Churches around Derby, like so many other businesses, had to find ways to adapt to the shifting landscape of the current coronavirus pandemic.
During the height of the pandemic, that meant a shift to online services for most local churches. Some, like Pleasantview Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church, returned to in-person worship in the early summer. Others, such as Woodlawn United Methodist Church, have held off though – monitoring the county’s COVID-19 dashboard as an extra level of precaution.
“We really chose to be cautious and not reopen until we were pretty sure that we could keep people as safe as we possibly could,” said Woodlawn UMC Senior Pastor Lance Carrithers.
All Woodlawn UMC ministry programs (including vacation bible school, youth groups, adult classes, etc.) have been online since March 15, but the church is planning to return to in-person worship on Oct. 18.
Going online, Carrithers noted there was a steep learning curve trying to figure out how to continue offering the church’s many services. Now, there will be an adjustment going back to in-person worship – from limiting worship times in more socially distanced settings to eliminating contact points and the serving of refreshments, as well as new mask requirements.
Other Derby churches adapted similarly, enforcing masks, stricter sanitation measures and social distancing, as attested to by PBC Lead Pastor Danny Payne and First Presbyterian Church Pastor Ben Ray.
Safety precautions for churches may look the same, but financial support for those institutions during the pandemic has been like snowflakes – no two look alike.
“Our donations are down,” Carrithers said. “However, we were fortunate enough to apply for and receive a PPP loan early on in the shutdown. That has enabled us to keep all of our staff employed.”
Meanwhile, Payne said financial donations were fairly stable for PBC, though there was a bit of a dip in the summer. And at First Presbyterian, Ray noted tithing and giving was actually up currently, while the church also received a loan (after it was sure other businesses were able to apply).
None of the three pastors see the situation regarding COVID-19 changing anytime soon and while that continues to force them to adopt new game plans, it also provides an opportunity to evolve. Ray recalled a scripture verse that charges churches to go forth in the world making disciples and baptizing – with the current pandemic forcing their hands somewhat.
“Churches haven’t done that well, but with COVID everybody had to go online. Jesus couldn’t get us to go out, but COVID finally got us to go out of our buildings. That’s helped. We’ve seen benefits from that,” Ray said. “The church has to remind ourselves that our mission to the world is to provide hope, especially in times of crisis like this. That’s what Jesus does. He provides us hope in the midst of all the chaos.”
“We’re still adapting. We’ve obviously adapted to a fairly significant online presence,” Payne said. “We’ve added back layers very slowly, very methodically as we felt like we could. We’re adjusting to how we do church. No one’s ever done it this way before, so we’re learning like everybody else.”
Pastoral care for patients in hospitals had to be done by telephone rather than person, funerals were celebrated graveside, and both Woodlawn UMC and First Presbyterian took to offering some drive-thru programs – whether weekly congregational dinners or donation drives for the Derby food pantry.
Changes may still be yet to come, too – as Carrithers noted Woodlawn UMC will continue to monitor the county’s data and suspend in-person worship again if needed.
Having a support network among churches has helped with those changes. Payne noted he has leaned on that throughout the pandemic, which has also helped provide clarity to who is in control of the current situation.
“We may not like what it looks like, but He’s always in control. It’s easy to trust God when it’s going good; it’s harder to trust God when it’s crazy,” Payne said. “As I look back on all the decisions we’ve made in the last seven months, obviously there’s always room for growth but I feel like we’ve made pretty good decisions to try to navigate this season of life.”