Churches differ on pandemic response

Pastors say they rely on local, state guidance as disease drags on

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As Colorado’s third wave of COVID-19 grips the state, churches in the Denver metro area are preparing to take additional precautions, although they differ in their plans to do business in the weeks ahead, from full virtual services to limited in-person gatherings.

Dr. Amy Gearhart, lead pastor at Arvada United Methodist Church, said their church is paying close attention to the guidance of local and state health agencies. The church has not held in-person services since the pandemic reached Colorado.

“We’re a congregation that’s in total support and confidence in the scientific research and data,” she said.

The closest that Arvada United Methodist Church came to holding in-person gatherings during COVID-19 was when it hosted drive-in services in the parking lot during the warmer fall months. With winter approaching, the church is switching back to full virtual as of Nov. 8.

Gearhart said there have been advantages to virtual sermons. Each Sunday they post a pre-produced sermon to YouTube. The church garners roughly 100 more views than what in-person attendance might have been before the pandemic, she said.

It also offers a solution for at-risk congregation members, she said. Attendance at the drive-up services was about half of pre-pandemic levels.

The church’s congregation comprises approximately 600 households and a normal service pre-COVID was on average 350 people. Roughly a third of their members are older than 70, she said.

“Many of our older adults don’t even feel comfortable coming in their cars,” she said.

Senior Pastor Rev. Mark Feldmeir at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch said they are primarily doing virtual services through YouTube. Worship elements are recorded through the week and St. Andrew has offered remote services since March.

But throughout the rest of November, the church plans to continue holding a Sunday evening service outside on its lawn for approximately 40 to 50 people.

People have to RSVP, wear masks and sit in family groups “so there’s social distancing,” he said. There is no singing at the services and the speakers wear masks.

Feldmeir also said virtual services have expanded the church’s reach. Pre-pandemic attendance was approximately 1,200 in a weekend.

“Remarkably our viewership online is at least twice that every week,” he said.

Feldmeir isn’t sure of the church’s long-term strategy to hold service during the pandemic. They have not planned much beyond the New Year, but he doesn’t expect to do business as usual for months.

“I don’t anticipate that we’ll be back for in-person worship until there is a vaccine that’s widely available,” he said.

Surveys of the congregation showed 68% of their members would not return without a vaccine, he said.

Steve Thulson, interim senior pastor at Grace Covenant Church in Lakewood, said the church returned to in-person services mid- summer. The church’s two Sunday services are limited to approximately 50 people each, and attendees are required to wear masks.

That’s roughly half the church’s attendance before COVID-19 hit, Thulson said, and they estimate a dozen families tune in by livestream. He is not sure at what point the church would switch to full virtual services, if a shutdown is not ordered by local or state agencies, with which he vowed they would comply.

“That’s a great question,” he said.

The pandemic has placed numerous barriers on churches, he said, and there are mixed reactions to steps the church takes. Some people believe the church should not meet at all while others wish services could continue as normal.

“There are different opinions on all this. Not outright division but it’s kind of a continuum,” he said.

Gearhart said her congregation has been supportive of staying virtual and social distancing, but she knows pastors who have weathered pushback against following COVID-19 precautions.

Moving forward, the pastors said they’ll look to health agency guidance for navigating the pandemic in coming weeks, and they’ll try to keep up morale among community members.

“I think probably like everybody in our community and around the world, there is tremendous COVID fatigue and Zoom fatigue and I think that’s only exacerbated by some of the social division, political division,” Feldmeir said. “But I think there’s also a tremendous sense of a collective sense of we’re going to get through this.”

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