Message from Bishop Schol | A Hard Fought Hope: A healing and a thriving GNJ during COVID-19

We know that affliction produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character and character produces hope, and hope will not disappoint us. -Romans 5:3

We have hope! Hope in Jesus Christ; hope in the disciples God has gifted GNJ with; hope in the clergy and congregational leaders who have stepped forward and said, here I am, use me during COVID-19.

COVID-19 is an affliction, an affliction that requires perseverance. Perseverance fuels innovation, which produces resiliency and progress. Progress produces hope and together, with that hope, we will spread the Good News of Jesus Christ while working together to flatten the impact of COVID-19 and ensure zero infections from United Methodist activities.

Amazing Hope, Amazing Grace.
Look at what hope in God has done in six short weeks.

1. Moved more than 500 congregations to worship online.
2. Enabled every congregation to give their offering online through the GNJ website. Presently 40% of our churches are using our online service.
3. Increased GNJ worship attendance by 15%.
4. Provided to our congregations a two-month holiday for shared ministry apportionments.
5. Helped more than 300 congregations apply for the CARES Act Pay Roll Protection Program that has already raised more than $6 million in funding for GNJ congregations.
6. Moved all GNJ staff to work remotely except three essential employees.
7. Expanded the Miracles Everywhere Campaign to include COVID-19 to assist congregations and their ministries and to provide food and other emergency services for people in our communities. On May 5 I shared with you a $5 million expansion plan of the Miracles Everywhere campaign and the path to feed people and sustain mission and ministry because when people hurt, United Methodists help.

Our perseverance, our innovation, our resiliency produces a hope, a hard-fought hope. God is counting on us to be difference makers in our communities. God has a future with hope through you and me!

This hope takes flight on the wings of leadership. Already during the early weeks of COVID-19, we witnessed one of the greatest moments of clergy and congregational leadership in the history of United Methodism. We witnessed pastors fighting through insurmountable challenges, persevering to embrace technology, moving people to meaningful online experiences to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage people in worship and ministry.

We saw congregational leadership that stepped up to learn new technologies and systems to help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We witnessed disciples stepping up to try new ways of worshiping and serving.

With God, all things are possible for those who are willing, in the midst of affliction, to persevere, innovate and practice resiliency so that hope comes to the afflicted, the anxious, the lonely, the unemployed and the grieving.

Friends, we grieve. We lost two of our clergy to COVID-19 and more than 100 members so far. We remember them. They will live with us in our hearts forever. They fought the good fight and today their souls have taken flight into the everlasting where there is no more pain, no more suffering, and no more COVID-19. Let us continue to pray for their families, colleagues and friends.

As we remember those who have died, we recognize that more than 600 of our members were diagnosed with COVID-19 and so we remember those who live. They are here because of the heroes who go to work every day to do their job. These heroes are doctors and family members, nurses and first responders, janitors and scientists, police officers and maintenance people. Make no mistake about it, they are the incarnational grace of God and the living hope of God.

In the midst of our hope as a people, there are great challenges ahead of us as a church. How do we facilitate pastoral transitions? How do we reopen our buildings? Deal with financial losses? How do we serve the people in our communities who are in great need right now?

After consultation with retiring pastors and pastors scheduled to change appointments, the cabinet made the decision that all appointment changes will occur as scheduled so that churches will receive their new pastors on July 1, 2020. We recognize that most likely we will be social distancing or possibly still live under stay at home orders but retiring clergy have already made plans and families with young children want to enroll them in their new schools. We recognize that farewell services may be scheduled following July 1 and that clergy may return for such a service.

We all long for the day when we will be able to worship and do ministry in our buildings. In our region, we must have a realistic hope that takes into account the significant challenges of stamping out COVID-19. Scientists and medical professionals are saying that the ultimate cure is a vaccine that may still be a year or more away. Until then, we can control the virus by staying at home and practicing social distancing.

We anticipate that even before a vaccine is developed, we will begin to worship in our buildings. When the death rate and new infections decreases substantially for two or more weeks and the governor lifts the stay at home orders, we will begin to reintroduce worshiping communities in our buildings. There will be limited numbers of people that can gather together initially, but as new cases of the virus decreases, we will also be able to increase the number of people who may worship in our buildings at the same time.

We are working with other United Methodists conferences, other denominations, health care officials and governmental leaders to establish the procedures we will use. We will release these once we are satisfied that we have looked at all issues and developed procedures that will ensure there will be no spread of the virus by United Methodist activity.

Some are saying COVID-19 is not as bad in our community as in other communities or that we believe God will protect us. Such thinking is not consistent with United Methodist beliefs and values. We believe the scripture when Jesus shared, we should not assume that God protects some people and not others (Matthew 5:45) and as a connectional body we believe we discern things like this together and not individually. As United Methodists, we also act as one. When one hurts, we all hurt, when one is sick, we are all sick, when one suffers, we suffer with them as a sign that we are one in Christ and connected, bound together to help all rise together.

In the area of finances, we have seen many of our congregations rebound from the decline in giving experienced in the first two weeks of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Acclimating to new forms of worship, ministry and giving took some time, but many of our churches are not experiencing the significant financial losses they experienced after the first two weeks. In our most recent survey, 12% of our congregations are reporting their income is up from the same time last year, 36% report their income is the same and 52% are reporting income is down. Initially, 72% of churches reported their income was down. Fifteen percent, 78 of our congregations, are concerned that they will not be able to make payroll, pay basic bills including shared ministry, health insurance and pension for clergy. These churches include our largest and medium size congregations.

We also know that the unemployment rate has now reached 15% and some predict it will rise to 20% or more. At the height of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the unemployment rate was 25%.

As of May 5, 46 of our full-time clergy appointments were right at the minimum salary required for a fulltime clergy appointment and 147 clergy appointments were within $10,000 of minimum salary. This means that if these congregations are unable to pay minimum salary, clergy will lose their health insurance. This is the last thing we want to happen during a pandemic.

Further, both GNJ and a number of our congregations’ income decreased because of a significant drop in the stock market which caused the congregations’ investments to decline.

Based on rising unemployment, the number of congregations struggling at this moment about their finances, the loss of income from investments and the number of vulnerable congregations, GNJ leadership has developed a $5 million plan to sustain the mission and serve the people in our communities.

This plan will be a part of our Miracles Everywhere COVID-19 Relief Fund and includes the following:

1. $500,000 to be made available for food security. There are people in our communities who need food. We are working with state officials, community organizations, Hope Centers and our congregations to target where we can bring the most help and relief, not duplicating services but ensuring the most vulnerable have food. We are seeking to increase this by raising another raise $1 million to further advance our food distribution through our Hope Centers and congregations. You can make a gift right now. It’s simple. Text the words Miracles Everywhere to 77977 or go to and make your contribution. No gift is too small or too large to help feed someone during this crisis.
2. We have offered a two-month shared ministry apportionment holiday for April and May for ALL of our congregations who need relief from shared ministry giving at this time. Based on what we understand at this moment, we will be extending the holiday for another two months, June and July as needed by congregations. These holidays will impact the GNJ budget by $2.8 million. You may be asking, what is a shared ministry holiday? It means your congregation, as needed does not have to give your shared ministries for up to four months. Yes, forgiven. Not a loan but a holiday from giving. Even with this holiday, more than 100 of our congregations paid their April shared ministries. Thank you. You are hope for us all.
3. $1.5 million has been set aside to provide grants to congregations in three areas:
a. Grants to assist our low income racial ethnic, rural and urban congregations to pay necessary bills.
b. Grants to sustain full time appointments. We will work with our vital missional congregations to ensure that they continue fulltime and that our fulltime clergy maintain health insurance during this pandemic.
c. Grants to assist congregations that applied for the CARES Act Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funding but did not receive it. The majority of congregations that have reported receiving PPP funding are disproportionately larger and suburban congregations. I have a big ask for some of our congregations. Those who have received PPP funding, I invite you to consider, not from your PPP funding but maybe from other funds that might be freed up, a tithe equal to 10% of your PPP funding to this COVID-19 fund to help other congregations. It will be a testimony and witness to your generosity and connection as United Methodists.

This $5 million plan helps sustain strong, healthy vital congregations that makes for a strong GNJ, and a strong GNJ helps to make a strong United Methodist Church.

Where will the funds come from for such a bold outward plan.
1. We are borrowing $1.4 million from our Harvest Mission Fund.
2. We are using the sale of a church property.
3. We have reduced our budget saving money or underspending because of COVID-19 to support our congregations and to serve our communities.
4. We anticipate giving proportionately what we receive in shared ministry to the General Church apportionments.
5. Our Wespath Board of Pensions has reduced pension payments for three months. This reduction will not affect clergy and lay pensions.
6. We will not fill four staff positions that are currently open, and we will furlough ALL staff. I have already committed a month of my salary; executive staff will furlough for three-quarters of a month and the rest of staff will furlough for one-half a month. This equates to laying off 20% of our GNJ staff for six months. I am proud of our staff. They all recognize that sacrifices must be made for the good of the mission and they would rather see all staff be affected rather than just a portion of the staff being laid off. Our staff gives me hope!

While we do not anticipate the stay-at-home order to be lifted in New Jersey in May, in the next few weeks we will share with you further about protocols for when congregations can begin to worship in their buildings again as well as how to apply for emergency grants and how to continue or begin food distribution in your community.

The most important things we all can do right now are to seek and pray to God, to remain outward, focused on those in our communities who are without a job, without food, those who are lonely, sick, grieving, and anxious, those whose hope is The United Methodist Church, and to stay focused on our mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ and growing vital congregations for the transformation of the world. I call upon each pastor and congregation to find ways to improve your online ministries, to connect your congregation with the needs in your community and to inspire generosity during COVID-19. I also call on all of us to pray about how we will be the church of Jesus Christ following COVID-19. COVID-19 has helped us realize that the world is changing, the world has changed and that we, the church can change to reach new and younger and more diverse generations of believers.

In this most challenging season, we will thrive creating the next church for the world because we are a people in the midst of challenge and claim that affliction produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character and character produces hope, and hope will not disappoint us. –Romans 5:3

Thank you for all you are already doing and thank you for helping to innovate and create the next United Methodist Church for the transformation of the world.