Methodist churches balance worship, wellness

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult over the past year to visit anyone’s house– including God’s.

But as Easter services coincide with the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19, local United Methodist Church pastors said they have been happy with how they’ve navigated the past year.

“If I had known we would be doing (this) for more than a year, I would have panicked,” said the The Rev. Linda Stephan, pastor of Williamston United Methodist Church. “Even though we can’t gather, we’ve just found all sorts of creative ways to do what we do … just do it differently than we’ve ever done it before.”

The Williamston United Methodist Church pre-records its sermons and has the videos premiere at 10 a.m., the time the sermon would normally start live. Chats with members and requests for prayers all happen through Facebook’s comment section. Stephan said she’s grateful this pandemic occurred now, rather than a decade or two ago, because technology has made it easy to keep in touch with church members.

The Holt United Methodist Church, led by the Rev. Mark Erbes, has livestreamed its sermons through Facebook Live. Aside from two or three Sundays in the fall, the church has remained completely online. The church increased its funding for livestream products, bringing in technology coordinators and updating the church’s technology. While having a choir sing isn’t feasible, hymns are still performed by vocalists and other musicians. Lyric sheets are sent out via email to members who want to sing along from their homes.

The Rev. Rhonda Osterman oversees three United Methodist churches in Ingham County: Leslie, Felt Plains and Millville. She joined the churches last July during the pandemic as pastor and has held in-person sermons on all but a few occasions, enforcing social distance and mask-wearing when applicable. Her churches have stopped hosting events such as coffee hours and fellowship time but still have in-person Bible studies and administrative meetings. The church also livestreams its sermons on Facebook.

“Each individual person has different opinions, but overall, people out here do not like being closed down,” said Osterman. “They want to be open for worship and let individual people then make the choice whether they choose to attend or not.”

Some Methodist rituals have been altered to accommodate safety guidelines. Churches give members pre-filled cups with juice and a wafer for communion. Members can either pick them up in the church or as a “drive-through” service. Osterman said she recently switched back to offering regular communion with increased safety protocols, and will serve communion as such for Maundy Thursday and Easter.

“We weren’t doing communion at all (last spring), so we kind of looked at it like a holy fast … which is also a means of grace,” said Stephan.

Outside of worship services, churches have found other ways to keep in touch with their communities by making more phone calls and sending out emails, flyers and bulletins about church or local events. Instead of holding its usual community meal, Williamston United Methodist Church is delivering meals to its members and connecting people to local food banks. Holt United Methodist Church created a small food pantry outside its building and recently sent care packages to teachers at a local middle school. Leslie United Methodist Church has a designated person who sends out cards to homebound members. 

“Our church has become more aware of the needs of the community through all this,” said Erbes.

Because travel restrictions are no longer an issue thanks to videoconference applications such as Zoom, the Williamston United Methodist Church has brought in several preachers from Black churches to speak at the church as a way to help combat racism. 

“We’ve had some really profound preachers preach for us that we would never have been able to hear if it required their physical presence … and them having to be absent from their own churches that Sunday,” said Stephan.

The pastors hope falling COVID-19 rates and the rollout of vaccines will allow churches to return to normal in-person services and events soon. Osterman said she recently received an invite from a church member for an in-person visit, the first she’s received since summer, shortly after her arrival.

While church members and leaders are excited for a return to normalcy, pastors said there are elements of operating during the pandemic they would like to keep. Erbes, Stephan and Osterman all said they hoped to continue with online services, as they allow for greater participation in church activities, especially from homebound or distant members. Osterman said she also hopes to keep the pre-filled communion cups for visiting homebound members in the community.

“It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing,’” said Osterman. “It’s not been perfect, it’s not what we desire, but we’re still proclaiming the Gospel, we’re still reaching out to people the best we can.”

“Our routines, our rituals, and our relationships (have) all stayed intact,” said Stephan. “The church, rather than become a victim of the virus, (has become) a haven for members in the community.”

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