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March Mania

Churches seek to bring members together despite COVID-19 separation

Rev. Keith Nelson of downtown Mitchell's First United Methodist Church said their church was well set up for holding services via a livestream as they've already been streaming services for the past few years. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 4
Rev. Keith Nelson of downtown Mitchell's First United Methodist Church said it feels a little different delivery service to a room of empty pews as his services are held entirely via a livestream now. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 4
There are four cameras installed within the sanctuary for livestreaming services at downtown Mitchell's First United Methodist Church. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 4
Sunday, March 22 was the first day all the pews sat empty as downtown Mitchell's First United Methodist Church services were held entirely via a livestream. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 4

MITCHELL, S.D. -- Church sanctuaries are usually full this time of year.

With Lent season in full swing and Easter right around the corner, many houses of worship would usually see some of the largest crowds of the year as people come together to worship and mark one of the most important times on the church calendar.

But not in 2020.

The outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that emerged in China late last year and spread around the world in a matter of months, has derailed the live services usually so well-attended and replaced them with alternatives to help stop the spread of the disease. Among other governors, Gov. Kristi Noem has urged South Dakotans to stay at home and avoid public gathering and recently requested public schools in the state remain closed until at least May 1 in an effort to stem the spread of the disease.

It’s something church leaders throughout the region also are dealing with as they work to tend to their flocks as well as mind their responsibility to help contain a disease that has killed one person in South Dakota and infected 58 as of Friday.

Going remote to come together

Keith Nelson, pastor at Downtown Mitchell First United Methodist Church, said the situation is unprecedented. The church has suspended live services in favor of online streaming and is urging its members to take advantage of that.

“I think people are doing well, it’s one of those things where this is just a crazy time,” Nelson said. “Who would have thought we would have been telling (members) not to come together?”

The church has not held live services for two weeks, and Nelson said the week prior to that saw a smaller-than-usual crowd due to encouragement from church leaders to take the services in remotely if they could. The church has offered streams of its Sunday services for years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, so the process was already in place.

“Our church is way ahead of the game. They’ve been doing a live streams for years. I’ve been here for four years and they were doing it before that,” Nelson said, noting services have been broadcast on the radio for decades.

The church plans to continue offering remote services through at least April while general activity at the church is shut down for the time being. Nelson said church leaders will keep an eye on the situation and act in accordance with what is best for the church and the community at large. The church is also looking at ways to stay connected with members, particularly older members, he said.

But for the most part, most are understanding of the need to disrupt routine at this time.

“Everybody seems to be very understanding. There are a few people who think it’s much ado about nothing, but the deeper we get into it they realize this is a serious deal,” Nelson said. “It’s just such a novel thing at this point.”

Providing guidance to other leaders

Constanze Hagmaier, bishop for the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a former pastor at Salem Lutheran Church in Parkston, said most of the churches overseen by the synod have canceled in-person worship.

“I would say the vast majority have discontinued services inside the church building,” Hagmaier said.

The synod has 206 congregations in South Dakota, and the synod has been working with leaders at those churches to provide resources and guidance in an uncertain time. She meets with leaders weekly via Zoom, a popular video conferencing application, and discusses their needs and creative ways to serve their congregations.

She said the discussions range from finding good ways to serve their congregations in the face of COVID-19 to the occasional procedural matter. Everyone is facing problems such as, "What is the best method for tallying the collection plate when you need two people to do the counting while still maintaining social distancing?"

The forced separation of congregation and church building is a chance to show that the church itself is not a building, but the people who make up that congregation, she said.

The synod also provides a number of resources on its website, including tips and instructions for setting up livestreaming or digital recording of services and ideas on observing communion when the congregation can’t be at the same place at the same time.

Overall, Hagmaier said church leaders and members are handling the uncertainty as well as can be expected. She said it was important to understand the stress church members and the public are feeling.

“I am amazed by their non-anxious leadership. We all have to realize that these times are stressful, and I’m sure it’s a little like grief. For the first week we all worked on adrenaline, and now it’s the second week and things are slowing down and you’re feeling the weight of realism,” Hagmaier said.

It will be a time of uncertainty, but also a time of growth, she said. And she expects the learning process will continue for some time to come as churches throughout the state come to grips with a new normal.

“I’m keenly aware that no matter how we move into the future, it will never be the same as it was before COVID-19,” Hagmaier said. “In these challenging times for people, we need to be mindful that everyone enters and lives in these times differently, and we need to be mindful to the realities that are different for everyone and respect them.”

Bringing the word during Lent

Michael Hecht, pastor at Salem Reformed Church in Menno, said his church is facing the same type of disruption. The church did not have a live service March 22 and there will not be any such services for the foreseeable future.

“It’s challenging to say the least, for the whole nation and certainly beyond as we know,” Hecht said.

While the church, which has about 300 members and can see over 200 in the sanctuary this time of year, is not streaming services live on Sunday, a service is recorded. It’s not ideal, Hecht said, but it does help maintain a sense of togetherness while conditions warrant people keep their distance and not gather in large groups.

“We prerecorded our worship service with myself, the pianist, my wife who always does the children’s sermonette and others were there,” Hecht said. “We recorded the entire service as if the congregation was there and uploaded it to our website.”

Some small church activities are still going on, Hecht said. A prayer group that meets regularly, and consists of less than 10 people, continues to meet for the time being. Some small catechism classes are also still underway, but much of the normal routine for this time of year is on hold.

An outbreak like the current one is terrible at any time, but the timing of its arrival this year is particularly disappointing, Hecht said.

“I’ve been struggling greatly within myself. Not having the Lenten services (on Wednesday) like we would have been, and two services that our high school students help with which would have been a great time, it’s such a neat service,” Hecht said. “And I look forward to Maundy Thursday and Palm Sunday. Easter Sunday. If we don’t get to have that, it’s hard to think.”

He said the church and its congregation will continue to do what they can to support each other during this time of uncertainty.

“We’re adjusting. It’s across the board, every part of our life, we’re adjusting,” Hecht said.

Focusing on faith, hope and love

Rev. Kenneth Luff, with Holy Family Catholic Church in Mitchell, said his congregation is also adjusting to the challenges of the times. The COVID-19 outbreak has forced the church to cancel Mass and confessions for the foreseeable future, a move mandated by higher church authorities, he said.

“All our directives are from the bishop. It was Tuesday of last week when he announced that there would be no more public celebrations of the sacraments,” Luff said.

The church is not doing its own live stream or recording of Mass, as Luff said there are many opportunities for church members to view Mass performed by the bishop or other sources.

“Right now they have the option of watching Mass on Sunday with the bishop. There are so many opportunities to watch Mass that are live streamed that we didn’t feel it necessary to start our own YouTube channel,” Luff said.

His congregation is also generally understanding of the precautions, but not being able to share fellowship with other church members in a live setting is a change that takes some getting used to, he said.

“The people I’ve talked to in the grocery stores or seen out and about are understanding. They obviously miss the opportunity to come together, and they’re anxious to see this time of confinement end and getting back to celebrating the sacraments,” Luff said.

Luff said not only has activity at the church been disrupted, but also its efforts to console the ill. With hospitals and nursing homes tightening down on access to patients and residents, it can be difficult to see members who may be ill and are seeking ministry.

“Our access to hospitals is so limited. It’s not the way you imagined it was going to be,” Luff said.

And like other churches, Holy Family also relies on financial support from its members, and having the pews empty during one of busiest times of year can impact the church budget.

“There are financial ramifications. Christmas and Easter are the two largest collections of the year, and now we have to ask people to be generous just because they can’t come to Mass,” Luff said.

Luff said the best thing for everyone to do for the time being is be vigilant about safety and take the precautions advised by health care professionals. The sooner everyone picks up on those habits, the sooner congregations around the state can get back to practicing their faith together.

“I’ve been telling everyone two things. One I saw on Facebook and it said the virus is contagious, but so is faith, hope and love,” Luff said. “The other is my own — wash your hands like it’s all you, and fold them like it’s all Jesus.”

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