COVID-19 forces churches to grapple about how to continue worship




Pastor Kevin Grills thought he had everything in place to safely reopen First United Methodist Church in Land O’Lakes for in-person worship. The plan called to limit attendance to no more than about 50 people, which is 25 percent of the church’s capacity.

A church task force prepared the usual safeguards: mandatory masks, social distancing, temperature checks, and hand sanitizers. No congregational singing, and no passing of the offering plates.

First UMC Land O'Lakes

Older members were encouraged to stay home. Those wishing to attend in-person had to make reservations. Live-streaming would continue for everyone else.

And then he saw the news about COVID-19.

“On the Friday before we reopened, the number of new infections was going up into the five-digits,” he said.

“I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me. But we thought about it, prayed about it, and decided we had done everything we could to prepare. We decided to go ahead and trust our plan.”

Things have worked well there after two weeks, but the situation at Land O’Lakes encapsulates the dilemma faced by all United Methodist churches throughout the Florida Conference.

Some, like Land O’Lakes, elected to re-open.

Others opened for a Sunday or two, then closed again.

Many others simply remained closed, worshiping by live-streaming.

What to do, and how best to do it, has preoccupied church leaders since the crisis led to a shutdown of in-person worship back in March. Pastors met with their church officers to formulate plans that fit their particular congregation’s profile.

And as everyone grappled with the dilemma, in the background was John Wesley’s general rules Methodism: Do no harm, Do good, Attend upon the ordinances of God. That helped guide South Shore UMC in Riverview, where Pastor Sarah B. Miller shared those rules with the congregation after the Relaunch Team made its recommendations.

“At that time, we forecasted resuming in-person worship July 5. As confirmed cases continued rising, our Relaunch Team decided to delay resuming our in-person worship presence as our lived commitment to The General Rules,” she said.

“Our congregation wants to be together. They miss worshipping alongside one another and in our sanctuary. I miss them too. I miss the children of our church scrambling towards the chancel steps for the Children's Moment. I ache every Sunday leading worship in front of empty chairs.”

For now, though, it’s the only choice for her congregation.

“This is how we are keeping one another safe and showing our love for our neighbors - both in and beyond South Shore - by protecting and promoting public health through physical distancing,” Miller said.

Safety led Pastor Brian James of First Oviedo UMC to shut down in-person worship after two weeks.

“We have continued to monitor all the governmental protocols, guidelines, and data. Information flowing from our Florida Annual Conference leadership indicated an increasing level of concern,” he said.

“The pulse of what we felt we were hearing from our membership, as they were engaging us from home. All of that seemed to dictate an increasing abundance of caution be taken by organizations who wanted to lead well. We explained that, and the pushback was pretty minimal.”

It was the same story at St. John’s on the Lake UMC in Miami Beach.

“We opened for June 21st service and were happy with what became a test run.  We did all that was suggested, found a few flaws, mainly around sound systems and the three choir people staged far back from everyone, and each other, but have now solved it all and are ready to host up to 50 per service,” Rev. Dawn Worden said. 

“We voluntarily closed again the next Sunday because the numbers were getting to the point that I knew they would be worse than when first told to stay at home.  It would not make sense to be open, even if permitted to, and be at even higher of an exposure level for this virus.”

That level of caution is seen throughout the state.

“My home church First Port St. Lucie opened for two weeks and then re-closed for in-person worship. It wasn't that they had to close but decided to because of rising Covid-19 cases and because attendance was low (especially week 2), indicating that many of our people are not comfortable about attending in person yet,” Atlantic Central District Church Health Advocate Bruce Kitson said.

“Several other AC District churches had set dates in July (or June 28) that decided to wait for the trend in cases to go back down.”

In trying to reopen in June, Senior Pastor Kelly W. Smith of Hope UMC in Trinity followed every precaution.

“We had a safety team in place, that managed doors, bathrooms, temperature checks and the like. We came in one door and left by another. We were six feet apart in family groups, with masks and no singing,” he said.

“We also had hand sanitizer available in several places, we did not pass the offering basket and kept services to 40 minutes. We also wiped down all surfaces, including bathrooms, between uses and after each service.”

After one Sunday, though, he took the cue from the congregation after a positive COVID-19 test during a separate event.

“We returned to a closed campus, due to low numbers of reservations for the following Sunday (June 28) and in response to the increasing numbers statewide, out of precaution,” he said.

A silver lining for churches in the pandemic is the viewership for streaming services. Many report seeing larger audiences for that platform than they normally get for in-person worship. While the evidence is anecdotal, it is likely that churches everywhere will continue to live-stream worship even after the danger of COVID-19 has subsided.

At Land O’Lakes, for instance, the average in-house attendance is about 190. The online audience has been around 220, but the actual number of viewers may be higher because there is no way yet to measure how many people are watching a single screen together.

“In some ways, the coronavirus is moving us in a positive direction,” Grills said. “People are worshiping with us who have never been with us before. This is something we will need to talk about going forward. It’s all about spreading the word of Jesus, and clearly this another way to do that.”

--Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for flumc.org.


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