How are churches resuming services during COVID-19?

Holly Viers • Jun 21, 2020 at 11:45 AM

KINGSPORT — As the country continues to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown, church leaders are busy formulating plans for how to resume worship services.

While some local churches have already resumed in-person services, others are still holding off for a future return. The Times News spoke with leaders at four local churches to get their plans for reopening.

First Broad Street United Methodist Church

Lead Pastor Randy Frye said traditional services have been by livestream only since March 15, and Associate Pastor Misti McCreary has done the same with the contemporary services. The church will begin a four-phase process of resuming in-person worship this Sunday, with each phase expected to last four weeks, Frye said.

“During Phase One, we are limiting attendance, so we’re asking people to make reservations,” Frye said. “In the sanctuary, we can hold up to 100 with social distancing, and in our contemporary service, we’re planning on 60. We are requiring that people wear masks.”

Frye added that there will be no congregational singing, and offerings will be collected online or at receptacles rather than in passed-around offering plates; seating will also be altered to encourage social distancing. McCreary said the contemporary services have offered online communion in their livestreamed presentations and will not resume in-person communion until a later phase.

“Before all this happened, we had five services on a Sunday; we had three traditional and two contemporary services,” McCreary said. “Right now we’re going down to one of each, and eventually we’re going to start adding more services, and we’re going to be sanitizing between services. We’re just doing this gradually to make sure there’s no spikes (of cases) in the population before we move to another phase.”

First Baptist Church

Pastor Marvin Cameron said the church began holding some small in-person gatherings, such as Bible studies, three weeks ago. There were five groups of 10 people the first two weeks, and last Sunday the church allowed meetings of up to 25 people; that limit will be in place for the rest of June.

“We’ve been doing a lot of Zoom,” Cameron said. “We have several Sunday school classes that are doing Zoom; we’ve done our deacons’ meetings via Zoom. We’ve done some staff meetings via Zoom, until recently when our staff is back on campus. So I guess we’ve become sort of a Zoom church, and we have been doing online worship every Sunday.”

Cameron said in-person worship services will resume July 5, with several alterations in place. Changes include removing all hymnals and visitor cards from the sanctuary, taking reservations and suspending congregational singing, along with alterations to offering collection and communion.

“We’ll have offering buckets at each entrance and exit, but we will not pass an offering plate,” Cameron said. “Communion, we don’t know exactly how we’ll do it. We are buying little disposable communion wafers and cups in one package, so you just hand them out to individuals rather than pass the communion plates.”

St. Dominic Catholic Church

Father Michael Cummins said last Sunday was the church’s third Sunday of holding in-person services, with several safety measures in place.

“We’ve blocked off every other row, and we’ve divided up the pews where there’s distance between households,” Cummins said. “We’re disinfecting after every service that we have. We’re asking people to wear face masks throughout the service, except when they come up to receive communion that they receive in the hand, then they step to the side and remove their masks and then receive communion.”

Cummins added that there is no congregational singing at this time, and no congregating is permitted before or after the services. The church is not requiring reservations and instead plans to direct any overflow attendees to watch the livestream of the service in its Parish Life Center.

“We still have people who have made the choice not to return yet, so we are livestreaming our Sunday services so people can participate via livestream and join us that way,” Cummins added. “It’s a journey; we’re not fully there yet. I don’t think any church is. We’re not getting the same number of people that we were before the pandemic, but I’m hopeful, as things progress and as we get through this, that people, as they feel comfortable, will start to come back.”

Shades of Grace United Methodist Church

As a United Methodist congregation, Shades of Grace falls under the mandate of the bishop of the Holston Conference and the district superintendent, Pastor Will Shewey said. While the church has not held in-person worship services during this time, Shewey said he and a few others have remained in the building every day, distributing meals out the back door to the homeless.

Shewey added that Shades of Grace has also continued operating its clothes closet for emergency requests only. The church has temporarily stopped accepting donated clothing for the clothes closet and has suspended its Bible studies, support groups and in-person worship services.

The church has continued to livestream services each week during the pandemic, though. Shewey said in-person services likely won’t resume until August at the earliest due to difficulty with contact tracing some attendees.

“We have to keep a very meticulous record of every attendee that comes back, and that’s one reason that Shades of Grace is holding back. We’re not in any hurry at this time to reopen. We will definitely reopen, hopefully sooner than later, but with our very large contingency of homelessness and transient people, it’s very difficult, and in some cases almost impossible, to track them.”

Shewey added that anyone who has questions about United Methodist churches’ reopening requirements can contact District Superintendent Jeff Wright’s office at (276) 523-3025.

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