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U.S. churches holding in-person services as restrictions ease

The inability to attend church each week has been one of the most affecting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to social distancing guidelines, it’s been nearly impossible for congregations around the country to gather in ways they were accustomed to prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As states begin to reopen, however, so are religious activities. Kevin Seager, the senior pastor for the Norwalk Alliance Church in Norwalk, Ohio, said earlier this week that his church began a particular re-opening of in-person services in early June. Yet even with that in mind, he acknowledged how hard it’s been to get things up and running again as Ohio transitions into its latest re-opening phase.

“This phase is actually the trickiest because we knew how to handle (being) completely shut down,” he said, “but this is kind of at the in-between, where you can hear a different thing every week. Eventually, this will go by, and we can get back to doing things as we’ve done it, but for the moment, out of love for our neighbor, we’re going to forego some of the things that have been one of the best ways that we like to do church — for example, singing a whole bunch of songs.

“We’re having to do things differently,” he concluded, “and that’s a challenge.”

Our reporters spoke with churches in 11 different states to see where they are with their re-opening plans and what comes next as they hope to begin the process of regularly gathering to worship together.

WEST VIRGINIA

Outbreaks at churches have contributed to rising COVID-19 numbers in West Virginia.

That hasn’t happened at the Ash Avenue Church of God in Moundsville, but they are prepared, Pastor C.J. Plogger said. If a member tests positive, people will be notified via automated phone call and online.

“We’ve said if we had three cases we would go back to streaming online,” Plogger said.

In-person services halted the last two Sundays in March and resumed May 24. Every other row was sectioned off to promote social distancing, and gloves and masks are provided, Plogger said. Boxes have been set up to receive offerings so no ushers are passing collection plates, and communion is served using individually wrapped wafers and cups.

“We’ve not had any greeters yet because we don’t want multiple contacts,” Plogger said.

Plogger believes community is one of the most important aspects of the Christian faith.

“We all have challenges; we all have lessons to learn, so we can come together and lift each other up,” he said.

While worshipping online is not the same, Plogger said some people — including members of his family — have additional risk factors to consider that are still keeping them from in-person worship.

“We want to support them,” he said of people who cannot attend or don’t feel comfortable doing so. “I’m doing a lot of calls, but I have not done a lot of home visits.”

OHIO

After initial COVID-19-related shutdowns across the state, many churches closed their doors to the public. Since June, some churches have returned to hosting services with restrictions while others are waiting to welcome back members.

Eric L. Bodenstab, the pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sandusky, said the church previously hosted a Saturday evening service and two Sunday services before the pandemic. Now, they’re not worshipping at all in the building.

In the 1970s, the church started broadcasting services over a local radio station, something they have continued to do for church members without Internet access. Services are also pre-recorded, edited and posted to the church’s YouTube channel.

For the missing Saturday service, Bobdenstab has been making reflection videos that are posted to YouTube at the same time the in-person service would have been.

“It’s like 10 to 15 minutes at most, but it’s just a little reflection to stay in connection with folks who might have liked that service to give them something to see and do at that time,” he said. “Our faith formation folks got together and they’ve taken on doing something for children — a Sunday school time after the service.”

He said the church also has its own app which has helped the church stay in contact with members. Sermons are also posted as a podcast. For church members without internet access, the church has been mailing out bulletins, announcements and devotionals.

“We have just in this past week opened up the building for appointment visits because we have what we need to do the cleaning inside the office,” Bobdenstab said. “But we don’t have what we need yet to do the cleaning inside the building, so we are not yet meeting in the worship space, because we don’t have the hand sanitizer dispensers. They’re on order, but we’re waiting for them.”

Bobdenstab said the council, representatives elected by the congregation, is still planning how they will conduct in-person worship services but have maintained contact with their members.

“Our council has taken it upon themselves with some other members to call the members of our congregation every week and we have about 490 households,” he said. “They don’t always get to everybody, but they give it a shot, just to stay in contact with everybody, every week.”

A few weeks ago, Bobdenstab’s church began providing a drive-thru communion service.

Reverend Monte J. Hoyles, pastor of the Catholic parishes of Sandusky, said between March and the end of May, there were no public masses.

“Beginning on May 25, we started to offer our regularly scheduled masses,” Hoyles said. “The faithful were asked to reserve a pew online or to call the parish office to reserve a pew. Beginning June 27, we began to use every other pew, which is what most parishes in our area have been doing.”

The Sign of Peace and distribution of communion has been suspended and hymnals have been temporarily removed from pews.

“We have live-streamed Mass once each week, and originally added a number of online daily devotions,” Hoyles said. “One of our parish priests and several of our deacons have been telephoning our homebound parishioners to see how they are doing.

“We have also offered a number of online evening chats where people can comment, ask questions and feel like they are part of the event,” Hoyles added. “One of these was a Facebook cooking show with the priests of the parish.”

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