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A long-awaited return

It appears that the time we have been waiting for—when we can again gather in church for Word and sacrament—has arrived or will arrive shortly. Some states have already begun to relax or even remove restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 virus. In most places further relaxing of restrictions seems to be coming in the days and weeks ahead.

That means your congregation has probably already been making plans to resume public worship at some time in the coming weeks. (Some congregations resumed limited public worship last Sunday.) At least on a temporary basis, those plans will likely take into consideration common-sense measures to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus. Plans may also call for voluntarily following guidelines provided by federal, state, and local health agencies. As we make these decisions, it will be important for congregations to be aware of what restrictions apply to them so they may evangelically apply biblical principles in keeping with the Fourth Commandment, as we also seek to honor the Third Commandment.

We will also want to act evangelically and respectfully because we realize our members and neighboring congregations may have many different approaches, opinions, or comfort levels. As we try to walk through the various governmental and medical concerns, guidelines, and recommendations, we also want to have a balanced spiritual concern toward our members, realizing some will want to gather in worship as soon as possible and others will still feel hesitant for a while. There also will be divided human opinions on the wisdom of beginning to open up or not to open up at all at this time. We want to encourage everyone to be patient with everybody else and to makes those decisions in Christian love and with much prayer.

I pray the Lord has kept you safe and healthy under his protection during these weeks. I also pray the Lord has blessed your congregation’s ministry during this time, since the Word always continues to accomplish God’s purpose. And I further pray for the members of your congregations, especially if they are suffering from illness or from any of the other attendant difficulties such as job loss, financial difficulty, or family turmoil. May the grace of our risen Lord Jesus give them—and all of us—his saving peace.

God bless you as you make evangelical, balanced, and thoughtful decisions about when—and how—to arrange for in-person worship. Together, God-willing, we will be back in God’s house saying, “It is good, Lord, to be here!”

Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

 

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WELS Pension Plan contribution holiday in October 2020

The WELS Retirement Program Commission is pleased to announce a one-quarter contribution holiday for the WELS Pension Plan (the “Plan”). No Plan contributions will be due for the October-December 2020 quarter. Active workers will continue to earn Plan benefits for eligible service performed during the October-December 2020 quarter, and Plan benefits will continue to be paid to retired workers and surviving spouses.

In addition, the July 2020 quarterly Plan invoices will be generated and mailed in early June to support ministries in their efforts to make timely retirement contribution payments under the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Mr. Joshua Peterman, director of WELS Benefit Plans, says, “During this uncertain time, we are pleased to provide relief to WELS ministries that will total approximately $5 million in savings. In scheduling the contribution holiday for October 2020, the goal is to provide relief as soon as possible while allowing ministries to realize the full benefits of any loans received under the PPP. In addition, we are thankful to the Lord for blessing us with the financial flexibility to pass on these savings while maintaining the Plan’s long-term viability.”

The Pension contribution holiday announcements follows the announcement of a VEBA premium holiday for August 2020. WELS Benefits Plans understands the burden some WELS churches, schools, and organizations may be facing and is grateful for the opportunity to provide relief. WELS ministries will receive additional reminders of the contribution holiday in the coming months.

If you have questions, contact the Benefit Plans Office at bpo@wels.net; 414-256-3299.

 

 

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Assignments and graduations at our ministerial education schools

The recent disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus have had a great impact on our synodical schools. In-person classes had to be canceled at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS), Mequon, Wis.; Martin Luther College (MLC), New Ulm, Minn.; Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wis.; and Michigan Lutheran Seminary, Saginaw, Mich. In addition, decisions have now been made to hold virtual events for the reading of assignments at MLC and WLS and for graduation ceremonies at all four schools. The Assignment Committee will be meeting via video conference to make the assignments in the days before the assignments are announced.

At MLC, 171 teacher and staff ministry candidates are available for assignment. At WLS, 26 pastoral candidates and 28 vicar candidates will be assigned.

Even though graduations and assignments will take place in an entirely different format this year, the reasons to celebrate remain the same. God continues to provide workers for his harvest field, and we continue to thank him for these blessings and for the faithful work done by our faculties and students.

You can participate in these happy events by joining the online events at the schools, accessible via the schools’ websites:

Martin Luther College
Graduation: Saturday, May 16, 10:00 a.m. (Central)
Announcement of assignments: Saturday, May 16, 11:15 a.m. (Central)

Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary
Graduation and announcement of assignments (pastors and vicars): Thursday, May 21, 10:00 a.m. (Central)

Luther Preparatory School
Saturday, May 23, 10:00 a.m. (Central)

Michigan Lutheran Seminary
Saturday, May 23, 9:30 a.m. (Central) (10:30 a.m. [Eastern])

If you know of a graduate from one of these schools in your congregation or extended family, let them know how much you appreciate them and that the entire synod is keeping them in our prayers.

Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

 

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Celebrating MLC seniors

Tomorrow, May 6, is MLC Day. Each year MLC Day brings together all who support the WELS College of Ministry around the world. Martin Luther College (MLC) supporters send messages to the college, pray for its ministry, share its ministry with others, and give gifts to assist in carrying out its mission. MLC students then share their stories and thanks with supporters.

This year, MLC Day will highlight family connections even more, especially focusing on MLC seniors.

“With students continuing to study off campus due to COVID-19 restrictions, our seniors are missing out on many end-of-year activities celebrations,” says Mr. Bill Pekrul, MLC director of public relations. “We decided to focus MLC Day on them this year and have photos and videos aimed at their reflections and encouraging others to send messages of congratulations and encouragement to these future called workers.”

Pekrul offers the following suggestions on how everyone can participate:

  • Current students can share prayers, blessings, encouragement, and thanks to a graduating senior.
  • MLC seniors can offer a message of thanks to those who encouraged and supported them throughout their time at college as well as offer advice to incoming students.
  • WELS families, schools, and congregations can record short videos or submit photos with notes of encouragement and prayers for a graduating senior. MLC is providing signs and message prompts to help the creative process.
  • WELS members can offer prayers and monetary support for MLC’s ministry. All gifts will go toward the Congregational Partner Grant Matching Fund, which directly supports students. A generous donor has agreed to match every dollar donated up to $50,000.

Visit mlcday.com to learn more. There you can also access resources and message prompts so you can show your support for MLC and its students on May 6.

 

 

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New mission online event scheduled

WELS Home and World Missions and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society (LWMS) are partnering to offer Taste and See, a first-of-its kind free online mission event from June 27–July 11.

This new opportunity to learn about and support WELS home and world mission fields came about after two in-person summer events—LWMS’ national convention and WELS Missions’ Taste of Missions—were canceled due to COVID-19 uncertainties.

“Yes, it does make us sad, but we have to be responsible. We didn’t feel it wise to put our members at risk,” says Mrs. Cynthia Natsis, LWMS president. The LWMS convention, originally scheduled to take place in Athens, Ga., this year, usually draws almost one thousand attendees. She continues, “I pray that this new online event will fill that void of not being able to go and meet with your sisters in Christ.”

Taste and See will begin and end with livestreamed worship services hosted at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis. Opening worship is scheduled for 11 a.m. (Central), June 27, and will be followed by the LWMS flag presentation, a mainstay at its conventions. Closing worship at 6 p.m. (Central), July 11, will feature the commissioning of new missionaries.

In between, free consume-at-your-own-pace content will be offered online, including

  • daily mission-themed video devotions;
  • recorded missions presentations that had been planned for the live events, including updates from WELS home and world mission administrators;
  • short video updates from home and world missionaries;
  • a live question-and-answer panels;
  • cooking tutorials and recipes from missionary families; and
  • family-friendly activities such as missions-themed scavenger hunts; coloring pages; and create-a-card opportunities.

Event organizers are encouraging people to participate in challenges and activities on Facebook and the event website. Participants also can submit mission questions for the live panels.

“While we are certainly saddened that the physical events have been canceled, we know that God’s plan is unfolding just as he’s planned,” says Mr. Sean Young, director of Missions Operations. “We are looking forward to an even larger audience than we could have hoped for out of a live event!”

Learn more at wels.net/event/taste-and-see.

 

 

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Together at the Empty Tomb

It has not been easy. Being deprived of the blessing of gathering with fellow Christians in church for worship has been a serious burden for us to carry. We hunger for the face-to-face fellowship with other Christians, and we long for the day when we can be together for worship again.

In the meantime, congregations in many places around our synod have found ways to continue the proclamation of the saving message of Jesus to their members. I commend pastors and congregational leaders for their faithful efforts to serve people with the Word.

In spite of our inability to be with each other in person, all members of the synod are joined together in a wonderful fellowship of faith. To help bring us together in spirit and to testify to that bond of faith we share, a special synodwide virtual worship service was held on Easter Sunday evening. The service, with the theme “Together at the Empty Tomb,” was streamed from the chapel of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wis.

Thank you to Seminary President Rev. Earle Treptow, who delivered the sermon brimming with Easter comfort; to the Trinitas worship ensemble from Trinity, Waukesha, Wis., who provided the instrumental and vocal music; to Rev. Bryan Gerlach, director of WELS Commission on Worship, for arranging the order of service; and to Rev. Jon Hein, coordinator for WELS Congregational Services, for coordinating this effort and for hosting the live Q&A that took place after the service.

More than 20,000 people tuned in for the synodwide virtual Easter service. If you missed it—or if you loved it and want to see it again—you can watch the archived service online.

Also, due to popular demand, a video is available of the service’s Hymn of the Day, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” featuring WELS members from around the country singing at home. View the hymn.

The good news of a risen Savior continues to be preached and proclaimed no matter what the circumstances. It’s likely an Easter celebration that we will never forget.

Serving you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

 

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Martin Luther College announces commencement plans

In consultation with the 2020 graduating class, faculty/staff, and local health authorities, Martin Luther College (MLC), New Ulm, Minn., has decided that its graduation and Call Day services will be held remotely, with graduating seniors viewing from their homes.

The 2020 commencement worship service will be broadcast via MLC’s Livestream page at 10 a.m. CT, May 16. The reading of the assignments will immediately follow the commencement service. Both events will be pre-recorded at the Chapel of the Christ on MLC’s campus. Assignment lists will be posted on MLC’s and on WELS’ websites immediately following the events.

To help the graduates celebrate, MLC is sending a “graduation box” to every senior and encouraging students to send pictures of themselves in their caps and gowns and videos of their watch parties. Stay tuned to MLC’s social media to see photos and videos.

In late March, MLC already had announced that alternative/distance learning would extend to the end of the 2019–20 school year, a decision made taking into account directives from the state of Minnesota. Distance learning started March 23.

“We thank everyone for their patience and their understanding in these crazy, crazy times as God has set them before us,” says Dr. Jeff Wiechman, MLC’s vice president for academics. “But we forge ahead knowing that he’s in total control and knowing that he has our best interests at heart. His will is being done for us and for our ministry in his kingdom.”

To help celebrate the graduates, MLC has decided to focus its annual MLC Day on its seniors, offering current students, families, friends, and MLC supporters an opportunity to give a shout-out to these future called workers. This online social media event, which also provides ways to support WELS’ College of Ministry with gifts and prayers, takes place May 6. Go to mlcday.com to learn more and to access resources and message prompts.

Commencement plans for Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS), Mequon, Wis., will be finalized in early May. With the Wisconsin governor’s “Safer at Home” orders extended until May 26, WLS already has decided to hold classes online until the end of the school year.

 

 

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WELS Family Devotions

New family devotions from WELS Discipleship

WELS Commission on Discipleship has started offering devotions developed for the entire family to use. The devotions will coincide with the previous Sunday’s Bible readings. Each devotion is complete with a set of questions for different age groups, a prayer, and hymn verses that can be sung or spoken. Downloadable printable versions are available as well.

You can subscribe to have the devotions e-mailed to you at wels.net/subscribe, find them on the WELS Facebook page fb.com/welslutherans, or visit wels.net/family-devotions.

“The foundation of the Christian family begins at home. What an opportunity in coming weeks for parents to commit to starting and sustaining a good and godly habit,” says Rev. Donn Dobberstein, director of WELS Commission on Discipleship.

These family devotions will be offered three times a week. Dobberstein says this should more likely set up families for success. “We didn’t want to set up families to feel like they are failing if they miss a devotion. The goal is to create a doable program to help families who may have no devotional life or who struggle to keep it going. With this model, families can use them as they have time throughout the week.”

He says the devotions have been developed to assist parents and children in the spiritual life at home, encourage people to follow God’s instructions for home devotional life, teach families how and when to have home devotions, and encourage congregations in their support of their member families.

“Just a few short weeks ago, family calendars were blissfully filled with future events, meetings, games, and activities,” says Dobberstein. “These devotions can help parents spend spiritual time with their children during this time of upheaval and uncertainty.”

 

 

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WELS VEBA premium holiday in August 2020

The WELS VEBA Commission is offering a one-month premium holiday for the WELS VEBA Group Health Care Plan (“WELS VEBA”). No premiums will be due for WELS VEBA medical benefits for the month of August 2020. Premiums for voluntary benefits, such as dental, life, and optional long-term disability, will still be due and payable for the month of August 2020, as will any premiums due for WELS VEBA coverage prior to August 2020.

Mr. Joshua Peterman, director of Benefit Plans, says, “During this uncertain time, the commission is pleased to provide relief to our participating organizations that will total approximately $4.2 million in savings. In scheduling the premium holiday for August 2020, the commission’s goal is to provide relief as soon as possible while allowing ministries to realize the full benefits of any loans received under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. We are thankful to the Lord for blessing WELS VEBA with the financial flexibility to pass on these savings while maintaining its long-term viability.”

All sponsoring organizations that participate in WELS VEBA will receive communications in the coming months with more details and important items to note.

If you have questions, contact the Benefit Plans Office at bpo@wels.net; 414-256-3299.

 

 

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Videos for outreach during this time

Our good Lord promises that he will make all things work for the good of his people (Romans 8:28), even things like a pandemic. One of the blessings we pray he might provide is increased opportunities to share the gospel with those who do not yet know the good news of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ. It may very well be that he is even now using this situation to prepare hearts to hear this good news.

To assist you in reaching out to those souls WELS Commission on Evangelism is making available a series of devotions. These devotions were originally produced by Pastor Collin Vanderhoof for Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Menomonee Falls, Wis. He has given us permission to make them available to you. These professionally produced video devotions speak directly to many of the fears and concerns people are having as they face uncertain times. Each video is less than two minutes in length, making them perfect for a variety of applications.

Please use these videos however you like. Perhaps you could e-mail one at a time to those on your prospect list with whatever frequency you feel best. You might also consider sharing a video periodically on your social media platforms. Another option would be to share the devotions, one at a time, with your members along with a brief encouragement for them to share them with their unchurched friends.

 

 

 

We realize that some of you might prefer to record your own videos so that your prospects are hearing these messages from someone they already know rather than from a pastor they have never met. So, we are providing the written scripts for these devotions as well. You can access the scripts here.

 

Decision on district conventions

After thorough discussion and with great reluctance, the Conference of Presidents (COP) has concluded that the district conventions, scheduled for early June, will be canceled due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus. Even though it might seem somewhat early to cancel the conventions, a decision needed to be reached now to enable districts to cancel their contracts with convention facilities with no penalty.

The COP did consider whether the conventions could be postponed until later in the summer or early fall. However, several districts would not be able to hold district conventions at a later date due to unavailability of meeting facilities and accommodations for delegates. The COP also discussed whether virtual conventions could be held, but several districts concluded that a virtual convention would not be practical. The COP agreed that if some districts could not hold conventions, none should.

On the positive side, a benefit of canceling district conventions will be a significant cost savings. This is in keeping with synodwide efforts already undertaken to reduce expenses in the coming year.

Even though we cannot hold “regular” district conventions as the bylaws state, we will continue to walk together in our common confession of faith and shared mission. It is our commitment to the truths of Scripture and our commitment to carry out God’s work that will guide us in times such as these—times that constitutions and bylaws could not have foreseen. Even without specific guidance from bylaws, we are committed to moving forward in a united way, striving to do all things in good order.

With no district conventions, normal elections will not be able to be held. Instead, we will plan to have elections for the district officers conducted electronically. The details of how this will be done are still to be worked out, but we have been assured that called worker delegates and congregational delegates will be able to participate.

Once the district officers are elected, we will follow the bylaw that gives responsibility to the district presidents, with input from the other district officers, to appoint people to serve in offices in which elections would have been held at the conventions. The district presidents will appoint those currently serving to continue in their positions until the next district conventions if they are willing to serve and if they have not reached the time limit for serving. For vacant offices in which there is no incumbent, the district presidents will make appointments using the information that the district nominating committees have assembled.

The decision regarding the proposed changes to the synod’s retirement program will likely be deferred to the 2021 synod convention. The planned discussion of the document “Male and Female in God’s World” also will not happen at the district conventions this summer; rather, discussions and study will continue in pastor and teacher conferences.

A digital version of the Report to the Twelve Districts as well as other important materials will be made available to each congregation and to district convention delegates.

We pray for the day when lives return to something like normal.

Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

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Together at the empty tomb this Easter

WELS families are certainly missing the opportunity to gather for Easter this year—waking up for a joy-filled early service, singing loudly with the organ trumpeting “He’s Risen!,” sharing a big breakfast with fellow believers. This year it will look . . . different.

But even at home, you can still hear about and celebrate the greatest victory in the history of the world—Jesus’ victory over death and sin! First, tune into your local congregation’s morning service if it offers a livestream or broadcast. If it doesn’t, here’s a list of WELS churches that post services online.

Then, at 6 p.m. (central time) you can tune into the FIRST EVER livestreamed, synodwide Easter worship celebration. Even though we are not together physically, fellow believers from around the world can gather “Together at the Empty Tomb.”

WELS President Mark Schroeder and WELS First Vice President James Huebner will preside, and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary President Earle Treptow will preach. Immediately following the service, Schroeder, Treptow, and Rev. Jon Hein from WELS Congregational Services will be available for a live Question and Answer session.

Though virtual, this has the potential to be the most-attended WELS worship service ever. Join your Christian brothers and sister and get “Together at the Empty Tomb.”

Share this link—livestream.com/wlslive/togetherattheemptytomb—with everyone you can for an opportunity to worship synodwide and across the world. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

A Palm Sunday message by Schroeder was viewed at least 10,000 times on Facebook and Vimeo. You can still watch the archived live event.

 

 

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April 2020 Home Missions update

Rev. Keith Free, administrator of WELS Board for Home Missions, wrote this update following the spring meeting of the Board for Home Missions.

For those who enjoy sports, the pandemic put a screeching halt to sporting events. For many athletes, the countless hours they put into preparing and competing with the hope of winning it all have now vanished.

In a sense this is what has happened in WELS Home Missions. The Board for Home Missions meets each spring. Because of the financial question marks due to the pandemic, it does not look like the Board for Home Missions will be able to authorize new funds so new missions can start in the next months, even though there was a tremendous amount of work done by so many on the Home Missions team.

What does a “tremendous amount of work” mean? To get to the point that the Board for Home Missions can authorize funds to be spent on new missions means that district mission boards completed a lot of work to develop locations to be considered for a new mission. District mission boards work with area congregations or core groups of members to gauge the potential of being the nucleus for a new mission. The demographics for the potential target area of the new missions are studied. Costs for land and rental locations for worship are investigated. Ministry plans are developed. Core groups meet in Bible studies to have God’s Word fortify and encourage them in this important venture.

As the core group develops and the district mission boards follow the guidelines in submitting a request to the Board for Home Missions, the prayer is that their request will be approved so a new mission can start. Hundreds of hours go into this process and many more are spent by the Executive Committee of the Board for Home Missions as it reviews the requests.

March 25 and 26 the Executive Committee met via videoconferencing to review the 13 new ministry requests. Realizing there is uncertainty about when or if any of these new requests might be funded, the Executive Committee pressed on. After many hours, three new mission requests received approval to start, pending funding. Those locations are:

  • West San Antonio, Texas—Supported by Our Savior, San Antonio, 10 families are forming the core group for this new mission. This group started worship on March 1 (pictured). The first three Sundays an average of 40 people attended worship. Then worship services were suspended due to coronavirus precautions.
  • North Liberty, Iowa—Good Shepherd, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has been working to develop a mission in this growing community for years. Nestled between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, North Liberty is seeing rapid growth. Over the past three years, members of Good Shepherd have been active in various ministry events, including worship at the Community Center in North Liberty.
  • Amarillo, Texas—Located 130 miles from the nearest WELS church, a group of 15 WELS members form the core group. The WELS pastor from Lubbock, Texas, comes to Amarillo twice a month to serve the members with Word and sacrament. The prayer is that a full-time pastor will have many opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ so that this small group may blossom into a growing church.

During its March meeting, the Executive Committee also approved subsidy requests for 51 missions. The prayer is that as the Lord blesses these missions with growth, their requests for financial support grow less so that the funds they no longer need can be put toward the funds needed to start the next mission.

In addition, the Executive Committee, working with two Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary professors, prioritized 17 vicar-in-mission opportunities.

Although it is surely important to support seminary students during their vicar year and it is important to continue supporting existing missions, the highlight of the spring Board for Home Missions meeting is the authorization of new missions. This year that isn’t happening, even though all the work has been done. Was this futile labor?

As people of God, we know the answer. In 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul writes about Jesus’ resurrection for 57 verses. It is a beautiful chapter and shares many wondrous resurrection truths. In the 58th and final verse, Paul writes, “Therefore my dear brothers, stand firm, let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, for you know your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” While humanly speaking we don’t know what the results will be from the labors of district mission boards and the Executive Committee of the Board for Home Missions regarding new mission starts, we do know that everyone was working in service to the Lord and that labor is not in vain. That is what our God says. That is what we believe.

To learn more about WELS Home Missions, visit wels.net/homemissions.

 

 

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Synodwide Holy Week messages

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

Many congregations throughout the synod have been, or soon will be, forced to find alternative ways to gather around God’s Word. My wife and I have already spent two Sundays worshiping at home via the online worship provided by my congregation. I’m gratified that so many congregations have moved so quickly to continue to serve their members with the comfort and guidance of the Scriptures.

This Sunday evening, Palm Sunday, I will be delivering a brief message to the members of our synod in an online video broadcast. The message will be broadcast live at 6:00 p.m. (central). I invite you to access that message live online. I look forward to speaking with you. If you are not able to view the video when it is broadcast live, it will be archived online.

A week later, we will be celebrating our Savior’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. Our Easter Sunday worship will be different than any we have ever experienced. Most likely you will gather “virtually” with members of your congregation (or that of another congregation) to gaze at the empty tomb and praise God for what he has done for us.

Not to replace your Easter morning worship, but to supplement it, we will be offering an opportunity for our entire synod to gather online for a special Easter Sunday evening service to be broadcast from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary at 6 p.m. (central). We will gather as one family of believers, from across the country and around the world, not only to celebrate our Savior’s Easter victory but also to express our unity of faith and mission as members of the Wisconsin Synod. The theme of the service will be, “Together at the Empty Tomb.” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary President Earle Treptow will deliver the Easter message. A small choir, along with a few instruments, will enhance the worship with music and songs of praise. I’m thankful to Pastor Jon Hein, coordinator of WELS Congregational Services, for planning and coordinating this event. I look forward to being with you for this special Easter celebration. You can watch it live online. Stay online after the service for a live Q&A session hosted by President Treptow and Rev. Hein, where viewers can ask questions.

Elsewhere in this issue of Together, you will find information and resources that we have gathered to help congregations begin to make use of the CARES Act. This information, as well as the information provided on the synod website, will be continuously updated whenever anything new develops.

One other important item: President Mark Zarling of Martin Luther College has been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus and has been hospitalized in Mankato, Minn. Please join me in approaching the throne of grace, fervently asking God to keep President Zarling and all those afflicted by this worldwide pandemic in his loving care and to grant them a full recovery. Our times, as well as President Zarling’s, are in God’s hands—no better place to be.

Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

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MLC continues distance learning through end of school year

Martin Luther College (MLC), New Ulm, Minn., has decided to extend its alternative/distance learning plans to the end of the 2019–20 school year.

According to Dr. Jeff Wiechman, MLC’s vice president for academics, this decision was made taking into account the directive made by the state of Minnesota last week that all Minnesota public school districts and charter schools will implement a distance learning period through May 4.

“Taking into consideration this directive; the COVID-19 ordinances of other states; and the safety of MLC students, faculty, and staff, the administrative council extended MLC’s alternative/distance learning plans to the end of the spring 2020 semester,” says Wiechman. “This is a responsible decision for the same reasons many states have put their movement restrictions and teaching/learning ordinances in place. And yet, I hate to see it happen.”

MLC students began distance learning on March 23, after a one-week extension of MLC’s spring break to allow professors time to prepare.

The administrative council will make an announcement about end-of-year commencement events in April.

The remaining three ministerial education schools—Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis.; Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wis.; and Michigan Lutheran Seminary, Saginaw, Mich.—also are teaching students through distance learning due to COVID-19 restrictions.

At this time, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and Luther Preparatory School are planning for online learning through April 24. Michigan Lutheran Seminary’s current plan runs through April 14. The prayer is that students will be able to return to the campuses after those dates.

“We thank God for the resilience of faculty, students, and staff, as online classes were quickly established and new routines were put into place,” says Rev. Paul Prange, administrator for WELS Ministerial Education. “The blessing of stable financial situations at our schools is allowing them the flexibility to make sound decisions during this uncertain time.”

 

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2020 WELS International Youth Rally canceled

WELS has decided to cancel the 2020 WELS International Youth Rally, scheduled for June 23-26 in Knoxville, Tenn. As it’s unknown how long and significant the impact of COVID-19 will be along with the financial toll this crisis is taking on families and congregations, it was decided, in the best interest of our congregations and families, to postpone the event until the next scheduled rally in 2022. An e-mail was sent to all who had already registered regarding a refund of the rally fees.

The WELS Commission on Discipleship is exploring options to make resources available online from the key presentations that were scheduled for the rally for youth groups and members to use.

“Seeing Christ Clearly. Serving Christ Boldly” was the theme for the rally. This theme for Christian living is more relevant now than ever. Through resources, Bible studies, and community service ideas the Commission on Discipleship hopes to make available this summer, WELS youth will still be able to receive this important message and use it as motivation and inspiration to share the light of Christ at home and in their communities.

“We know this opportunity is important for our youth as a way to get and stay connected to God’s Word. It is unfortunate that in such unprecedented times we must make these difficult decisions,” says Rev. Donn Dobberstein, director of WELS Commission on Discipleship. “Praise God that we know he is in control of all things in heaven and on earth. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).”

 

An additional note: The Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society will announce by mid-May its plans regarding its annual convention this summer.

 

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How the stimulus package applies to churches

As we work through the challenges presented by the Coronavirus pandemic, our government has passed legislation to assist employers in caring for their workers. This information is offered as a guide in response to some of the more common inquiries on the topic of compensation. You are encouraged to prayerfully make your decisions with compassion and understanding for your workers. Please understand the situation is fluid, and updates will be provided as new information is made available.

Families First Coronavirus Response Act

Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) enacted on March 18, 2020, and effective through December 31, 2020, congregations who may not have previously been considered “covered employers” under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because they had fewer than the required 50 workers, now fall within the parameters of both the Paid Sick Leave and Paid Expanded Family and Medical Leave provisions applicable to organizations with fewer than 500 workers. Here is some detailed information on employer paid leave.

A “Question and Answer” section is available on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act website.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

Under the CARES Act Relief program enacted on March 27, 2020, and effective through December 31, 2020, many congregations will have new programs available to assist with unexpected financial needs such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Loans. The U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship has provided a guide to help understand what is now available.

Also available under the CARES Act is the Employee Retention Credit which can provide for a refundable payroll tax credit of 50% of qualifying wages paid by eligible employers during the COVID-19 crisis. Additional information as provided by Michael Best can be found online.

Unemployment Compensation

Under the CARES Act Relief program, workers of religious non-profit organizations who do not pay into their state’s Unemployment Compensation Insurance program, meaning their workers were previously not able to collect unemployment compensation if employment ended, may now be eligible. Please be aware however that eligibility for VEBA (or other employer provided health care plans) and Pension participation requires a worker be an “active worker.” The ability to continue with VEBA coverage for any worker whose divine call has been terminated or lay worker who is laid off would fall under COBRA continuation.

Each state administers a separate unemployment insurance program, but all states follow the same guidelines established by federal law. More information regarding the updated rules in your state can be accessed here.

Common questions associated with filing for unemployment. 

Additional resources on these and other topics are available from a multitude of sources. Those sources include:

Church Mutual Insurance

Michael Best

Gallagher

CLA

Congregations are urged to contact tax and/or legal professionals to guide you through this process.

Note: The links provided in this article were selected because they may provide helpful information for you during this crisis. WELS does not own these sites and is not responsible for the information and opinions expressed on them.

 

 

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God feeds his flock in a time of crisis

After earlier placing restrictions on the size of public gatherings, today Wisconsin governor Tony Evers issued an even more restrictive “Safer at Home” directive. The directive effectively closes all Wisconsin businesses and entities other than those that are deemed essential. Other states have issued, or likely will issue, similar directives.

Already after the first restrictions were imposed, many WELS congregations found ways to continue to serve their members with God’s Word and with new and different types of worship formats. I am thankful at the way so many of our congregations have put these things into place with only brief notice, and pray they will be able to continue in those efforts.

On Sunday, my wife and I worshiped via an online worship service provided by my home congregation. The service that was broadcast was a complete service with the normal liturgy, hymns, and prayers. Before we began, we wondered just how “worshipful” such a service would be. But by the time the service was over, we agreed that it was one of the most meaningful and moving worship experiences we had ever had.

First, we were reminded that the power of God’s Word and the comfort of the gospel is not in any way diminished by the way it is delivered. We heard law and gospel. We were assured of our forgiveness in Christ. We were directed as always to the cross and empty tomb. Our faith was nourished and our trust in God’s unchanging promises was strengthened.

Second, I couldn’t help but think that being prevented from gathering physically with other believers helped to renew our appreciation for corporate worship, where believers gather not only to be strengthened by the means of grace, but also to provide encouragement and love to each other. Perhaps God will use this experience to lead our WELS members to never take public worship for granted again. Perhaps he also will use this entire crisis as a time to draw many in our nation to see the value of faith and the Word of God.

Finally, we were not alone in this experience. Congregations around the synod moved quickly to see to it that the Word of God would not be silenced. Worship services were streamed live in many places. Devotions and sermons were posted online. Materials and words of comfort and instruction were sent via e-mail. Pastors assured their members that they continued to be ready to serve their flocks whenever called upon to do so.

I pray that the need for online remote worship will end soon. In the meantime, I will join you in thanking God that his Word will not be silenced. As he told us, “[My Word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

Guideline for pastors and congregational leaders

Communication
In a time of crisis or national emergency, it’s vitally important to find ways to communicate with your members to keep them informed, especially those who are at high risk. Many congregations have very quickly taken steps to do this. If you do not have the means to communicate in place, it is important that you put one into place that includes telephone, e-mail, text messaging, website, and social media. You may wish to identify members of your congregation who have expertise in information technology. If you have the means in place, congregational leadership should map out specific timetables and strategies to communicate with members.

  • E-mail: If you do not have a complete or up-to-date listing of members’ e-mail addresses, begin efforts to gather that information as soon as possible and create an e-mail list for your congregation. Encourage members who do not have an e-mail account to set up a free account and learn how to use it.
  • Church website and social media: If your congregation has a website or has a presence on social media, be sure to take full advantage of these tools. Place important notices in a prominent place on the home page of your website. You can include links to a special webpage that provides information on your plans and contingencies. All types of social media should be considered, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Worship
God’s people naturally desire the comfort and guidance of God’s Word as well as the encouragement of fellow Christians. This is especially true in times of crisis. However, because of government efforts to halt the spread of the virus, mandated limits to the size of public gatherings have resulted in the need to suspend regular worship services in many congregations.

This does not mean that worship needs to stop. Congregations are already finding creative ways to keep their people connected to the Word. Live streaming worship, Facebook Live, and sermons posted on websites are being used to serve members. If your congregation is still trying to determine how to do that, I suggest you contact other congregations that have found appropriate ways to continue serving the worship needs of their people. It’s a time when we can learn from and help each other.

Communion
Since restrictions on gatherings vary from place to place, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper will in some places need to be modified, depending on government restrictions and medical guidelines. Some congregations, if allowed by state and local authorities, are gathering in small groups and taking great care to practice good hygiene and recommended “social distancing.”

In other places, even small gatherings are not allowed. There have been questions about how we should proceed when it comes to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper when members cannot gather at church.

Regardless of the specific situation in which your congregation finds itself, here are a couple of things to remember. First, while Christians desire to be strengthened and comforted by the Lord’s Supper, we also recognize that there are times when the normal celebration of Communion is not possible. For Christians serving in a war zone, for church members who are in a medically induced coma, for believers who are home-bound because of sickness or infirmity, the normal celebration of the Lord’s Supper with other believers may not be an option. But in those cases we take comfort in knowing that we have the means of grace in two forms—Word and sacrament. The forgiveness conveyed and assured by the written or spoken Word of God is no less powerful and effective than the sacrament. In some cases, private Communion may certainly be available.

Second, we also recognize that there is no scriptural definition or requirement for how frequently Christians should celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Jesus simply encourages us to receive the Lord’s Supper regularly and often. There may be times such as this that, temporarily, the Lord’s Supper may not be available as often as we would like or desire. For that reason, the Conference of Presidents is urging patience with the following advice:

“We encourage our congregations at this time to reserve the distribution of the Lord’s Supper for its regular and normal use within the gathering of the body of believers (realizing that some changes in procedure may be made) or distributed privately by the pastor to individuals in need, as is the customary practice. We urge congregations to refrain from initiating novel approaches for celebration of the sacrament.”

If you have specific questions, please contact your district president.

Pastoral care
There is no real substitute for in-person pastoral care. But pastors can communicate with their flocks and communicate the comfort and guidance of God’s Word in ways that do not violate quarantines or require physical contact. Videos, podcasts, and e-mail are some of the ways that pastoral contact can be maintained.

Of course, pastors do have the responsibility to minister to their people even when it may put them at risk. Common sense will guide a pastor in not taking unnecessary risks involving his own health or the health of those he serves. When it becomes necessary for a faithful pastor to carry out his pastoral responsibilities, he will place himself firmly into the hands of a gracious God for protection.

Outreach to the community

Another article in this issue of Together will give some practical suggestions of ways that congregations and their members can show Christian love and be salt and light in their communities.

Finally, continue to trust in our gracious God and in his promises. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

 

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Bearing fruit in a time of need

In his book The Rise of Christianity, Dr. Rodney Stark estimates that Christianity grew an average of 40 percent per decade for the first few centuries of its existence. To put that in perspective, if WELS grew at that rate, in two generations we would have over two million members.

How did that happen? Christianity was started by misfits from the armpit of the Roman Empire. Christianity didn’t worship in opulent temples. Early believers worshiped in homes. Christianity had no sociological advantages. Becoming a Christian made it likely you would experience ridicule or even persecution. How does Christianity explode in those circumstances?

The gospel. The gospel was entirely unique. There were plenty of religions that talked about powerful gods who demanded you offer sacrifices to them. The gospel told of an all-powerful God who became weak and sacrificed himself for you. Other religions offered some version of life after death, but it was always conditional. Do good work; get a good eternity. You faced death with fingers crossed, hoping for the best. The gospel offered physical resurrection and eternity in paradise entirely on the basis of Christ’s work, not your own. His death and his resurrection meant you had assurance now. You faced death confidently, knowing you were going to an infinitely better place.

St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world” (1:6). The supernatural power and beauty of the gospel—that is what caused the early church to explode.

However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t simply that the early Christians proclaimed the gospel. By the way they lived their lives, they gained an audience for the gospel. A good example of this occurred during a pandemic.

In the early fourth century, the historian Eusebius wrote about a plague that was rolling over the eastern half of the Empire. Healthy people would flee the cities for the safety of the countryside. But one group largely stayed behind—Christians. “All day long, [Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.” Eusebius states that as people witnessed this compassion, “[the Christians’] deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.” There are dozens of examples of history noting how Christians took care of the sick. It didn’t matter if the sick person was a Christian or pagan.

Christians were known to care for the poor too. The Roman Emperor Julian wanted to wipe out Christianity and re-institute emperor worship. After a few years of trying, Julian wrote a letter to a pagan priest in which he explained why he now believed Christianity would take over the empire. “[Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well. All men see that our people lack aid from us.” Christians showed levels of mercy and benevolence that won them an audience. When people would ask Christians, “Why do you do what you do?” they could share the gospel.

COVID-19 is undeniably awful. Many thousands are going to die. The economies of the world are in shambles. It is bad. However, COVID-19 is also an amazing opportunity. It is, first and foremost, an opportunity to serve Christ by serving our fellow man in whatever way they need.

  • Maybe you contact all the at-risk residents on your block—the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, etc.—and offer to make all their grocery store runs for them. (You can leave the bags on the porch, ring the bell, then step back ten feet to make sure they get them.)
  • If you live near a single-parent hospital worker or first responder, maybe you offer to watch their child when they need to work.
  • Maybe you pick up your dinner a couple nights a week from the mom-and-pop restaurant that could easily go out of business in the lockdown.
  • Is there a single person you know who is shuttered up, perhaps a widow or widower? Maybe you set aside 20 minutes a day to talk to them on the phone or FaceTime. Have your kids do the same. Help them deal with the crushing loneliness.
  • If the federal government ends up giving funds to citizens and you don’t really need it to survive, maybe you give yours away to others who are hit harder by the economic downturn than your family.
  • Do you own a business? When this is over, hire all you can. Don’t consider the bottom line. If you can hire, hire.

As we seize those God-given opportunities to serve our neighbor, perhaps Christ will give us another opportunity—to share why we do what we do . . . to share the hope we have.

You probably know that American Christianity is falling apart. People have been leaving the church in droves over the last three decades, especially younger generations. There have been multiple studies about why this is happening. One of the biggest reasons is many people think Christianity is irrelevant. COVID-19 is an opportunity to prove that is the furthest thing from the truth! If Americans are caught in a nexus of needs and fears, fine.

Let us be the ones who step up first to meet those needs.

Let us be the ones to explain why we need not fear anything.

Let us do all this, not because we want to grow by 40 percent. Let us do this simply because we are the body of Christ. We do what he would do. And we want him glorified. “They glorified the God of the Christians.”

In these challenging days ahead, may the Spirit strengthen your faith with his unbreakable promises. May Christ give you health and compassion.

Submitted by Rev. Jon Hein, director of WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling

 

 

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Update from WELS Missions

WELS World Missions has always had very straightforward marching orders. Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20). This commission is clear, and we are always eager and thankful for the partnership we have to carry out this work on behalf of WELS. In these times it is good to focus on the bookends that Jesus provides as he gives his Great Commission; “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The arrival of this virus has unsettled all of us with its surprising speed and reach. But our Lord is not unsettled or surprised. We trust Jesus who has authority over this disease and has promised to always be with us. We know this all fits into his plan for our eternal good.

With that confidence WELS World Missions has been readjusting to its new realities. Here is an update for you from your World Missions.

  1. All of our missionaries at this time are safe. World travel via most normal international routes has been shut down for the immediate future. Our missionaries are aware and are settling in to their homes overseas for however long this lasts. Our Missions office stands ready to assist if local regulations or security requires a move. Mission families who have students in schools and universities in the United States may not be able to reunite until after travel restrictions are eased. We thank God for the family and friends who are hosting those kids.
  2. All of our national church partners are dealing with their local rules and regulations. Many will have to call off worship services as countries scramble to curb the spread of the virus.
  3. Reports are coming from our sister churches around the globe of connections and service to their communities in these trying times. From online gatherings in East Asia to churches handing out face masks and delivering supplies to the homebound to online camaraderie across borders in Latin America, it is easy to see how the Lord of the church is using his salt and light sprinkled throughout the world to help those living in darkness catch a glimpse of his wonderful light. We pray that God use all of us in these circumstances to not only look to our own needs but also to serve the needs of others.

May God shower his Spirit upon you and give you peace, comfort and joy through the salvation won for us by Christ!

Serving with you,
WELS World Missions

 

 

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Resources from WELS and NPH

WELS and Northwestern Publishing House (NPH) are offering several resources for free to help you stay connected to your Lord, to your church, and to WELS during this time of unrest and change. Resources include hymn downloads, Sunday school materials, digital access to Forward in Christ magazine, and access to Kids Connection and WELS Connection videos.

Hymnal/music options
Eighty hymns from Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal are now available to download for free from NPH. According to Mr. Jeremy Bakken, NPH director of worship and sacred music, these resources will help enable hymn singing for families at home, whether for their personal family worship or to participate with their church’s online worship.

Downloads for these hymns include digital options (PDF and TIFF) as well as audio files of piano and organ accompaniments (M4A). Taken from the Lent and Easter sections as well as the Redeemer, Trust, Faith, Prayer, and Nation sections, all available hymns are in the public domain or have been granted permission for their use.

“We don’t know how long the current crisis will last. With David, we ask ‘How long, LORD?’ (Psalm 13:1). But with him we also trust in God’s unfailing love and rejoice in his salvation,” says Bakken. “We pray these free resources will assist individuals and families with their devotional time, as well as help congregations holding services exclusively online for a time, to ‘sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me’ (Psalm 13:6).”

Individuals interested in having Christian Worship for at-home use can also purchase up to five copies of this hymnal at 50 percent off.

Sunday school materials
Parents can now download six weeks of Christ-Light lessons for free, compliments of Northwestern Publishing House, so they can offer Sunday school at home.

Bible stories offered follow the life of Jesus, including several of his miracles and the events of Holy Week and Easter. Besides the student lessons, parents can download coloring sheets and other activities as well as a teacher’s guide to help them share the lesson with their children. Different levels are available for children ranging in age from pre-kindergarten to grade six.

Devotional resources
Forward in Christ (FIC), the synod’s official magazine, is offering free digital access to the March and April issues for both subscribers and non-subscribers. Both issues are available now.

“We have learned new concepts lately such as self-quarantine; social distancing; and one that might not be so new, financial upheaval,” says Rev. John Braun, FIC executive editor. “But in all the nuances, we remain in God’s care—connected to each other in faith—and look for strength from God’s Word. Our prayer is that Forward in Christ may help you as you face today’s challenges.”

The most recent editions of Kids Connection will also be available to view. Created to complement the WELS Connection monthly video news magazine, Kids Connection encourages children and their families to “stay connected to Jesus” through Christ-centered stories and segments presented by two teenage hosts. Parents can use the September 2019 through March 2020 monthly videos at home with their children as part of their daily devotional life.

WELS also offers many free devotional options, including a daily devotion that can be e-mailed directly to you.

Congregational resource
WELS Communication Services is also releasing the March WELS Connection early for online viewing. Since many churches have suspended meeting in person for the next few weeks, congregations that haven’t had time to show the WELS Connection this month can direct their members to view it online. Pastors can also share this direct link to the video via e-mail to their members or download the video and add it to their church’s website.

“During this unprecedented time, Communication Services is working to provide you with resources that will assist you in staying connected to God’s Word,” says Mr. Lee Hitter, WELS’ director of communication. “Pastors, please let your members know that these resources are available to them. And everyone, please share these encouragements with your friends and family to help them during these trying times.”

 

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Spiritual and mental health support

With Americans told to stay home—away from church, school, and in some cases work—in an anxiety-inducing time, WELS ministries are creating and making available resources to help. Here are a few that we found. If your ministry, school, or congregation is offering spiritual or Christian educational resources that can be used by individuals and families, let us know! We’ll continue to add to this list; check back often!

Christian Family Solutions
Christian Family Solutions has been “healing and helping people in need through the ministry of Jesus Christ” since 1965. This mission remains their focus during the COVID-19 situation. They are committed to serving communities with help, healing, and hope.

COVID-19 has certainly changed life as we know it, and Christian Family Solutions continues to provide counseling services and mental health treatment for those in need. They are equipped and ready to serve. All counseling clinic visits have shifted to appointments via secure video counseling, a service they have been offering for nearly 12 years.

The increased opportunity to connect virtually means that WELS pastors and ministry staff can still refer people through the Member Assistance Program. Members can still connect to their counselor, and students can continue treatment outside of school.

Recognizing that finances may be a concern, Christian Family Solutions is removing that barrier by working with insurance companies, who are eliminating copays and taking special measures during this national public health emergency. Anyone who needs counseling should contact the intake staff at Christian Family Solutions on their website by clicking on “REQUEST APPOINTMENT.”

On their website you will also find resources, including videos, blogs, and pamphlets for churches and schools to distribute to their families. These Christ-centered materials are designed to instill calm and increase resilience during this challenging time.

Though the future is uncertain, we remain steadfast in our Savior. It is important to be purveyors of calm in this suddenly chaotic world. Christian Family Solutions is equipped to serve “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), confident that COVID-19 will bring an abundance of opportunity to share hope in Christ with individuals, families, churches, and communities.

Martin Luther College
Martin Luther College will continue livestreaming daily chapel services Monday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. (central). Campus Pastor John Boeder says, “Whether you’re in California or Alaska or Georgia or Green Bay or New Ulm, by the miracle of modern technology we can gather to sing and worship and listen and pray. Chapel will be a welcome break in a day of distance learning. It will bring us together in Christ and strengthen us for serving him.”

Luther Preparatory School
Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wis., is live streaming its morning chapel services Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. (central). Students are doing online learning during the closing.

The Lutheran Home Association
The Lutheran Home Association (TLHA) has devotional resources for adults as well as young children. Read Christian life devotions. Parents are welcome to receive a collection of simple Bible stories for teaching children. Just e-mail jcm@tlha.org for more information. “We are privileged to serve God’s people during this time of uncertainty,” says Rev. Joel Gaertner, TLHA vice president of ministry.

Time of Grace
Time of Grace has videos, devotions, a blog, and more to help keep Christian’s focused on Christ. Time of Grace started posting devotions for families with grade-school aged children on its Grace Talks Facebook group. Rev. Mike Novotny wrote a series of 11 devotions related to the coronavirus. They were just posted on YouVersion as a Bible study plan and Time of Grace will be publishing them starting this Sunday as Daily Grace Moments devotions. In addition, Rev. Jeremy Mattek is recording a video each weekday evening that will be distributed on Time of Grace’s Facebook page, Facebook group, and on Time of Grace Instagram. These three to five minute videos give some biblical encouragement at the end of the day.

Koine Worship Media
Koine Worship Media, which produces various forms of media to be used in worship, is temporarily lifting restrictions on using videos during a livestream or prepared recording of a service. Read more from their Facebook page.

One Minute Bible Bits
Professor Stephen Geiger, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, posted a series of 52 short videos on various topics from the Bible and doctrine.

Pilgrim Lutheran Church, Menomonee Falls, Wis.
Pilgrim is posting daily video devotions, including a kid’s devotion, to its Facebook page.

First Steps, Oconomowoc, Wis.
First Steps, the child care ministry of St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wis., is posting Bible Time and education videos to its Facebook page.

Bread for Beggars online festival
Bread for Beggars is featuring WELS musicians nightly live on Facebook.

5toThrive
Dr. Rhoda Wolle, dean of student success and associate professor of education at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wis., produces a blog and podcast series called 5toThrive. A recent podcast titled “Resources for Learning from Home” can help families and educators while kids are home from school.

Livestreamed services from WELS Churches
If you’re looking for worship-from-home opportunities, view a listing of WELS churches that live stream services.

Worship radio broadcasts
You can search the WELS Yearbook online for congregations that offer a radio broadcast of their services. Search for churches in your area and select “Church (with worship broadcast).”

 

 

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Online giving options

Congregations are increasingly seeking out options for online giving to meet the preferences of members across generations. The current COVID-19 pandemic has made finding a donation platform even more urgent.

These platforms offer an array of popular giving options:

  • Online donations—set up a page to collect one-time and recurring gifts via credit card or electronic funds transfer (EFT) from checking or savings accounts
  • Recurring gift program—an amount is automatically withdrawn for offerings or tuition from the member’s bank account or credit card on a regular basis
  • Text to Give—members can text a phone number to give a dollar amount; this is charged to their phone bill

Comparing vendors typically requires contacting each company to negotiate options and pricing—and the pricing structure is a little complex (e.g., a set fee plus a percentage of transactions). Another factor to consider is how well the software coordinates with your church database.

There is no WELS-endorsed vendor, but many congregations use Vanco’s GivePlus program because of their familiarity with Vanco’s past SimplyGiving program for gathering offerings electronically. You can review the Vanco platform at the St. John’s, Wauwatosa, and St. Marcus, Milwaukee, websites. Other vendors used by WELS churches include RebelGive and Realm. RebelGive has a simple interface and annual price (fees are covered by member donations). Realm goes beyond online giving to also coordinate and collect member information, church communications, and events.

Once you have an online donation page, it’s easy to make this available to members via the offerings section of the bulletin or a digital display as a QR code by following these simple steps. You can learn more about online giving from this WELSTech Podcast (minutes 6:15-12:45) and by contacting Ministry of Christian Giving at mcg@wels.net or 800-827-5482.

 

 

 

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Facing COVID-19 together: A message from our synod president

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Events of the recent weeks and days surely remind us that Jesus’ words describing the trouble that we will experience in this world are all too true. But especially in times of trouble like these, we will want always to remember the rest of what he told us: He has overcome the world. Our times are still in his hands. He will never leave us or forsake us. No matter how dark the days, he remains our light and salvation; whom (or what) shall we fear?

Throughout our synod, various areas of ministry, congregations, and schools have already been affected by the current health crisis and have been taking steps to respond. And, as the situation continues to change, many more decisions will likely need to be made in the days and weeks to come.

The synod has taken various actions in response to government recommendations and mandates, and, after much prayer, other decisions have been made based on common sense and an abundance of caution. To do our part in helping to limit the spread of COVID-19, the synod has placed a moratorium on all non-essential foreign and domestic air travel for synod personnel. Meetings at the WELS Center for Mission and Ministry have been postponed or canceled. Martin Luther College, Luther Preparatory School, and Michigan Lutheran Seminary have canceled in-person classes through the Easter break.

As the situation changes, WELS congregations will be faced with making difficult decisions about how gospel ministry and congregational worship will be carried out in the coming weeks and months. Here are some important points to consider:

  • The Fourth Commandment and other words of Scripture remind us not only to show respect and obedience to governmental authorities, but also to remember them in our prayers as they make decisions to safeguard our nation.
  • According to the Fifth Commandment, we have the responsibility not to do anything to hurt or harm our neighbor (or ourselves, for that matter), but to help our neighbor in times of need.
  • God’s Word reminds us of the importance and blessing of worship and encourages us to make faithful use of the means of grace.

How do we apply these biblical principles at a time like this? The Centers for Disease Control has recently recommended that for the next eight weeks, public gatherings should be limited to no more than 50 people. Some local governmental bodies have already gone further, issuing an outright ban on public gatherings of 50 people or more. Restrictions could become even tighter than that in the coming days and weeks. What does this mean?

  • While we can make recommendations, the synod does not have the authority to mandate uniform actions by all of our congregations. Rather, congregations will need to make their own responsible decisions about worship gatherings, depending on local circumstances and governmental restrictions.
  • Respect for our government, Christian love for our fellow citizens, and proper concern for our own health may require congregations to alter their worship plans. In some places, services may need to be canceled to comply with government mandates. In other places, congregations may decide to offer more service times to keep gatherings below the recommended or mandated limit. Congregations that cancel services are encouraged to find alternate means, such as live streaming worship, sermons, and Bible classes. Congregations that do not have the ability to do this may want to make their members aware of other congregations that do. In some cases, emailed sermons and devotional materials might be considered. Congregations can also equip parents with resources that can be used in family devotions. Our trust in the efficacy of God’s Word reassures us that his Word works even when public worship gatherings are not possible.
  • Recognize that this is an extraordinary opportunity to let our light shine in the ways that our congregations and their members serve the people in their communities in Christian love.
  • In times such as these, as your local ministry strives to meet these challenges, your continuing and regular offerings are as vital as ever. God’s work must go on.

We ask you to be patient with us. We are doing the best we can to provide information and guidance in this difficult time. And we ask for your prayers that God will guide us with wisdom and faith as we make what will likely be difficult decisions.

So it is with God’s church in these last days. We know that Satan is doing all he can to silence the proclamation of God’s saving gospel. We know that our enemy from hell tries to use events like this to drive a wedge between God and his people. But we also know that God can and will cause even this crisis to work together for the good of those who love him. He will use this to drive us to the cross of our Savior, where he gave himself to make us his own. And he will lead us to the open door of the empty tomb, where he demonstrated his complete victory over Satan, sin, and death.

May our gracious God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Preserver, keep you strong in your faith and confident in his promises.

Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

March 17 update: As part of precautions and in efforts to reduce gatherings, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS) announced face-to-face classes are on hold for the time being. Online instruction will begin March 25 with the hope of resuming face-to-face classes April 15.

 

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Schools and families facing COVID-19 shutdowns

Schools are shutting down and kids are home. Now what? Many of our WELS schools are seeking to offer solutions for learning opportunities and activities while students are home. The WELS Commission on Lutheran Schools (CLS) has met with various members of schools’ leadership to brainstorm and share ideas.

First and foremost, Mr. Jim Rademan, director of CLS, says, “We are requesting that all our WELS schools follow CDC, state, and local guidelines regarding closures.”

Many schools are already working on plans to keep kids engaged in education during the shutdowns. “Several of our schools have been working very hard to engage children in continuous learning and have put together their plans and are willingly sharing those with others,” says Rademan.

CLS is working to compile plans, documents, and resources that schools can adapt for their own use. The list will grow and change as more information becomes available.

It’s unknown how long students will be out of school; it’s a moving target, but the key for schools is to find a way to connect with students during this time to cultivate ongoing learning, explains Rademan. Right now, there are more questions than answers as to how this will affect the school year and academics. Currently, the main priority is to keep communities healthy.

“Every state and every local district and every local school is going to need to adapt to the local culture and community that they’re in. The key is to communicate,” says Rademan. “We’re encouraging our schools to pay attention to their state instruction websites and local schools and figure out ways to connect with kids for continuous learning.”

Mrs. Cindi Holman, Early Childhood Ministry national coordinator, has provided some helpful tips for parents and families as they will now be home together. View tips for families.

“One recommendation is being really prudent about watching out for having the news on all day long. While it may look like your children are not paying attention, they’re hearing this,” says Holman. “Just the same way we can get overwhelmed and stressed by the constant barrage of information, the little ones don’t really know what to do with that kind of information.”

Holman says, “For parents, is it going to be challenging? Yes, it is, but we can really embrace this as a special treasured opportunity for families. In a time when we’re overscheduled and running all over all the time, this opportunity to have extended family time, I think, will bring tremendous blessings to families. It’ll take some adjustment, but I think it will bring great blessings.”

 

 

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Spiritual resources for uncertain times

As we find ourselves in uncertain times, with news of the spread of COVID-19 changing constantly, it’s important to remember where Christians find their faith, hope, and strength—our Savior, Jesus Christ.

“God’s Word is full of encouragement for all of us during this time,” says Mr. Bill Ziche, president of Northwestern Publishing House (NPH). “As you and your family find yourself at home, it is a wonderful opportunity for you—individually and as a family—to get into God’s Word and find peace.”

Northwestern Publishing House has many devotional books to help you, including:

All of these resources are available from Northwestern Publishing House, nph.net, or by calling 800-662-6022. Many are available as ebooks as well. NPH customer service lines are remaining open, and orders will continue to be filled.

WELS also offers many free devotional options, including a daily devotion that can be e-mailed directly to you.

“Besides offering you this encouragement from God’s Word, you can share these e-mail devotions with others,” says Rev. Eric Roecker, director of WELS Evangelism. “Think of the unchurched people you know who may be facing an unknown future without God’s great promises. You can be the one God uses to calm their fears with the assurances the Daily Devotions provide.”

Several articles from Forward in Christ magazine can also be found online, including five years of previous issues. Messages of hope and God’s help can be found in many of the articles, including this recent Teen Talk.

 

 

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Technology for worship

In response to the recent CDC recommendations limiting public gatherings to no more than 50 people, many WELS congregations are now utilizing the blessings of technology to offer a livestream of their worship services.

If your congregation does not offer worship services via livestream, there are multiple ways you can still connect to online worship resources:

“May God bless our efforts to share his gospel in all circumstances, regardless of any earthly barriers we encounter,” says Mr. Martin Spriggs, WELS chief technology officer. “Truly technology is a blessing God provides for our use to take his message of peace and comfort to our members and the world. The apostle Paul once shared, ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39).”

 

 

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Learning about and adapting to this pandemic

If you are looking for resources from medical and science professionals related to COVID-19, visit cdc.gov, the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The site includes:

Congregations that continue to hold public worship services may consider changing some of their practices during this pandemic. For example,

  • worship folders (bulletins) can be picked up off a table in the entryway and disposed of after the service by each individual family;
  • the order of worship and hymns may be included in the worship folder or on a display screen so that hymnals do not need to be used;
  • serving food and drinks may be discontinued;
  • shaking hands may be replaced with a friendly wave;
  • offerings may be collected in a basket or offering plate placed in the entryway; and
  • online giving may also be promoted.

Although these temporary changes may feel unusual at first, God’s powerful Word does not change and will be the one constant during this unsettling time.

 

 

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Suggestions for Parents of Young Children

Mrs. Cindi Holman, Early Childhood Ministry national coordinator, has provided some helpful tips for parents and families as they will now be home together.

  • Routine: Routine makes children feel safe. Establish a routine for this new period. Avoid over-scheduling the day but have enough structure that your child feels a sense of security.
  • Daily Devotions/Bible Story: If you’re already in the routine of home devotions or Bible story time, continue. If not, this is a great time to start. Northwestern Publishing House has some wonderful resources. Your child’s teacher will have Bible story resources (for students at Lutheran schools) to help or simply pull out a children’s Bible story book.
  • Outside time: As weather permits and when possible, give your children time outside. Take walks together and allow them to play outside — encouraging social distancing.
  • Have a flexible daily schedule: Include active times and quiet times. Don’t expect to replicate the schedule and length of a school day. Be careful not to overemphasize academics but provide balanced activities. Reach out to your child’s teacher or caregiver for advice on age-appropriate activities.
  • Read, read, read! Read to your child everyday and multiple times of day. Provide a quiet book space for them to enjoy books as well. If your library closes, check out online resources such as books to listen to that can often be checked out from your local library.
  • Include creative activities such as writing, drawing, and craft projects. Provide them with plain paper, crayons, colored pencils, markers, scissors, glue, play dough, etc. Simple items can be the most fun for children. (Empty cardboard boxes, blanket forts, etc.) Can you do cooking or baking projects together?
  • Help your child stay connected with friends and family. Your child will be missing the usual social interaction with friends and family. Play dates are not recommended. However, can you set up a virtual play date where the children play together via SKYPE or Facetime? Perhaps parents can take turns being the guest reader for a group of friends using video conferencing. Can grandparents and other family members take turns at reading to your child as well?
  • Limit screen time—especially time watching or hearing the news. Even if they are not watching, they are hearing the reports. The continual influx of information can be stressful for adults. The same is true for children who don’t always have means of coping or sorting out all the information. Provide only age-appropriate information as needed in ways that you know will be best for your child.
  • Encourage acts of kindness: Can they create cards, notes, or pictures to send to nursing homes, family and friends, or neighbors to brighten their day?
  • Provide your child reassurance and encouragement. Pray with them for themselves, those they know and love, and others that the Lord will watch over them. Be sure to include prayers of thanks for the many blessings that they have each day. (Jesus their Friend and Savior, a home, family, food, a sunny day, rain, nurses and doctors, grocery store workers, etc.)
  • Take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep, healthy food, time in the Word, and connections with others.

While this is a time of uncertainty and new routines, this can also be a time of great blessing. While an adjustment time will be likely, in our world of full schedules and activity, this can be a time to slow down and spend time with each other in our families. What an opportunity to spend time together talking, playing games, reading, cooking, etc. What an opportunity to remind ourselves and those we love, how dearly our Savior loves each of us and is with us each day, even when our day feels different.

Jesus, Shepherd of the sheep,
Who your Father’s flock does keep,
Safe we wake and safe we sleep,
Guarded still by you. Amen
Christian Worship 436:1

 

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Live Web Streaming Guidance for Churches

livestream imageThe recent guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to limit public gatherings to no more than fifty people certainly has ramifications for our churches. For many it means that alternate worship strategies will need to be considered…most notably live streaming. Some churches do this already, so it is a relatively small step to make this the primary way our members can take part in worship. However, there are some considerations to keep in mind. More on that later. However, many of our churches do not currently stream their services at all. Here are some guidelines and resources for those looking at ways to get started:

  • Read through this excellent article by Phil Thompson entitled “How to Livestream Your Church Service: A Practical Guide.” There are great suggestions and links to more technical how-to articles.
  • A couple of things to keep in mind both from the article and my experiences… one includes a decision by your leadership if you want to try to livestream a typical worship service complete with a small group of people in attendance, or a shorter format worship or devotional experience provided by the pastor or worship leader in a more intimate setting? The article referenced above tends to lean more toward the latter, and I would agree with that. It is difficult to provide an engaging experience based on the traditional corporate worship experience. The viewer quickly becomes a passive spectator. Some of the suggestions in the article for “engaging” the audience are good ones including building in questions with time for reflection and responses, having a Q&A slot, or some other feedback mechanism once the stream has ended. Personally I would be more engaged by a video session streamed by my pastor from his office with chances for interaction.
  • Two suggestions for technologies to consider are Facebook Live and YouTube. While I have no preference for either technology, Facebook would require people to be on that platform, and there might be some reticent to join. I do think Facebook Live has better “personal interaction” options available however. YouTube, while a little more technically challenging to set up would not have the same issue with people needing to login or get an app to participate. Another option mentioned in the article is the use of a camera called Mevo. We’ve used this in the past and works rather well. It requires a Vimeo Livestream account, and the current camera costs about $400, but it allows multiple camera perspectives, records and streams at the same time, can be controlled via a smartphone, and can be viewed on YouTube and Facebook Live at the same time. With the rush for livestreaming solutions, I’m not sure about the availability of these cameras as of this writing.
  • Whatever platform you choose, put a premium on capturing good audio. People can live with substandard video, but if the audio isn’t clear, you will quickly lose their attention and ultimately, participation.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice. Take some time to both get yourself comfortable with delivery, but also use your leadership team as guinea pigs beforehand and take suggestions before you stream your first service “for real.”
  • You may also want to consider whether you want to offer a live experience or a more on-demand model. How important is it that your people “gather” at the same exact time. There are advantages to having people gather around God’s word at the same time, but there are also technical challenges that some congregations can’t quickly overcome. There is nothing wrong with posting a recorded sermon or devotion or worship experience of some kind for people to view when they can. Of course, try to make that as engaging as possible with some way to provide feedback or invite a “conversation” about the content asynchronously.
  • Once you’ve got the hang of streaming some kind of worship or devotional experience, it’s a short hop to doing the same for other things like Bible Class, which is many respects might lend itself even better to this format. You could have a small group gathered for some in-person interactivity, but then augmented with a larger online group. Be creative. Use the technology resources available to you.
  • Other considerations should be made for those who don’t have internet access or may need technical assistance to get online and gain access to your resources. It might be a nice gesture to make a staff person or tech-savvy member or two available willing to take phone calls and help people along. If people don’t have access to the internet, perhaps delivering a recorded DVD of some type might be your only option. Of course, don’t forget about your shut-ins, but keep in mind the guidance provided by health experts as well.
  • Be sure to consider copyright issues when streaming content. Many of you probably have OneLicense or CCLI licenses already but these licenses typically don’t cover livestreaming. Each also offers “podcasting” licenses that can be added that covers the streaming of any copyrighted content. Christian Copyright Solutions both offers licenses, but also excellent Fact Sheets on all things related to streaming copyrighted content over the internet. Of course remember about typical privacy concerns related to broadcasting members (adults or children). You will want to make sure they are both aware and comfortable with what you are doing. (Note: Until April 30, CCS is offering 10% off with the code STREAM10. OneLicense is offering a free license until April 15.)
  • As always, please feel free to reach out to me directly if you’d like to discuss any of the items in this post or general issues related to streaming. I can be reached at martin.spriggs@WELS.net or 414.256.3250.

May God bless our efforts to share His Gospel in all circumstances, regardless of any earthly barriers we encounter. Truly technology is a blessing God provides for our use to take His message of peace and comfort to our members and the world. The apostle Paul once shared “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Martin A. Spriggs
WELS Chief Technology Officer