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Returning to church

Posted: August 21 2020 at 11:23 AM
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An usher at Trinity UMC in Wilmette takes the temperature of a church member before attending a Sunday morning in-person worship service

The COVID-19 pandemic took no vacation this summer and continued to bring more uncertainties and changes for United Methodist congregations and pastors across the Northern Illinois Conference.

As the state of Illinois entered the Revitalization Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois Plan in June, church leaders took a closer look at their own plans to safely return to their buildings and in-person services.

The NIC ReTurn plan's Phase 4 guidelines allow gatherings of up to 50 people, but accommodations should be in place to ensure the safety of vulnerable individuals and requirements for face coverings and social distancing practices are a must.

Bishop Sally Dyck said even with these guidelines, gathering in person may still not be the best thing to do for all congregations. “Let the standard for us as United Methodists be: Do no harm!” Bishop Dyck said. “Each stage of reopening should be tested against the question of what harm can this do, particularly to those with compromised immune systems. This may include congregants, staff, visitors, and clergy. We also recognize that each church must consider its own context, location, and physical constraints. The virus affects each community in different measures.”

The ReTurn Plan strongly recommended each church form a Health Team or designate a group that will be responsible to decide and implement specific return plans for each congregation. The Rev. Calvin Culpepper at Court Street UMC in Rockford said in June they formed a COVID-19 task force to consider all the necessary procedures to return to an inperson service.

“We discussed best practices around communion, the offering, taking temperature checks, masks, gloves, and tracing information, etc.,” Culpepper said. “We also prepared the sanctuary by removing hymnals, offering envelopes, pencils, attendance pads, and taped off sections in the pews for personal distance.”

Court Street first held outdoor worship in the parking lot in July. They shifted indoor services with 50 people or less in attendance for a couple of Sundays after. Even with all the precautions in place, plans can quickly change. “I received a phone call from a member who attended the July 19 service saying that they had been in contact with someone that possibly had COVID-19 symptoms,” Culpepper said. “Both persons got COVID-19 tests and went into quarantine. After prayer and discussion with staff members, I cancelled in-person worship until further notice.”

While the member and those they were in contact with all tested negative, Culpepper said with all the best intentions the nature of COVID-19 requires church leaders to make difficult decisions and be able to shift plans quickly.

"This ‘COVID-19 work’ like all of the challenges of life encountered by the Body of Christ, requires all of our God given gifts combined with constant prayer,” said Culpepper. “This climate of physical, mental, financial, and spiritual instability shakes the very core of our faith and calls us to action.”

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Geneva UMC church members decorated the parsonage's front lawn with dozens of signs to wish Rev. Esther Lee well on her new appointment at Christ UMC in Deerfield.

At Faith UMC in Orland Park, the Rev. Caleb Hong said when the CDC and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker offered reopening guidelines, the church formed a reopening team and sent out a survey to its members.

“We received feedback on when people would want to return to in person, willingness to worship at different times, and technological literacy,” said Hong. “Once reopening guidelines were established, they were reviewed and adopted by our Trustees and Church Council, which then set our reopening date for the weekend of July 18-19.”

Faith UMC offered three worship services in hopes of spreading out the number of people in attendance and Hong says the biggest step was communicating expectations to the congregation.

“Our congregation has (slowly but surely) become accustomed to pre-registering for services, getting our temperatures checked, spreading out in the sanctuary, not singing songs, and wearing masks,” said Hong. “The challenge is to keep reminding members to wear masks, not sing, not hug each other, not do all the things we're so accustomed to doing together.”

The Rev. Brian Smith at Trinity UMC in Wilmette said the church relied heavily on the NIC ReTurn Team Plan and until Phase 5, Trinity is not performing the sacraments of baptism and communion. For worship, they have been holding outdoor services on the church’s lawn for up to 50 pre-registered attendees. In case of inclement weather, the service is held in the sanctuary.

“This plan has worked because our lawn and sanctuary allow for ample social distancing,” said Smith. “Attendees bring their own lawn chairs and masks. The challenges have been switching procedures from outside to inside worship and doing both video and in-person worship has increased the workload for clergy and staff.”

Clergy on the move face challenges

For clergy who made an appointment change to a new church in July, the pandemic created more than the usual stress a move can bring.

"This is my fourth change of appointment and by far most difficult logistically speaking,” said the Rev. Esther EunJin Lee, who moved from Geneva UMC to Christ UMC in Deerfield this summer. “I worried about cleanliness, my family’s health with two young children, scheduling, and how everything was going to work out. From trying to make sure the kids were not near the movers and keeping hands sanitized at all times to making sure we were all masked—these were just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.”

Saying farewell and welcoming their new pastors also was unconventional for many churches this appointment season. The Rev. Amos Oladipo who moved from Blue Island Grace UMC to First UMC in Oak Lawn and Grace United Protestant in Park Forest said it was less celebratory this year.

“I had a separate virtual welcome and an introduction during online worship on the first Sunday,” said Oladipo. “On the day that we moved to the parsonage, representatives of the church welcomed us with flowers, food, and a few kitchen needs.”

Geneva UMC decorated Pastor Lee’s front lawn of the parsonage with signs saying ‘thank you’ as they wished her well in her new appointment and the Staff Parish Relations Committee at Christ UMC in Deerfield dropped off meals, gift cards and groceries to Lee’s new home. They also held a parking lot ‘meet and greet’ and are holding smaller gatherings on the church lawn and via Zoom. But Lee said making connections with her new congregation is a challenge for everyone.

“I think because we hunger for community and gathering, which we have been missing through the quarantine, many of us have realized how we took them for granted and now have welcomed, felt gratitude, and even treasure the small interactions we have these days,” Lee said. “As difficult as this move has been, and as difficult it has been in our nation with matters of politics, social injustices, and changes in school reopening, I believe that the work of the church and the need for the church to step up is becoming clearer, and ever more important."

From the cancellation of many church events and fellowship opportunities to the weekly challenges of putting together safe in-person services as well as producing online worship, the pandemic has shifted the terrain of ministry, which will look much different even after the virus loosens its grip on the nation and world.

“During the last few months, even when our efforts totally failed (like some of our livestreamed services) folks recognized our efforts and encouraged us along the way,” said Hong. “The church can share the message of Jesus during these difficult times and be an example of flexibility and humbleness. While we cannot do what we've always done, we can find new ways to love and connect with each other. We can serve and care for our neighbors differently.”

To read the ReTurn plan, visit umcnic.org/returnteam.

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