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Pastors report business as unusual

Baptism at Otsego UMC

United Methodist pastors from Marquette in the north to Vicksburg in the south talk about safety measures as congregations return to in-person activity. Bishop Bard urges care for public health.

Senior Content Editor

On October 9, Bishop David Bard addressed the recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling in a pastoral letter to Michigan United Methodists.

Bard began, “The legal situation surrounding our state’s response to the coronavirus is now uncertain, with the Michigan Department of Health and many county health officials issuing new guidelines, guidelines to which I would ask you to pay attention.”

The bishop reminded those under this care that their well-being is his ultimate concern. “As your bishop, I have not viewed the coronavirus pandemic primarily in legal or governmental terms, but have always wanted to focus on public health.” He called Governor Whitmer’s executive orders “helpful guidelines for promoting public health.”

With those executive orders no longer in place, Bard continued to “reassert the importance of continuing to act in ways that promote public health, that further the common good, and that demonstrate loving care for the well-being of others.”

The Michigan Conference has a Health Crisis Risk Management Toolbox outlining detailed guidelines and protocols. In summary, Bard said, “When you meet together, wear masks and maintain social distance. Wash your hands frequently and clean your facilities thoroughly. Continue to offer on-line options for people to participate in the life of your church.”

He closed with a scriptural word, “The same Jesus who invited us not to be afraid also encouraged us to be wise. We need not be dominated by fear, but we do need to be wise.  Wisdom asks of us to exercise good judgment. Love asks us to care for each other.”

The Conference guidelines for “First Sunday Back” have been available since late spring. Churches across Michigan have been returning to in-person activities over the months since, first to outdoor venues and then to inside-church. MIconnect reached out to eight pastors across the conference regarding their congregation’s worship during the COVID season. They report both challenges and blessings.

The challenges

Pastor Wava Hofmann, Northport Indian Mission UMC, reports that they held in-person worship at the campground for three months, beginning in June. They returned to worship in the church on September 13. “We sanitize Saturday before the service,” she says. “Each person has a designated ziplock worship bag with a hymnal and other worship aids.” Alternate rows of chairs were removed. A “designated barista, equipped with mask and gloves,” serves coffee. Hofmann notes that worshipers are asked to remain masked while singing, but “keeping mask up” has been difficult. “Attendance dropped to half when we came back inside,” she observes. “Communion is still a bit awkward, but we are getting used to the cello-sealed wafer and juice cups.”

Pastors report worship during COVID. Communion in the park in Muskegon.
Muskegon Central UMC has offered Communion in the Park this summer and fall, come rain or shine. Pastor Rob Cook, his son, and Communion Steward Sally Wibalda welcome all to the Lord’s Table on August 2, 2020. on World Communion Sunday, October 4, they were in the sanctuary and in the park. ~ Facebook/Muskegon Central UMC

Otsego United Methodist Church, pastored by the Rev. Joe Shaler, underwent a month-long process in June to plan for resuming in-person gathering and worship. They made changes that incurred unanticipated hits to the budget. Shaler also says that some key people have not returned to in-person worship. “Decisions regarding music and other worship practices must appeal to people to not let their guard down,” he reflects.

September 13 was the date that members and friends of Traverse City Central UMC returned to the sanctuary. Senior Pastor Dale Ostema shares, “The challenge was forming and implementing our health and safety protocols. We wanted to cover all our bases and err on the side of safety. It felt cumbersome at first, and a few of our folks thought we were too restrictive, but now that the plan is implemented, it feels right. Better to start tight and then loosen up as appropriate.” Click here to see the TC Central health and safety protocols. The end-of-summer announcement to the congregation, after six months out of the building, came straight from Psalm 122:1: “I was glad when they said unto me, “let us go into the house of the Lord!” The newsletter article also affirmed those not planning to return just yet. “I know many of you will choose to stay home and safely worship there. That’s OK; Christ is everywhere with us! When we gather on Sunday mornings, we’ll be intentional about remembering all who worship with us, whether in house, online, or by radio.” To achieve physical distancing, attendance is limited to 100 persons at each of the two services. TC Central’s website and email newsletter include a link to register for in-person worship; registration closes at midnight Saturday night. Greeters and ushers have been replaced by “Service Guides” who accompany worshipers from health screening upon entry through exit after worship. The sanctuary is sanitized between services.

Bishop visits Valley on Oct. 11, 2020.
Bishop David Bard was in Allendale on October 11, 2020, to help Valley Church celebrate what God has done as Valley Turns 10. Prayers for the congregation’s next decade are being taken online now. ~ Facebook/Valley Church-Allendale

Some significant occasions, such as a tenth anniversary, happen during these unusual times. Bishop David Bard was on hand at Valley Church in Allendale on October 11 to celebrate their decade of being in ministry. Those watching the morning service video will see the bishop preaching and a bottle of hand sanitizer on the lectern. Lead Pastor Matt Bistayi describes Valley’s safety measures. “We require people to wear masks and keep at least three seats between them and people not in their household. We are giving ‘air-fives’ and ‘air-hugs.’” Social distance stickers have been marked on the floor throughout the space. They have suspended serving coffee or food/snacks. “The building is being deep cleaned twice a week (after church on Sunday and just before church on Sunday),” Bistayi says. 

God’s people at Marquette Hope worshipped as Parking Lot Church for a time but moved indoors for in-person worship on September 27. “Mostly because it was getting too cold,” says Pastor Kristi Hintz. That day was made more special because “it was our first opportunity to worship at Negaunee Mitchell since their Adoption into our multi-site in July.” Hintz reports that World Communion Sunday was celebrated in person the next week, but “we have since taken a step back because of the COVID numbers in the UP.” Marquette Hope is now exclusively worshiping through their Podchurch and YouTube until further notice. Hintz observes that communication has been their biggest challenge. “We have had to pivot quickly,” she says, “in response to ever-changing information. We communicate through Facebook, website, email, and signs on our doors.” Individual contact has been made, “to the best of our ability with those who are not connected either with family members, friends, or the internet and may not get the message.” The pastor acknowledges that persons have varying risk thresholds and beliefs about the virus, which can also be challenging.

“We are working and praying for the safety of the congregation,” says the Rev. Rob Cook, senior pastor of Muskegon Central UMC. “Wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping safe distance are all encouraged and expected. But the deeper issue is all agreeing to work together to care for one another.” Central returned to in-person worship on September 13. Cook adds, “We went slow and re-opened gradually, and that gave us all time to learn how to be safe.” Things, of course, are different than when the congregation last met in March. What do people miss the most? “People miss coffee hour. And singing! We have a wonderful pipe organ, but we miss the voices that once filled the sanctuary,” Cook says.

Lexington United Methodist Church formed a Mitigation Team that produced the Pandemic Worship Guidelines adopted by the Church Council. Click here to review. Leading up to the return to in-person worship on October 4, every household was called. “We asked several questions,” Youmans explains, “including whether they were able to comply with our new safety policies regarding temps/contacts/masks/spacing/no singing.” A short video was produced to help persons be ready for “What to expect.” Pastor Susan Youmans reports two significant challenges. “Starting and stopping in-person worship,” as conditions require, and “communicating safety steps that are unpopular.” Their Mitigation Team continues to keep on top of the health recommendations from the state government and the Michigan Conference. They also maintain awareness of “the vulnerability of our members and community,” Youmans states. “We are a resort town with weekend and holiday surges in population. These visitors come from very contagious areas all around the country, so we have been very conservative in our actions.”

The Rev. Greg Culver, the pastor of Vicksburg United Methodist Church, remarks, “The main thing helping us ensure safety was that the process of getting back to in-person worship never got overly-anxious for us in the first place.” Culver explains, “The folks here were quick to understand that demanding our  ‘right’ of religious liberty — despite ‘the  government’ — wasn’t a good place to start the conversation.” The church and its leader believe, “Worship is certainly essential to people’s well-being, but it is an honor and privilege to be called to gather by the triune God. So, prayer and humility (we REALLY needed God’s lead in this) was our starting point.” Culver says the congregation appreciated and continues to use the First Sunday Back: Some Questions to Ponder and Principles and Directions for the Reopening of UMC Facilities in Michigan provided by Michigan Conference leadership in May. Vicksburg UMC has moved through the 4-Phase process, starting with Phase 1 outdoor worship. “We are now in Phase 2 with worship in our Family Center,” Culver shares. He describes Phase 3 as a return to the sanctuary for a limited number of people with appropriate safety protocols. “Phase 4 will come only when a safe, effective vaccine is available.” Culver asserts that all has been considered “tentative” rather than “set expectation.” “The congregation has been very appreciative and supportive of these efforts, as we have done our best to keep everyone in the loop.”

Worship in the parking lot
Parking lot worship at Vicksburg High School on July 5, 2020. No pulpit or pews. No stained glass. But the Spirit was moving among the people. Says Pastor Greg Culver, Glory to God for all things!” ~ Facebook/Vicksburg UMC

Blessings and next steps

The words of the old Wesleyan hymn, “And are we yet alive and see each other face?” well describes the joy congregations are experiencing upon return to in-person worship. “Although we love to worship at our sacred Campground,” says Pastor Wava Hofmann, “it has been wonderful to be together again within our sanctuary.” Pastor Rob Cook echoes that thought, “Just being together is enough.”

Rev. Joe Shaler is grateful that, so far, since the return to in-person worship in June at Otsego UMC, “Nobody has been infected due to gatherings.” Further, “Those who had been unable to join us on-line are especially blessed to have in-person Worship again.” And, “New people attend now and have joined the church.” Pastor Matt Bistayi also reports joy at “being back in community and worship in a safe way.” Valley Church, too, has “seen many new faces and connections.”

COVID season has been a time of innovation for Marquette Hope. Pastor Kristi Hintz says, “Because of the limitations of in-person worship at this time, we are finding that we can offer a much richer worship experience online right now.” She adds, “Our congregation has done very well adjusting to all of the changes we have been through since March, and online worship is going very well.”  

Rev. Dale Ostema notes that the blessing keeps going. “It is a joy seeing people return to worship week by week. As different members show up, it’s heart-warming to greet them.” Traverse City Central has also used the time to enhance what they were doing pre-pandemic. “Over the past six months, we have made major upgrades to our online worship offerings, including a production manager, new lighting and technology,” Ostema reports. “We’ve all learned a lot and gained new skills sets as a result of this.”

Pastor Susan Youmans finds joy in the success of “Getting the message across that we are failing to reach people without utilizing social media platforms.” At the other end of the technological spectrum, Rev. Greg Culver expresses gladness that shut-ins and those without computer technology could hear the Vicksburg UMC worship on their telephones. Further, Culver says, “It has been a blessing to witness our people come together and do things that they didn’t imagine themselves doing when this started back in March: nomadic worship in the high school parking lot, producing on-line worship on YouTube, Facebook, the church website and live-streaming it to boot!” 

All pastors contacted report that online worship will continue after their congregation is back in the pews. “We re-opened,” Cook says, “so that those who wish could attend worship in the sanctuary. But many others choose to stay home for good reason. So, we include them as much as we can.” Culver remarks, “Vicksburg UMC’s online ministry will be a permanent feature. This is essential. It is not an ‘option’ anymore.” Otsego, like Traverse City Central, has expanded staff, adding a broadcast/technology minister to continue to improve their online worship.

Filming podcast worship in Marquette
Pastor Kristi Hintz, Marquette hope, records Podchurch. Worshipers access and engage the experience on YouTube on Sunday morning or time of choice. ~ Facebook/Marquette Hope

Both Hintz and Bistayi emphasize that online worship has a significant life of its own. Though back in-person, “Valley Church is still live-streaming.” Bistayi says, “The challenge is figuring how to do that well and not just ‘broadcast’ the service but also to engage our online community.” Hintz remarks, “We have made an ongoing and continued commitment to online worship, and will consider the virtual experience its own worship service with the same integrity as in-person worship into the future.”

These words of Dale Ostema serve as an encouragement to all those pastors and church leaders across the state who struggle with decision-making around return to in-person activity. “Pastor Chris Lane and I look forward to greeting those of you who return to Central UMC on Sept. 13, even as we picture and pray for those of you who are unable to return at this time.” Ostema concludes, “We are the body of Christ together, in-person or at-home, out-of-state and locally, healthy and at health risk. Connected and isolated, we are the church together.”