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Phasing in to return to church

Posted: May 31 2020 at 06:49 PM
Author: Anne Marie Gerhardt

For three months, church leaders have moved worship and ministries outside the building and into the realm of the virtual online world providing hope and reassurance in these difficult days since the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced. While many are anxious to return to the sanctuary for in-person services, Bishop Sally Dyck says congregations must stay the course and follow state guidelines to make sure we “do no harm” and do our part to help stop the spread of the virus.

In late May, the number of deaths from the virus surpassed 100,000 in the U.S. and more than 5,000 in Illinois. The number of cases reported exceeds 1.7 million across the country according to the CDC.

“Churches are called to a higher standard of safety and health,” said Dyck. “We are keeping the bar high for the welfare of all our people so we must continue to take all the necessary precautions. Overall, be clear about what’s at stake: the very health, safety, and lives of those in your church, families, and communities.”

To help churches prepare for reentering our buildings safely, Bishop Dyck assigned a group of clergy to the ReTurn Team to research and develop a comprehensive plan in cooperation with the Cabinet. The team’s document is based on the state’s five-phase “Restore Illinois” plan. 

"We will need to address difficult questions to match the various phases that our region is in, our level of infection, and even our own comfortableness in being with others (given our ages and health issues)," said Dyck.

The ReTurn Team says the document is intended to provide best practices within each phase so local churches can assess their current situation. It raises lots of questions for churches to consider depending on congregation size, the size of your building, your community, and more. But the most critical aspect of the plan is that you need to develop a health team. The team suggests pulling together people who know your building, work in your various ministries, and include (if you can) someone who has some health science background.

“We worked to create a document that would be comprehensive enough for any setting, understanding that the geography and demography of the NIC is so diverse,” said ReTurn Team member Rev. Lisa Kruse-Safford. “Of course, some details may not be relevant for every setting, therefore, the work of a local church health team to guide the congregation forward is crucial for each church setting.”

On May 29, Governor JB Pritzker lifted the stay-at-home order and moved Illinois into phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, which allows for gathering of less than 10 people. While drive-in and outdoor worship with social distancing guidelines in place are allowed, Bishop Dyck says the safest option is still remote services, per the governor’s guidance. 

“If churches are planning drive-in services they need to carefully observe social distancing guidelines and people should not leave their cars or park too close to another car,” said Dyck. “We’re still at less than 10 people and anything outdoors is preferable but face masks must be worn. And no singing, which has shown to spread the virus!”

Best practices listed under Phase 3 of the ReTurn document include: limit handling of microphones and equipment; speakers should wear face shields;  limit office hours and access to office; gather in spaces with open airflow; propping open doors; continue to emphasize online giving; encourage online participation among vulnerable populations; create an online VBS experience for families to participate in at home; and organize lay people to make weekly phone calls and to provide digital companionship when possible. Two questions to consider: Has anyone visiting the facility or known to have been in contact with the church community tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks? and Can the building be kept sanitized?

The Team says there’s no magic timeline or specific dates when Illinois will move to the next phases and if cases increase, we could revert back to phase 1 or 2. Keep informed and look for updates from state and local government and health officials for guidance, visit To read the full document and find other helpful resources visit,

Churches are adapting in creative ways

While it was a big learning curve in the beginning for many pastors and worship leaders, roughly 95% of NIC churches are sharing worship experiences online. Internet access or lack of technology knowledge remains a concern for reaching some church members. But clergy and laity are finding unique ways to stay connected to their members such as providing ways to call in or mailing sermons and devotions. Others are keeping up their letter/card writing efforts and making personal phone calls to check-in with members.

Some churches are offering creative ways to gather. The Center UMC in Itasca recently held a drive-in service in the parking lot of the Itasca Country Club. Six different churches participated and nearly 50 carloads of people showed up. They listened to the service on their car radios through an FM transmission. 

“It was awesome,” said Rev. Bob Butler, pastor at The Center. “We used prepackaged communion cups and wafers and gave away small flags and life books.” Butler said they’re looking for a bigger parking lot to offer the service to more people.

Some churches are offering curbside pick-up from their food pantries, others are delivering meals to essential workers, and many are sewing and donating face masks to those who need them.

Joy Hayag, Deaconess and Director of Children's and Family Ministries at Christ UMC in Rockford said their United Methodist Women (UMW) hunted down fabric and elastic and have been producing a weekly donation of masks in the community and to local organizations, including ChildServ and Rosecrance.

“In this day of upheaval and sheltering at home, it takes all of us to be the ’hands and feet’ of Jesus,” said Hayag. “The work of UMW gives the underlying strength of missions of the church as we face the problems in the world and in our communities, reaching out to those who need us.”

Marking milestones and traditions 

The pandemic put on hold many celebrations and services including weddings, funerals, baptisms and confirmation. While many weighed the pros and cons of conducting an online confirmation service, some congregations moved forward in creative “virtual” ways to honor this important rite of passage. 

The Rev. Katherine Paisley, senior pastor at First UMC in Oak Park, continued Confirmation classes as the pandemic unfolded, hoping to provide her youth with a sense of normalcy, and with the idea of celebrating Confirmation in a virtual setting.

“As soon as this (pandemic) hit, we realized that we couldn’t finish up in person,” Paisley said, noting that her three students continued their Confirmation class via Zoom meetings. “Moving into a virtual experience was fairly seamless for us, mainly because my son Donny helped me translate what we wanted to do for our class into the realm of Zoom. Our students really bonded in the process.” Oak Park’s Confirmation service was held Sunday, May 4 via Zoom. Paisley said despite the unconventional and technological service, it still was interactive, participatory, and meaningful. 

When the planned baptism for 14-year-old Kirby C. from First UMC in Evanston could no longer take place in-person this spring because of the pandemic, pastor Grace Imathiu brought his baptism to his backyard.

“When a 14-year-old says he wants to be baptized and when you Zoom with him and ask him the baptismal questions and unprompted he replies to each one of them ‘YES I DO!’ then you find a way to baptize him,” said Imathiu. 

So, on May 24, Rev. Imathiu came to Kirby’s Evanston home wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing. With Kirby’s parents laying his hands on him and anointing him, Imathiu used a garden hose to spray and baptize him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

“It was a most holy experience,” said Imathiu. “I think we can take away from this experience that even pandemics and social distancing can not separate us from being part of the beloved community that the love of God creates for us.”

For high school and college graduates, the pandemic took away in-person ceremonies and many could not walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. South Elgin Community UMC decided to honor their three high school graduates during an outdoor worship. 

“I have so many memories with each of our three graduates from holding one as a baby, having two in VBS and Sunday school, to being helpers with our children's ministries,” said Connie Schweitzer, Lay Leader at Community. “We have valued these young ladies in different ways over the years and we wanted to find a meaningful way to congratulate them.”

Spreading Kindness

At Libertyville UMC, the Sunday school class, which has been meeting through Zoom using lessons on kindness, decided to hold a “Kindness Parade” through the neighborhood to uplift residents and spread cheer. Students decorated their family’s cars and made signs with positive words and messages.

“The children learned that kindness is a chain reaction,” said Debbie Williams, Libertyville UMC’s director of children and family ministries. “Be kind and the person you show kindness to will want to be kind to someone else. The kindness grows and grows from your home, to your neighbor, your community, and the world.”

Williams said the children had all participated in birthday party parades during the stay-at-home order, so doing a parade for the church's senior members and their neighbors turned into a perfect idea for spreading kindness. 

“I mapped out a route within five miles of the church and called every church member to tell them we were coming,” said Williams. “The response was awesome! Church members greeted the children with their own signs expressing their love for the children's efforts! It was great for the kids to see kindness in action!”

These are just a few examples of the ways NIC churches are connecting in far-reaching ways – the Internet has brought people from all over the country together to worship in many cases.

As Bishop Dyck has said that while our church buildings remain closed until we reach a safe phase, our churches are still open for ministry. She said the phases in the ReTurn Team’s plan make a lot of sense and guide us in returning safely to our ministries giving us direction in how to prepare for the next phase. 

“In the meantime, I urge you to look for rainbows, like in the story of Noah, each day: the beauty of the blossoming spring colors when you take a walk outside, the goodness of family and friends who share kind words and deeds even “from afar,” the beauty of God’s grace and love, and the goodness of all the modern ways of being able to connect while social distancing.” 

But above all, Bishop Dyck prays for everyone to stay safe and healthy.

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