Some churches in East Texas are launching in-person worship again
By Lindsay Peyton
The Church has never actually closed, even if buildings were empty, in the midst of the pandemic. Most church services across the Texas Annual Conference switched to online platforms, and pastors have relied on technology and a bit of creativity to stay in touch with congregants. Still, the loss of personal interaction and the empty pews have been hard to bear. While pastors are eager to return to their congregations, they are taking time first to consider every precaution. These leaders, especially towns outside of the Houston area explain that re-opening slowly and cautiously – and paying attention to detail – is key.
“Almost daily, I walk in our sanctuary and gymnasium to picture what it will look like,” Rev. Michael Peschke at Lindale FUMC, said. “I go through it in my mind, and I read about reopening every day. I’m reading every article I can to see what is possible and what is out there.”
Peschke is using painter’s tape to map out proper social distancing at the church. He ordered sanitizer stations and disinfectant. He recommends that members order their masks now, so he can welcome them back on Sunday, June 7.
Rev. Rodger Garbs, at FUMC Marshall, is also been measuring his sanctuary to ensure the right distances are maintained. At first, he planned to ask attendees to sit in every other pew.
Then, Garbs got out the tape measurer. In the historic space, the pews were only 5 feet apart. “So now, we’re skipping every two pews,” the pastor said. “We’re alternating inside and outside.”
When the church reopens on Sunday, May 31, attendees will receive seat assignments and will have access to only certain aisles to prevent crowding.
Garbs explained that making the church as safe as possible is a must, especially while considering older members and others who are in high risk groups. “That’s why we need to take every precaution we can,” he said.
That includes discouraging members from hugging and shaking hands, which will be a challenge after two months apart. Refraining from embraces will be especially hard for Garbs. The first day back will also be his last time to join with the congregation before moving to his new appointment in Huntsville.
FUMC Marshall started the reopening process by creating a task force to closely examine CDC guidelines, recommendations from Bishop Scott Jones and best practices from other churches.
“They’ve been thinking through what we can do to make it safer and to minimize risk for people returning to church,” Garbs said. “We want to quickly return to worship, but we should not rush into it. We have to do it wisely.”
Part of the effort involved removing pew cushions and kneeling rails to make the sanctuary easier to sanitize. In the church’s contemporary worship space, the usual cloth chairs were replaced with plastic seating, which is easier to clean.
The water fountains have been temporarily wrapped up, and tape placed on the floor to mark proper distances. There are also posters displaying guidelines, and free-standing hand sanitizer stations placed throughout the church. Having plenty of room for overflow was also key to reopening, the pastor said.
Also, volunteers were recruited to monitor the bathrooms to allow only one person in at a time, and the number of stalls reduced to one.
Even creating an attendance system is a priority, Garbs explained. That way the church knows which people to notify should anyone test positive down the road. “We need to have a way to be aware and to listen,” he said.
Being flexible is also key, Garbs said. Recommendations change, and he suggests staying on top of CDC guidelines and keeping an eye on what is working well at other churches are doing. Even after reopening, he said churches can reevaluate and improve their practices. If something doesn’t feel comfortable, they need to be able to change, he added.
Garbs recommends that other churches consider starting a task force as well. “It’s easy for preachers to think they know all the answers,” he said. “It’s important to get the church people involved in developing the action plan. Whether you have 20 people at your church or several thousand, your task force can help you have a safe reopening.”
Rev. David Brasher at Bullard FUMC recommends sending a survey to members. “It lets you know what’s important to your people,” he said. “And it lets your congregation know that they are heard.”
About half of his congregation replied to the survey he emailed, and about 60 percent plan to return to the building on the first day of worship, June 7. Another 17 percent said they will wait a couple more weeks, and 7 percent said it will be a while before they go back.
The survey asked what precautions members would take and what they expected the church to do. The congregation asked for hand sanitizer, to keep the doors propped open, to minimize surfaces and to change the model for offering. They also asked the pastor to discourage shaking hands and to temporarily stop handing out a bulletin.
Brasher will follow their suggestions. He also plans to use prepackaged communion, to have an overflow space for worship and to suspend the nursery for now. The church will also continue to host Sunday school and small groups on Zoom.
Rev. Peschke suggests keeping in touch with other pastors for guidance as well. “This is where that United Methodist connectionalism is so important, just reaching out to other churches and seeing what’s out there,” he said. “This is where we as United Methodists can really help each other.”
Peschke plans to continue live-streaming services. “I know a lot of people will not be ready to return,” he said. “I’d rather people be comfortable and safe. They can connect in other ways to stay in touch with their community.”
He explained that his church includes a number of elderly members and people who are at higher risk due to health-related issues. The campus also hosts a food pantry and support groups, which often cater to at-risk populations. Starting with a smaller worship is completely fine, the pastor said. He also plans to continue hosting smaller groups, like Sunday school and Bible study, on Zoom and Facebook.
Already, online services have allowed the church to reach families who have moved away. Some individuals began to attend on Sundays from other states. “There are a lot of people connecting to us, because of what we’re offering now,” Peschke said.
Just because churches are sterilizing the building does not mean the sermons have to become sterile as well, Garbs said. He wants to continue to make services relevant as well as safe.
“We’re so focused on just reopening, that we are losing the seekers,” he said. “People are comfortable worshiping from home. How do we get them back? How do we remind them that we were created for community, that we need to be there for each other and spend time together?”
Rev. Brasher said that Bullard FUMC found a number of creative ways to stay connected during the lockdown. In addition to online services, the children’s director used a greenscreen at her home to make extra-special sessions just for kids. Youth groups met on Zoom and played games on Instagram. The traditional and contemporary directors made special additions to their services.
Brasher started “Doodles with Pastor David” to share his love of art with young members, and the drawings focused on Bible studies. Bullard FUMC also hosted a hymn tournament, complete with ESPN-like commentators.
“It’s been very exciting to come up with new and creative things,” Brasher said. “At the same time, it’s hard on pastors. We’re preaching to empty rooms, but we have to do it, because people need it.”
At one point, he made signs that read “Your pastors miss you,” and “You are loved.” He went to church members’ homes, rang the doorbell and stood outside so they could see the message.
“We’re longing to get back together with people,” Brasher said. “But we want to get back together in a safe way.”