Bishop Stanovsky offers candid insights on episcopal responsibility and authority amid COVID-19 church closures


Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky offered her personal insights on both the responsibility and the authority carried by bishops in The United Methodist Church during a situation like the one we are currently experiencing. She offers her candid reflections on her decision-making process, including her Wesleyan approach, while also sharing some of the items that keep her up at night.

These comments occurred during the regularly scheduled COVID-19-related webinar series hosted each week for leaders across the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church. You can view this webinar and other past webinars here.

A lightly edited transcript of Bishop Stanovsky’s remarks follow.

I want to spend just a minute talking about my role in this. 

How come the bishop puts out these directives? Who is the bishop to do this? How does she make these determinations and really why should we pay any attention? 

I mean, if you’re not thinking that, I think it all of the time. And so, I just want to let you in kind of on, what it’s like to be me in this situation.

In The United Methodist Church, the bishop is charged with giving leadership/oversight to the spiritual and temporal matters of the church, and both are at work here. Right? The life of the congregation, how we support one another, all the things we’ve been talking on – how we love one another, in the church, and how we serve other people outside the church – that’s all both spiritual and temporal.

But with all of these, the disease itself and the kinds of restrictions that governmental leaders and health care leaders are putting on us, those are very temporal matters and so what does it mean to be spiritual community in the midst of that? 

I take those responsibilities to give guidance to the church when it’s in this complicated time where all kinds of currents are swirling around us, where we’re trying to figure out how to be faithful in the midst of that. 

One of the reasons it falls to the bishop in my mind is it’s not, this is not a local issue. What we know is that a local decision, either a local governmental decision or a local church decision, has implications far beyond because the virus does not follow our little local boundaries or the boundaries of our local communities. So, each one of our church decisions could affect a widespread area depending on who might pass the disease and virus from one to another. And so, it requires oversight and that’s why governors are acting. That’s why people continue to look to the White House for guidance nationally. That’s why the World Health Organization tries to coordinate the response around the world, and in the church, it’s the bishops that have that kind of regional oversight. 

So again, I take that responsibility seriously. I also take it seriously because it has become divisive, or is becoming divisive in our communities, between our communities. I heard one of the governors once make a kind of snide remark about how, well, so-and-so, the governor on the other side of the state border had opened something up or had closed something down and so people were pouring across the state boundary.

It’s become divisive. Different individuals think of it differently. Different communities think of it differently. And my hunch within the church is that it’s helpful to us not to have every local church need to fight over what the opening dates and criteria are going to be. And so, I take that on myself, not because I think I’m smarter than anybody else, but because I’m in the role that the church has set up to provide that kind of consistency and oversight.

And even if I were to say every local pastor, in conjunction with the trustees of their church, were free to just make these decisions about whether and when to open separately, that would not relieve me of responsibility for the consequences of that, and I bear the burden of really feeling that I am responsible if we open too quickly and things go poorly. I am responsible for the distress that it causes the churches to stay closed longer. I understand all of that. I try and weigh it and keep it before me all of the time. 

So how do I lead? I’ve decided to lead. I’ve been leading. And how do I lead? I’m really pretty deeply Wesleyan as interpreted through Albert Outler in the 20th century and I go to that quadrilateral and I look to the sources of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. 

I just find myself thrown back into the scriptures – just hunting – both thrown back to hunt down the scriptures that are helpful guidance and also just awash with scriptures that come to me as I awaken in the morning, or as I’m pondering a dilemma before me, or as I’m looking – you’ll see I’ve been posting photographs of wildflowers in our neighborhood – and when I’m looking at a wildflower the scriptures just are speaking to me on their own. And I am searching them out.

In our tradition, how has the church responded in the past in similar situations? In the – you get some of this on the news in the evening on the radio or on TV – 1918 pandemic, churches closed to prevent the spread of the flu. But also, people served sacrificially at risk of their own personal health in order to care for those who were suffering and dying. So, both of those, both self-isolation to prevent the spread and also that kind of very, very visceral and physical, personal sacrifice of health for the benefit of others.

And then I turn to experience, and well I’m sorry, reason. Reason first, sorry. And I really appreciate those of you who have mentioned the scientists. The scientists are amazing, and we know so much more than we would without the scientists, and yet over and over again I keep hearing the scientists say, “there’s a lot we don’t know yet. We’re still learning about this virus. We don’t really know all about how it spreads or all of the symptoms, symptomatology about how the virus works in our bodies, affects our bodies. And so, I really pay attention to the scientists, the epidemiologists, as well as the statistics that are posted on all of our state websites: the spread of the disease; the death rate of the disease; the current practice of testing and case tracing. And I’ll just say that my observation is that all of the governors want there to be testing and case tracing and none of them are satisfied with the level of that at this point and yet they seem to be progressing with the opening schedule that they initially published. 

So, I’m a little skeptical about how well the science is being used to shape public policy. And so as not a public politician but as a leader of the church, I may hold us to higher standards than our governors and county horrifying experiential cases out there that keep me awake at night, and they should keep us all awake at night. And I’ll reference them. I think Patrick and others have published these, or links to them or that we can do that again if we need to but, the Canadian example of a church that opened with all of the possible precautions you could hope for and even so – this was early in the epidemic before we were closed closing things down – and many, many people became ill and as a result of gathering for worship.

And then on March 10th, there were zero cases diagnosed in Skagit County. The Mount Vernon Community Chorus gathered 60 members who came to the rehearsal. None of them had symptoms. They practiced for two and a half hours. They used hand sanitizer when they had arrived. They refrained from hugs and handshakes, and three weeks later 45 were diagnosed with COVID-19 or symptoms thereof and two people died. 

We don’t want that story in the LA Times from one of our churches. And it’s not because of the publicity. We don’t want to be a community that was incautious, or quick to gather for legitimate spiritual yearnings and desires, but had the effect of compromising health in that horrifying way. 

So, I consult all of those sources and then I’m in conversation with the cabinet, with you in these webinars, and all the chats and the questions and answers back and forth. I’m in consultation with my colleague bishops in the West and across the globe, and I take seriously the variety of perspectives that come that way. I especially try and listen to the voices of the most vulnerable among us. You heard that serious consideration in the notice that was put out early this morning because it is the least of these, it is the most vulnerable, that God especially, and Jesus modeled for us, patterning our own lives to care for and to be in solidarity with. 

And finally, I sit prayerfully with God. I ask God, what would you have me do? How are you working in the midst of this crisis that we’re living through? What must I do? What are you compelling me to do? How do I live in this office? How do I use the authority of this office to serve your will and to serve the well-being not only of our churches but of the communities that our churches are planted to serve?

And then I make a decision, and I make it knowing that it isn’t going to please everybody and that some people are going to be mad at me and feel like I’m taking more authority than I was given. And that my judgments may be wrong. My decision may prove not to have been prudent and wise.

And knowing that I may cause harm that I didn’t intend.

And I live with that. I live with it with the confidence that Jesus gives us that what we do in love is redeemable. And so, I humbly turn time and again to God to redeem whatever errors I make in my life. And then, day by day, I watch the results – some people won’t follow the directives and some people will politicize my leadership and some of you will say thank you, thanks for taking this burden off of us. 

And then in my prayers, I ask God for forgiveness for the errors.

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