In COVID’s 2nd summer, two churches still model worship precautions

A Rhode Island church is still worshiping online, just as it has since the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19. The congregation has gathered in person only once — outdoors.

A Georgia congregation is worshiping indoors and in person — masked and spread out. There’s an online option, too, for those who aren’t ready to come.

Newman Congregational United Church of Christ in Rumford, R.I., and Virginia-Highland Church in Atlanta may differ in approach. But they also have a lot in common:

  • They welcomed the arrival of COVID vaccines in early 2021.
  • Many of their congregants have had a COVID shot — but the communities they serve are not fully vaccinated.
  • They’re tracking public health alerts as the virus mutates and infections rise.
  • They feel their approaches have been right for them — from the start of the pandemic, all the way till now.

UCC News checked in with them again this month — after publishing stories about both of them in 2020 — to see how things are going. According to research, they’re just like most UCC churches when it comes to the effects of COVID-19.

Stats on COVID and worship

In July, the General Synod heard a report about the pandemic’s impact in the UCC. It was based on a survey conducted by the Center for Analytics, Research and Development, and Data in August and September 2020.

CARDD now has results of a more recent questionnaire. Among UCC churches surveyed between January and March 2021:

  • 96.5 percent said they had stopped worshiping in person at some point due to the pandemic. That’s up from 95.1 percent who said so in the 2020 survey.
  • 91.3 percent said they had held online worship at some point during the pandemic, up from 86.3 percent.
  • 72.5 percent said they plan to continuing offering an online worship option after the pandemic (a question not asked the same way last fall).

Now many churches are experimenting with “hybrid worship,” using online and in-person components at the same time. As for meeting in person, national church officials have advised congregations for more than a year to keep the most vulnerable among them in mind. They recommend heeding updates from public health agencies and recommendations from their UCC Conference offices.

Newman UCC and Virginia-Highland are both examples of early, proactive decision-making.

Early decision is freeing

In Rhode Island, leaders of Newman UCC suspended in-person worship in mid-March 2020. Just a few weeks later, they decided to keep that policy in place for at least a year. Indeed, even now, all the church’s services are online, via Facebook and YouTube.

“That early decision proved to be on point and honestly quite helpful,” said their pastor, the Rev. Timoth Sylvia. “These past 16 months have been a fruitful time for our congregation in part, I believe, because we did not have to invest a lot of time or energy into decisions around gathering and then not gathering time and time again.”

COVID hasn’t stopped outdoor projects, such as this memorial, at Newman Congregational UCC.

After a year, the church leadership updated its policy. Worship and and other gatherings are now allowed outdoors, with certain safety protocols. In June, the church held its only outdoor worship service so far.

But there are still no indoor gatherings. “We are continuing to do some work on determining what that would take,” Sylvia said. One thing it will take, he said, is more time — especially given the challenges in ensuring a 211-year old church building is COVID-safe.

Now, state and federal reports show the Delta variant spreading and COVID infections increasing in Rhode Island and elsewhere. That’s complicating the discussion about returning to the building. “As transmission numbers rise all over the nation, we are finding ourselves just as disheartened as many others,” Sylvia said. “However, having successfully navigated this time, I know we can keep going.”

Policy based on faith

Newman’s leaders described their current policy as a matter of faith. “As followers of Christ we are called to prioritize the needs and wellbeing of those who are most vulnerable,” they said. They quoted Jesus’ own concern for “the least of these, who are members of my family.”

“The ‘least of these’ are represented by those who have not been able to be vaccinated.”

Leaders of Newman Congregational UCC, Rumford, R.I.

“In the case of planning for regathering, ‘the least of these’ are represented by those who have not yet been able to be vaccinated.” Those people, they said, include:

  • “Those who are too young or who live with a young child.”
  • “Those who are immuno-suppressed or otherwise medically vulnerable.”
  • “Those who have not been able to gain access due to personal circumstances or societal inequity.”

“We are well aware that some of those within the Newman UCC faith community are in this category, and we will not leave them behind.”

They said the church also tries to imitate Jesus’ “radical hospitality and extravagant welcome.” “This means that we will not say that only those who are vaccinated may attend gatherings. We have to assume that there are some unvaccinated persons in our midst, and so we must follow the appropriate protocols to keep everyone safe, not only those who are vaccinated.”

Everyone must mask

In Atlanta, Virginia-Highland has had similar thoughts. The church returned to in-person, indoor worship in May 2021 — cautiously.

“Our estimate is that over 90 percent of our congregation is fully vaccinated,” said its senior pastor, the Rev. Matt Laney, in a front-and-center video at the church’s website. “However, some of us are not — including our younger children. And worship is not a members-only experience. We are open to the general public.”

In an August 2021 video, the Rev. Matt Laney describes Virginia-Highland’s safety procedures.

Laney listed the church’s many current precautions. Among them:

  • Everyone must wear a mask.
  • Worshipers must sit at least six feet apart, though members of a household may sit together.
  • Communion elements come in prepackaged kits. Worshipers get them on the way in.
  • Worshipers may sing along — masked, of course — to live and recorded music.
  • Non-singing worship leaders may unmask while speaking.
  • The snack time after worship, a Virginia-Highland tradition, is now not happening. After worship, everyone is asked to leave without lingering inside. “If you want to chat with friends afterwards, great,” Laney says in the video. “Just take it outside.”

‘Zero resistance’ to precautions

“There has been zero resistance to any of our precautions,” Laney told UCC News. “In June, people were asking when we could unmask. With Delta, no one is asking that now. The biggest challenge has been to get people to stop huddling in the sanctuary after the service.”

Two things eased Virginia-Highland’s transition. “We had been worshiping outside for some time — a blessing of being in a warm climate — so in some ways the switch to in person worship in the sanctuary felt natural and not so drastic,” Laney said.

And since May 2020, the church’s Reopening Task Force has tapped into the wisdom of Virginia-Highland members who are doctors and scientists. All along, they have alerted the congregation to expect precautions.

What has been unexpected, Laney said, is attendance patterns.

Attendance puzzles

“In-person attendance started strong on May 16, well above expectations, and then dropped by one-third, where it has held steady,” he said. “It felt like going from Easter to post-Easter.”

The streaming audience also has puzzled him. There are more viewers but fewer identify themselves. “We have about 20 percent fewer people total signing in, but our views on Facebook and YouTube have increased since we reopened the sanctuary. I have no idea what all that means. It’s a new world.”

Socially distanced worshipers use the entire sanctuary at Virginia-Highland Church, UCC, in Atlanta.

Also, who is showing up in person — and not showing up — is a surprise. “About one-third of the in-person congregation is new people, which is wonderful,” Laney said. “But if you back out that number, it leaves us with a dismally small in-person total of our ‘regulars’ as compared to pre-pandemic.” People traveling, now that they’re vaccinated, might be one explanation, he said. Also, “after a year of worshiping at home on the couch — well, some folks feel pretty good about that and who could blame them?”

Some still hesitant to return

Laney said the church may not have a good read on its next normal until summer travel ends and the current COVID surge in Georgia abates.

“Some folks are still reticent about being in person,” Laney said. “With our precautions and the extremely high rate of vaccination at VHC, our COVID-19 task force is confident the risk is very, very low. But we know and respect that everyone moves at their own pace.”

The task force, at an Aug. 3 meeting, “concluded that even as infection rates climb upward in our area, we do not feel a need to go back to virtual only,” Laney said. “We are mostly all vaccinated and masked, and our numbers and available space allow us all to distance appropriately.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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