A couple of northeast Indiana pastors offered helpful reminders that churches across the country must consider as they weigh how to resume in-person Sunday worship services safely.
Jenni Smith, administrative pastor for Northeast Christian Church in Fort Wayne and Kent Koteskey, executive pastor for Hope Missionary Church in Bluffton, were among four panelists in a roundtable discussion Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. presented for a nationwide audience of church leaders.
Its June 9 webinar featuring the COVID-19 Moving Forward discussion was moderated by Adam Clark, a senior manager for agency marketing at Brotherhood.
Discussion panelists also included Tony Reimonenq Jr., executive pastor for Point Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Tim Samuel, a CPA and chief financial officer of Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Maryland.
At least 400 church leaders viewed the webinar live and participate in a poll that Brotherhood conducted partway through it. And more than 500 have registered to watch a video recording of it after it took place, Clark said.
Panelists represented churches of various sizes and demographics.
For example, the average pre-pandemic Sunday attendance was about 400 for Northeast Christian, which plans to resume in-person services in July, and three times that for Hope Missionary, which resumed in-person services early in May.
“That first Sunday, we weren’t quite sure at all what to expect, and so all that week it was a mad scramble just trying to get ready for every contingency,” Koteskey said.
“We had about one-third of our normal attendance on a Sunday morning live in the building, and we were still streaming that online as well,” he said. “So, we didn’t have this overwhelming tidal wave of people that we had been concerned about.”
People were asked to register ahead of the service to help with planning. Rooms prepared for livestreaming from the main worship center had chairs spaced apart in a way considered appropriate for family groupings. Masks and hand sanitizer were available in abundance.
“Since that first Sunday, each Sunday we’ve seen about a hundred people more wanting to come back, so it’s been a rather interesting kind of a gradual growth,” Koteskey said.
“We honestly thought it would be a lot of younger people first with our older attendees choosing to stay home, and that has surprised us as well,” he said. “It’s been a pretty evenly spaced cross-section across the ages.”
At Northeast Christian Church, about 120 of the 400 attendees on any given pre-pandemic Sunday were children, which Smith said is about equal to what a congregation of 1,000 would see.
“We’re a very small church; we don’t have a lot of rooms. It definitely doesn’t accommodate the social distancing guidelines that are recommended. We don’t have an auditorium or a gym to spread out in, so that’s another concern,” she said.
“What do we do with kids, how do we get them socially distanced? Children don’t do that naturally or easily,” she said.
“It’s a hard decision, but we are also looking to open in July, which is according to the governor’s guidelines, with a restricted children’s ministry by RSVP, and just minimize classes and have a lot of activities outdoors, if possible.”
Hope Missionary has three worship hours each Sunday and does intense cleaning of all the rooms it uses for that as well as other high-traffic areas of the church immediately after each session, Koteskey said.
“Anything that we could find that would take cleaning, we clean them and we clean them quick, and then we try to get them dry before the next round of people come in,” he said.
“The challenge has been, people are so anxious to be together that once they’re there after the service, we kind of have a joke that we’re going to have to have the corona cops coming through to shoo people out the door.”
Hope Missionary staff spent an hour trying to figure out whether it should recommend, encourage, welcome or require the use of masks, and eventually settled on recommending their use. The recommendation is not widely followed.
At Northeast Christian there has been discussion of limiting service time so there will be more space between two gatherings to clean. Smith said it will have hand sanitizing stations throughout the building and will have kids wash their hands when they come in.
“The main question we’ve struggled with as a staff is the masks question,” she said. “You see all the data and research about droplets being spread further while singing in churches that have had (coronavirus) spread over in Europe because of a church service where there was singing involved. It brings into question; do we mandate masks or recommend them.
“We’re going to go ahead and just sing,” she said. “It’s just something that’s concerning, but at least we’re not getting rid of it right now.”