Churches cautiously return to worship in Great Plains

David Burke

6/3/2020

With prayer, caution and proper sanitization, a handful of churches in the Great Plains Conference have returned to in-person services.

The churches, all in western Kansas and western Nebraska, began in-person worship throughout May. Although those we talked to were apprehensive before opening their doors, all followed the list of precautions and recommendations from Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. and the conference staff before returning to live worship.

Here’s a look at some of the churches in the conference that reopened in May:

Logan-Long Island, Kansas

Reopening the northwest Kansas churches on Mother’s Day seemed like perfect timing, the Rev. Ted Stapleton said.

“Numbers are normally down in the summer in our churches, due to people going to the lake and stuff,” Stapleton, entering his eighth year as pastor of the churches in July, said. “We already knew there would be a reduced crowd, and we knew that some people, some of the elderly, wouldn’t be coming back to church for a while.”

Phillips County had two cases of COVID-19, neither of them in the church’s two communities.

Each church’s average attendance before the pandemic was 45-50, Stapleton said. Since the return, it has ranged from 17-30.

Stapleton said there were mixed emotions on the decision to reopen the church.

“Those who are fearful of the virus wanted some guidelines that we were going to set,” he said. “Once we did that, it calmed the fear of the people who were coming.”

Messaging from the pastor included the new guidelines and an invitation to continue watching the Facebook Live feed if they weren’t comfortable returning or feeling sick in the slightest.

“We had to reassure that we were doing our part to take care of the ones who wanted to come,” he said.

Several changes were made inside the church:

  • Stapleton propped the door open so no one would have to touch the door handle. “That way some fresh air is coming into the sanctuary,” he said.
  • Offering plates were not passed but kept in one location in the church – the narthex at one, the altar at the other.
  • Children’s time continued, but with kids staying in their pews. The snack he traditionally gave children was delivered in a basket.
  • Hymns are sung as the congregation remains seated, not standing and possibly spreading germs. “They’re more with the hymnal in their lap singing down.”
  • Passing of the peace has been at least temporarily discontinued, with waving encouraged.

Some adjustments were made naturally by the congregation, Stapleton said.

“Everyone’s been very respectful and paid attention to spacing. Even when we’re done with the service, it’s been awesome to watch,” he said. “I don’t tell them how to leave, but when one person leaves the next person waits to give space between them.”

Stapleton said his congregations were very understanding.

“They understand that some things change and won’t go back to the way they are. It’s all right. More and more people go online to place their offering now,” he said. “As long as there’s a place for them to do so, they’re all right with that.”

Stapleton’s advice for other churches ready to open?

“Have your guidelines in place, but most of all reassure those that are fearful to come back that it’s all right for them to remain home. That’s what we as pastors need to do,” he said. “Even though we don’t have everyone in church worshipping with us, we’re still united and we’re still working together and we’re still doing what we must together.”

 

Ellis-Palco, Kansas

Palco UMC, in Rooks County, reopened on May 24, and Ellis UMC, 25 miles away in Ellis County, is scheduled to return June 7.

“They realized we need to do that for the people, but we also need to give people permission to stay home if they’re uncomfortable about getting out,” Scott Tempero, pastor of both churches, said.

“It’s just different,” he added. “We had to reassure people that this is temporary. A lot of people want to get back, but right now we need to be safe with everybody so everyone can feel comfortable and worship together.”

Rooks County has had six of its seven COVID-19 cases recovered, Tempero said. Ellis County has had eight of its nine cases recovered.

The return has meant some changes in both churches:

  • Social distancing is encouraged, as are masks.
  • The offering plate will be stationary, and communion will only be served “sporadically,” he said, likely in disposable, prepackaged cups.
  • Instead of singing, the congregation will listen to recordings of the hymns and follow the lyrics. “If you get people together singing hymns, that’s not so good,” Tempero said.
  • The hymnals and bibles have been pulled from the pews.
  • A church member has volunteered to sanitize the sanctuary following each service with a fogger.

Palco has had 11 in church since it’s reopened, Tempero said, where attendance is usually 15-20.

Ellis’ attendance was 35-40 pre-pandemic.

Tempero said he’s been encouraged by the response to the church’s livestream.

“That’s opened up another realm of ministry and mission,” he said. “I hope we can continue in some way to encourage churches to do more of the live broadcasts.”

Tempero’s advice to other churches: “Allow people to take time to get back into the swing of things. Some people want to rush in but take your time and use safety and precautions to be safe with everyone.”

 

McCook, Nebraska

Confirmed coronavirus cases have been greater in metropolitan areas and those with meatpacking plants.

Neither of which include Red Willow County, Nebraska.

“I think we’ve been kind of sheltered, if that’s the right word,” said the Rev. Jeff Kelley, pastor of McCook Memorial UMC. “We’ve had five people who have tested positive since tests became available. The last one that tested positive left the hospital 10 days ago.”

McCook UMC returned to worship on May 10.

“Given the circumstances around here, I don’t think it was a difficult decision,” Kelley said. “We haven’t had any active cases for three weeks (in the county) and very few in the area. We still have counties that haven’t had any reported cases.”

So far, 40-50 people have attended each of the two Sunday morning services, with another 250 watching online, he said.

“They’re glad they can come back,” said Kelley, pastor at McCook since 2016. “People are being cautious. A lot of folks are not attending.”

New guidelines have been put into place:

  • Social distancing, with not all pews available.
  • The offering plate available in one location and not passed.
  • Congregants, he said, are policing themselves – “We have very few people who would congregate, if you would call it that. Most people come in, sit down. When church is over, they leave,” he said.

 

Imperial, Nebraska

Imperial First UMC reopened its doors on May 10.

Since then, the first case of coronavirus hit Chase County.

“At the time when we went back, we had no cases of the virus nor any positive tests in this county,” interim pastor Melody Newman said. “We felt pretty good about going back, because our people pretty much live in a very close area. Nobody had been traveling.”

The church adapted in several ways:

  • Masks were required, with some available at the door.
  • Hand sanitizer was plentiful.
  • Two ushers directed church members to places that were available. The doors of the chapel, adjacent to the sanctuary, were opened for additional space.
  • No Sunday school nor coffee gatherings, with Bibles and hymnals removed.
  • No passing the plate for offering.
  • Congregants were told they didn’t have to return just because the doors were open. “We encouraged people with small children and with underlying health problems or elderly … or if they weren’t comfortable to stay home.”

Newman said “it’s gone pretty smoothly.”

“We wanted people to feel comfortable doing it,” she said. “They were really very cooperative. We didn’t have any problems. We had one man who refused to wear a mask, and I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble because he sits by himself anyway.”

While the usual attendance pre-COVID was 100-120, it reached a high so far of 46 during Memorial Day weekend.

“People were just glad to see people,” Newman said.

An associate pastor at Imperial for four years before becoming interim pastor, Newman – a retired schoolteacher – grew up in the church.

“I kind of know my congregation. These are people I’ve known all my life,” she said. “I kind of knew who was going to come and who wasn’t.”

With social distancing in place, passing of the peace couldn’t be done as usual, Newman said, so she instructed, “Turn and wave at your neighbors and tell them God loves you.”

The Imperial congregation also learned a new technique called virtual hugs.

“We put our arms out and tell each other, ‘You’ve been hugged,’” she said.

Newman said she’s been pleasantly surprised with the tithes and offerings the church has received since the pandemic.

“We aren’t quite where we would be normally, but we’re a lot further along than we thought we’d be,” she said.

Her advice to other pastors: “I would just say try to do it with humor and with a smile. We may be in isolation, but we’re never isolated from God.”

Also, give equal consideration to the livestream audience as those worshipping in person: “We’re able to be together, either in person or on streaming,” she said. “Nobody gets left out.”
 

Conference recommendations

The Rev. Hollie Tapley, disaster response coordinator for the Great Plains Conference, said she was thankful that churches were following the recommendations and guidelines set by the conference, their states and counties. She said since COVID-19 has been shown to affect a larger population of young adults, youth and children, that care must be taken to “do no harm and promote wellness.”

“New information arrives almost every day, as we continue to learn about the causes and symptoms. Now we know, that for our choirs and praise bands, there should be a 10-foot distance all around each person. That presents a challenge, yet new information lately is about how far droplets from singing can travel,” Tapley said.

“After conversations with many health authorities over the past many days, discussion always leads back to the strong need to wear a mask while being out in public,” she continued. “As one of my emergency manager friends said, ‘I wear a mask to protect you, you wear a mask to protect me.’ To me, that is the greatest gift of love we can give to others.”

The conference’s recommendations — including a worksheet to help congregations think through their building-reopening procedures — can be found at www.greatplainsumc.org/coronavirus.

Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.
 


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