BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — When local churches were forced to close their doors in March to combat the spread of the coronavirus, many church leaders began to re-examine and redefine their connections with members.
Nearly all have turned to a robust online presence and, in recent weeks, some churches have opened their buildings to allow for in-person services while others remain permanently closed.
The Rev. Paul Board, pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Maumee, conducts weekly church services online but the building is closed to in-person services. Sermons are mailed to those who don’t have access to a computer and online outreach programs include book studies and coffee hour on Zoom. An online formation study on racism recently took place, which Board said was, “very productive and enriching.”
While a core group regularly tunes into the online services, he is concerned about the spiritual health of church members and the irrevocable effects the pandemic is having on the spiritual growth of church members.
“I feel like I have lost touch with a lot of members,” he said. “They will answer the phone and we talk but they have lost their spiritual disciplines and I am worried about the long term effects of that spiritual depravity,” Board said.
He has not made a hospital visit since March. A kayak outing on the Maumee River with youth group members last week was the first time seeing the children all summer.
“I have had to redefine what I do as a minister,” he said.
In addition to serving as pastor at St. Paul’s, Board is also a volunteer firefighter and minister with the Maumee Fire Division. That work has also given him a unique perspective on the pandemic and its effect on the community.
“I feel compelled by God to serve at the fire department and I want to look back on my career and say that I did all that I could during the pandemic,” he said. “We have PPE at the fire department so I am not as worried about getting sick from medical runs, I can get sick from the grocery store easier.”
He also believes that many remain in denial about the implication and consequences of the disease.
“I lost a fraternity brother yesterday to COVID. He was a physician and he got the virus at work and he died yesterday in Tennessee. This is very real,” Board said. “We can’t bring people together inside a closed space for a while. I never wanted the church to be closed in August, and here we are closed in August and not talking about reopening. We know that if you put enough people in a room together for more than five minutes then you increase the odds that if one of them is sick and doesn’t know it, you are going to spread it exponentially.”
While he is hopeful that individuals will heed the call for social restraint, he is not encouraged by some of the conduct he has witnessed.
“Personally I am in dismay that our country is behaving so badly with social distancing and that’s disappointing. We seem to be spoiled,” Board said. “This pandemic has taught us that we are not in charge and we need to slow down with our lives.”
Maumee United Methodist Church (MUMC) is also closed to in-person services, but earlier this summer, the church began conducting parking lot worship services on Sunday mornings. The services are broadcast on 90.7 FM radio and those parishioners who come may sit in their cars while the service, which includes music, preaching and prayers, takes place on a parking lot stage.
“They get to see congregants from the windows of their cars, they get to wave and get to experience worship and have live experience at the moment.,” said Rev. Russ Tichenor, pastor of MUMC.
In addition to being broadcast live online, the parking lot services are also recorded for those who want to watch it online at a later time. Between 140 and 160 people attend the parking lot worship services each week. In addition, runners on the Gateway Middle School track adjacent to the parking lot often stop and listen to the services and others who don’t normally attend church services have been tuning in to listen, he said.
“It’s kind of cool to be pulling different people in that would normally not be able to access the services because we weren’t streaming them before,” he said.
In addition to streaming weekend services, the church also streams a Wednesday prayer session. Tichenor considers the additional online presence as a blessing to reach more people.
“Between those attending the parking lot and those watching online we’re getting more to worship than we were before, so it’s kind of interesting,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, church members have tripled outreach services by helping at Mosaic Ministries, the American Red Cross and recovery ministries for individuals battling addiction. Members also check in on senior citizens and the church is participating in 21 days of prayer, which is a daily prayer that a variety of churches share and pray together.
Tichenor believes that the biggest lesson in the pandemic is a message of hope.
“It’s kind of made people slow down, be at home and perhaps more open to God in their lives and to look for hope and see that truth can be found in Christ,” he said.
Having a 24/7 news cycle and being linked by devices can lead to a barrage of negativity that requires us to make choices about what we are watching and how we are spending our time. Tichenor begins each day with a devotion, a time in prayer and a time in scripture before looking at his phone.
“I think we have to limit how much news we are allowing to come into our lives,” he said. “There are all sorts of ways that we can turn away from loving God and loving our neighbor. In times of desperation we often go down a road of fear but we can chose another direction. We can chose to be still and know God.”
Since the end of May, St. Joseph Catholic Church began offering in-person services. According to Fr. Eric Schild, the church is back to a regular schedule and there have been no COVID-19 outbreaks. Safety procedures have been implemented, he said, including roping off every other pew, disinfecting the church with a spray fogger after every mass, cutting down on singing and eliminating hymnals. Those who attend church are required to wear a mask and the bishop has dispensed church members from their obligation to attend Sunday mass.
“That way, anyone who is compromised and more at risk does not feel pressured to come,” Schild said.
Bishop Daniel Thomas gave the church permission to resume in-church services, he said.
“People truly desire to receive the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ. They desire to receive the other sacraments that are our closest encounter with Christ on this earth. They need that and to deprive people of that is a challenge,” Schild said. “Also, Christ is present in the Christian community, so while online services serve a purpose, they fall very short of what Christ intended when he said ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.’”
Services continue to be livestreamed daily in addition to funerals and weddings, he added.
“This pandemic has taught us that we are not in control and that we can never take anything for granted. I think people took going to church for granted. Or maybe some didn’t think it was all that important until they were not able to go. Christ always brings good out of the toughest situations and he is doing the same with COVID. I think it has also taught us the great blessing of community. We need each other and without each other, life is even more challenging,” he said.
Schild said the pandemic has forced him to slow down as well.
“It has given me more time to pray and simply to just be with our Lord. I was guilty of doing, doing, doing. Sometimes we need to slow down and truly discern what God is saying to us. It has also made me much more empathetic to those who are dying without loved ones present and for the loved ones who desperately desire to be there with their dying family member. I am more empathetic to those on the front lines who deal with this daily and are pained by it,” he said.
Mary Beth Krebs, of Waterville has been a loyal parishioner since 1985 and is happy to be able to attend church services again.
“I was watching it on the live screen, but I like being able to come and get the Eucharist,” she said. “I’m not worried about the risk here. I come to church on Sunday and I go to Kroger once a week, and that is all I do.”
In addition to the church, St. Joseph houses a school, which will open under strict guidelines on Wednesday, August 19 for in-class learning.
More local churches, and how they are handling the coronavirus pandemic, will be featured in next week’s issue of the Mirror Newspaper.