Church Leaders Work To Strengthen Members’ Faith During Pandemic

In addition to posting services online, Calvary Church, which is located on Conant Street in Maumee, currently offers two outdoor services under a large tent on Sunday mornings. MIRROR PHOTOS BY NANCY GAGNET
First Presbyterian Church Pastor Clint Tolbert is pictured in the church sanctuary. In-person services began at First Presbyterian Church on July 12, but then abruptly changed back to online services on July 19 after the Ohio Department of Health issued a public advisory escalating the pandemic alert status of Lucas County to red. Pastor Tolbert said that church leaders are planning new ways to connect with members, including an outside worship service.
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church offers parking lot services on Sunday mornings. Parishioners can listen to the service on their car radios. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUSTIN OLMAN
In conjunction with the parking lot services, the church also provides in-person services with social distancing guidelines. All services are also streamed live online. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUSTIN OLMAN

BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — As local church leaders have embraced a variety of ways to connect to members during the pandemic, all agree that strong faith in God provides a sense of peace and tranquility in this time of uncertainty and unrest.

While the intensely polarizing issues that often dominate the headlines have divided communities and pitted family members and friends against each other, Rev. Chad Gilligan of Calvary Church believes that in the midst of the anxiety, a number of people are either discovering or re-affirming their relationships with God.

“We don’t know what’s ahead and what’s going on, and that can be scary – that’s the feeling I get from a lot of people both inside and outside of the church,” he said. “But those within the church are feeling a sense of peace and confidence to know that someone who has a relationship with God can find some clarity and some certainty for their personal life, even when in the world around us there is so much uncertainty and a lack of clarity.”

To remain personally committed to his faith, Gilligan has chosen to focus on things that are everlasting.

“I want to make sure that my energy is focused on things that are eternal and not just on things that are temporary,” he said. “At some point, the pandemic will be something that we talk about as in the past, and in a few months, the election is something that we will talk about as in the past, so I need to focus on the things that still matter.”

The church remained closed for in-person worship for about four months, focusing only on streaming worship services. In mid-June, however, the church began offering two Sunday worship services outside of the building under a large tent, where members bring their own chairs and adhere to social distance guidelines. The tent services remain ongoing, drawing approximately 600 members per week, which is about one-third of the church’s congregation. Over the next few weeks, church leaders will develop a plan for future worship services as the weather begins to change.

“Since we have had the summer season to do it, we have decided to have our summer season be under the tent and it’s been great,” Gilligan said. “People have been gracious and accommodating and thankful to be back in church together.”

Services are also posted online, and Gilligan said that twice the number of those attending services tune in to watch it on their streaming devices.

While he believes that some of the big lessons or takeaways from the pandemic won’t be clear for a few years, unintended consequences from the periods of isolation and the lack of cultural rhythms will likely remain for quite some time, he said. 

“I think it has taught us not to take certain things for granted,” Gilligan said. “I have had several people say to me, ‘I will never take my church for granted again,’ and I think the same is true for relationships – that maybe we were taking a lot of that for granted.” 

Gilligan is concerned over the loss of confidence and mistrust in leadership on a multitude of levels and in a multitude of disciplines within society. 

“At the same time, I have regained a confidence in the role of the church. The way that I am seeing people reach out and care for other people both inside and outside of the church – and I keep learning about even more stories of people from Calvary who have taken time to find and bless other people from the church – that’s the difference that I believe a healthy church can make in our society,” he said.

Calvary, which is one of the largest churches in the Maumee area, had outgrown its campus and was on track to add a 1,500 seat auditorium to its facility when the pandemic broke. In light of the situation, Gilligan said that the architectural decisions and design considerations such as seating layout are being reconsidered and the project has been moved to next year.

Another Maumee church, St. Paul’s Lutheran, also switched to online services when it was forced to close in March.

Justin Olman, a longtime parishioner who is in charge of broadcasting the services and is also a worship planning leader and part of the COVID team, said that the services were an immediate success, with full attendance online.  

“We transitioned right into online. We did not miss a Sunday and we did not miss a beat,” he said.

On Easter Sunday, the church also began offering parking lot services, which are streamed over an FM broadcast. The services, which remain ongoing, allow parishioners to hear church service from the comfort of their cars. In June, in-person 8:30 a.m. services started and in July, the 10:30 in-church service was added. For in-building services, social distance guidelines between church members are followed and every other row of pews is blocked off. 

Currently, the church provides the parking lot services in conjunction with in-building services for both Sunday morning worship services – with all services also streamed online.

“We saw that there was almost a necessary need for people to connect to each other and we want to meet everyone where their comfort level is,” Olman said.

Like many other churches, the digital footprint for St. Paul’s has grown substantially because so much has been posted online throughout the pandemic.

“By doing this on social media and online, we are reaching an exponentially large amount of people and we’ve actually grown,” he said.

Echoing Gilligan, Olman said that the pandemic has led to great uncertainty and anxiety. 

“When the pandemic first started and people didn’t know what was going on, it was horrible, so when we started doing online services, it gave people some type of focus and some type of regularity and continuity in their lives,” he said. “People are yearning for contact and for some kind of communication. We are doing that and it has really given a sense of direction for our congregation.”

Olman has noticed that members seem more comfortable and a little happier in recent weeks.

“I have seen a metamorphosis here from people feeling uncertain and being scared to moving in a positive direction where I have noticed a lot more smiles on people’s faces,” he said.

First Presbyterian Church in Maumee opened for in-person services on July 12, then abruptly pivoted back to online services on July 19, when the Ohio Department of Health issued a public advisory changing the COVID-19 alert status of Lucas County to red. The change was made because the exposure rate and spread of the virus soared and the state recommended that all activities should be limited as much as possible.

When the state revises Lucas County’s alert level to orange, the church will switch back to in-person services, said Rev. Clint Tolbert, First Presbyterian pastor.

In the meantime, two Sunday worship services will continue online, and several new ways to connect to the congregation will be considered, including a mid-week outdoor service, which could begin next month. 

“Online service is going very well, and attendance is higher there than would have been normally in July, with approximately 200 devices logging in each week,” Tolbert reported.

He plans to continue livestreaming services even after the pandemic, which he says has taken a toll on members who miss seeing each other and miss the meaningful interaction they once experienced. With that in mind, he is always trying to find new ways to reconnect.

“The spectrum is wide on people’s willingness to engage in any form of community. As leadership, we are trying to communicate the need for grace and understanding and we are trying to provide opportunities for everybody,” he said.

Members have participated in service projects for Habitat for Humanity and Mosaic Ministries, and Tolbert has been encouraging members to remain vigilant in developing a personal relationship with God, especially during the pandemic.

“As a pastor, one thing that I have tried to teach and emphasize for years is that a person’s own personal responsibility to develop a personal relationship with God is critical, and that is certainly bearing itself out in this time,” he said. 

“We can provide resources and worship services, but if someone is not taking responsibility for themselves to develop a relationship with God, then it is not going to happen,” he explained. “We have also emphasized with our families that the primary responsibility for the spiritual growth of children rests with the parents, and the church’s role is to support parents – we have been saying that for years. Our parents have been doing that, and that is really exciting to see. That’s one of the silver linings in all of this.” 

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