Cases of the Novel Coronavirus were first identified and reported in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019. It began spreading across the globe. By February 2020 it had been named Coronavirus Disease 19 (COVID-19) by the World Health Organization.1 By March 2020, South Africa had reported its first case, spread from Italy.2 The spread of the disease to Africa raised huge concerns because of Africa’s already fragile health systems straining against a chronically high infectious disease burden.3
Malawi is a landlocked country in the Great African Rift Valley, lying on the western shore of Lake Malawi. It is bordered by Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west, and Mozambique to the east, south, and west. The 2018 Malawian population and housing census estimated a population of more than 18 million.
Malawi reported its first COVID-19
case on April 2, 2020, imported from India.
⁴ By this time, the Malawian nationallevel
response included restrictions on
public gatherings and visitors entering
borders, mandatory hand hygiene at border
crossings, and the closure of schools.⁵
Implementation of COVID-19 lockdown
measures in Malawi faced resistance,
with nationwide demonstrations and a
court injunction that stopped it because
the plan was unclear and lacked public involvement
and support.⁶ COVID-19 cases
drastically increased in Malawi from June
to August 2020, exacerbated by the political
situation as well as lack of preparation
to minimize the impact of such
a pandemic on the country’s economic
system and human survival.
EFFECTS ON MALAWI UNION CONFERENCE
There are three conferences in the Malawi Union Conference: the North, Central, and South conferences. The union membership is 627,000 as of April 2021. Because of the government restrictions on public gatherings, Sabbath meetings were limited to 100 participants. These restrictions affected Sabbath worship, as well as the returning of tithes and offerings. Because of the partial lockdown, or shutdown, some church members lost their jobs or had salaries cut in half. Those who were employed as teachers in private schools were heavily affected because all schools were closed for nine months. They could not earn salaries because the students’ fees were the only source of their income.
Some of our church members lost their businesses, income, and assets. Entrepreneurship was greatly affected. Negativity toward stewardship soared among the church members. COVID-19 continues to disrupt our way of life. Precious lives have been lost. For example, in one of our local churches in Central Malawi Conference we lost four elders in a space of six weeks. As a union, however, we saw God fulfilling His promise that “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you” (Isa. 43:2).⁷ Indeed, we did not get scorched by the economic fire amid the COVID-19 surge. God remained our Provider and Sustainer throughout the difficult times.
OUR GIVING PATTERN
A comparison of January to March 2020 (before COVID-19) and January to March 2021 (during COVID-19) shows that Malawi Union Conference had a membership of 610,622, and 70,996 members returned their tithe (MK 1,038 137,000) in the first quarter of 2020, representing 11.62 percent of the membership; and 76,863 members returned their tithe (MK 1,120,024,324) during the same period, representing 12.53 percent of the membership. Despite the fact that the effects of COVID-19 were high, we realized an increase in both tithe returners and tithes. The 2020 first quarter offerings were MK 150,147,907 and MK 130,141,179 during the same period in 2021.
Multiple actions and initiatives have contributed to an increase in member participation in returning tithe during the COVID-19 pandemic:
i. Fostering of family worship and collection of tithes and offerings at the family level, which, in turn, were transferred to either cluster or church treasurers (provision was made to elect clusters and treasurers).
ii. Where permissible, members were divided into smaller clusters within close proximity and were encouraged to uplift and encourage each other in returning tithes and offerings.
iii. All the zones within the Malawi UnionConference were visited by conference stewardship directors reminding pastors and church members to be faithful amid COVID-19 and to stress that faithfulness is not limited by circumstances or pandemics. The emphasis was that now is the time to be more faithful than ever before, since the pandemic reminds us that we are nearing our heavenly home.
Iv. Church treasurers in the districts were asked and encouraged to form WhatsApp groups at the district level and make the district treasurers and first elders group administrators. The district treasurers and the first elders were advised to send reminders to church treasurers a week before they were to bring reports.
v. All church treasurers were instructed to be at the church from 2:00-4:00 p.m. every Sabbath to receive tithes and offerings and provide receipts.
vi. E-visitations, phone calls, and messages were used to encourage and pray with local church members. These were done by local church pastors, elders, stewardship leaders, and other local church leaders. The first and most important aspect of the evisitations was to keep track of members’ health. Then leaders would come in with spiritual messages and prayers. The involvement of the local church leadership has contributed much to the successes of stewardship promotion in Malawi Union Conference. Most of the local church leadership expressed a sense of interest and excitement for being involved.
vii. Zoom and Facebook worship services: local church pastors and elders would teach and preach from the church’s pulpit, speaking to members in their homes. The members were encouraged to assemble in their homes with their families at the time they would have been in church. They would do some of the service as a family, such as singing and some Sabbath activities, which would be covered on the e-services.
viii. Collection of tithes and offerings through mobile banking was set up. Local conference leadership provided several options for members to plan and return their tithes and offerings. There are two mobile financialservice provider options. Each conference in Malawi Union Conference has no fewer than two bank accounts for different banking-service providers. This was to make it convenient for members to choose a service according to their banking preferences.
ix. Conferences and local church leadership report to local churches on what and how the church is doing in the area of stewardship on a monthly and quarterly basis.
x. Conference leaderships created and are running a WhatsApp group of local church elders and stewardship leaders for sharing information pertaining to stewardship. The cities within each conference have their own WhatsApp groups that discuss issues pertaining to stewardship and other matters during the COVID-19 pandemic.
xi. The most important element was and still is to keep in touch with members at all times through the methods noted above. It is important to keep in touch with the members for a vibrant stewardship program at the local church.
xii. Malawi Union Conference Stewardship Ministries Department took advantage of the existing Adventist Hope Television and Adventist Hope Radio to teach stewardship lessons every Friday at 4:00 p.m., repeated on Monday at 4:00 p.m.
xiii. Above all, it is by the grace of God that our giving has not been seriously affected by the pandemic. Some pastors and local church members in Malawi Union Conference tested positive for COVID-19, but we praise the Lord for minimizing the impact overall. Also, we are grateful to the entire church membership for their resilience and faithfulness at such a difficult time. We pray the Lord will continue to keep them safe and to bless them, and for a continuing and robust stewardship program to support the gospel ministry in Malawi Union Conference and beyond. £