimum, I request you adhere to the state guidelines and closely watch the data in your community. 

I trust you to make decisions, in consultation with local officials, that will protect the vulnerable, our neighbors, and each other while still providing meaningful spiritual leadership to your community. Thank you for the creative, adaptive spirit you bring to our common work of healing a broken world in these critical days. Thank you for accompanying those who are grieving, those on the front-lines of caring for the sick and dying, and those who are isolated and alone.
Remember, the church is not closed! We will continue to be creative in how we minister in these unprecedented times, and together we can make it through this pandemic. Your actions now will save lives.  Remember we are in the salvation business.  We are in the business of providing abundant life for all people!

Bishop Bruce R. Ough
Bruce R. Ough
Resident Bishop
Dakotas-Minnesota Area
The United Methodist Church

Download a PDF version of this message here.  


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