Concerns about the novel coronavirus are closing down schools, athletic events and international travel. The NBA even suspended its 2020 season after a player tested positive.
And religious groups are no exception.
While organizations like the Baptist World Alliance and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are presently going ahead with planned gatherings and monitoring developments, the Alliance of Baptists and CBF of North Carolina are among those to canceled meetings. Still others either rescheduled gatherings or asked ailing members not to attend.
CBF of North Carolina on Wednesday said it has nixed its Annual Gathering, scheduled for March 19-21 in Raleigh.
That city is the seat of Wake County, where the state said at least six people tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Schools there have been closed and institutions of higher learning, including Duke University, have resorted to extending spring break and holding classes online only.
“Wake County is the epicenter, so we don’t want people to come to Raleigh, catch this thing, and return to communities where it may not be yet,” Larry Hovis, executive coordinator of CBF North Carolina, told Baptist News Global.
But even with clear medical and moral reasons for canceling such events, the decision seriously impacts the financial and spiritual bottom lines of faith-based organizations.
“The least important is financial,” Hovis said. “We will lose some money in this, but we trust God will provide.”
Official business also will be hampered. Hovis said new council members, bylaws changes and an annual budget were on the agenda for the March gathering.
Perhaps the most painful impact is felt in lost opportunities for fellowship, he said.
“People describe this event as their annual family reunion, and they are going to miss out on that.”
The Alliance of Baptists on Thursday said it is canceling its yearly meeting – just days after telling supporters the meeting would proceed.
“Developments of the past 24 hours lead the Alliance staff and officers to make the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 annual gathering set for the end of April,” the organization said.
“It is important to be socially responsible to honor the lives of the most vulnerable – those with pre-existing conditions, elderly folk, and the Asian/Pacific Islander diaspora community who are being unfairly blamed for the virus and its spread.”
Paula Dempsey, the organization’s director of partnership relations, told BNG that the Alliance is bringing faith to bear, too.
“We lift our prayers for the families of the victims of the virus, and for those working to contain the spread of the virus and fight the epidemic,” she said.
Participants ‘asked to go home’
Similar impacts are being felt globally.
A CBF missions official recently said a regularly scheduled gathering of field personnel in Asia has been canceled due to the spread of COVID-19.
Mercer University, an institution with Baptist roots in Macon, Georgia, canceled a Mercer on Mission study and service abroad trip to China.
“We’ve also had a couple of speakers who will be unable to come to campus to give planned lectures this month in accordance with recent CDC recommendations for travel,” a university spokesman said.
For the time being, he added on Thursday, all other academic and administrative functions of the university “are operating normally.”
For now, some faith-based organizations are attempting to avoid cancellations.
The Baptist General Association of Virginia has rescheduled several events, including its Fresh Expressions National Gathering.
And the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina has asked ministry participants “to use wisdom” in preventing the spread of COVID-19 including staying home if feeling ill.
“In an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus or any other flu-like illnesses, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina requests that anyone with a fever greater than 99.1, cough, runny nose, sore throat or trouble breathing, not participate in convention-related activities,” the organization said on its website.
“Event participants who show any cold or flu symptoms will be asked to go home, and the area they were occupying should immediately be disinfected.”
‘Concerned about peace, security and safety’
Other organizations, especially those with summertime events, also are taking a wait-and-see approach.
The Baptist World Alliance this week announced it had “NO plans to postpone or cancel” its 2020 World Congress scheduled July 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“However, in this challenging context, we stand in solidarity and prayer with those who have been impacted,” BWA said in its March 9 statement.
With at least eight cases of the infection reported in Brazil, BWA said it will maintain close contact with local partners in the region and is consulting with health experts to employ advanced safety measures for the event.
“As an organization we take seriously our responsibility to consider potential impacts on the health and well being of those who would be enjoying a BWA event,” BWA General Secretary Elijah Brown told BNG.
BWA must weigh safety along with its calling to serve the world, he explained.
“We want to emphasize that we are concerned about peace and security and safety, but we must not neglect our assignments within the Kingdom.”
Brown urged Baptists to pray for churches in impacted countries where Christians are minorities. In some cases, they are fending for themselves as outbreaks and quarantines force them to cancel services.
The isolation and financial repercussions for those congregations are immense, he said.
‘Patience and flexibility’
CBF said this week it will proceed with its annual summer gathering, but also announced the creation of a COVID-19 Work Group.
The group will “streamline the flow of updated information across the organization, aid in decision-making and help facilitate timely communications across CBF staff and field personnel, partner congregations and all Cooperative Baptists.”
CBF Executive Coordinator Paul Baxley said the Atlanta-based fellowship is going ahead with plans to hold its General Assembly in that city in June and “we encourage all Cooperative Baptists to be a part of it.”
In a statement emailed to BNG, Baxley noted the situation with the disease is being assessed as it evolves.
“We will work actively in our staff, with our officers and with our meeting planners to make sure that we prepare for the meeting in ways that maximize the health of all who participate, and we will communicate actively about measures we put in place,” Baxley said. “Should conditions require a change in plans, we will communicate that as soon as we can.”
‘Jeopardize our ministry and witness’
In some cases, technology is helping cope with canceled gatherings.
“At least initially, I think it’s mostly a matter of us shifting into a mode of relying even more on a virtual communications and meetings than we do ordinarily,” said Jim Bell, associate director of global mission with International Ministries of American Baptist Churches USA.
That’s happening in parts of the world where mission directors are unable to meet personally with missionaries, Bell said.
But it needs to be a short-term solution, he added.
“On a prolonged basis you don’t have the same level of personal engagement without interaction face-to-face,” Bell said.
But for CBF North Carolina, cancelling was the right move, Hovis said.
The potential health risk posed by the Annual Gathering would also reflect negatively on the organization’s larger mission of sharing the gospel, he said.
What if, Hovis said, lay ministers and clergy returned home from the event only to transmit the virus to people they serve through ministry?
“We don’t want to jeopardize our ministry and witness in those communities.”
BNG News Editor Bob Allen contributed to this report.