Being the church in COVID: From drive-up church and tiny weddings to Zoom fellowship meals

Bishop suspends in-person gatherings through June 10; no word yet on rescheduled date for Annual Conference

By Jessica Brodie

For the fourth month running, United Methodists are embracing new ways to be the church in the midst of a pandemic that has shuttered businesses, schools and other large gatherings in the interest of public health and safety.

South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston has urged United Methodist churches to suspend worship and other in-person gatherings through at least June 10 as the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise. He offered June 14 as the first date in-person worship could resume.

As of May 21, the World Health Organization reported roughly 5 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus worldwide and 328,000 confirmed deaths, with roughly 1.5 million cases and 92,000 deaths in the United States. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control reports almost 9,400 cases here with 416 deaths.

Holston said many UMCs might choose not to reopen to in-person gatherings yet and that the June 10 date is not intended to be for everybody.

“Friends, I continue to be inspired by the creative ways the churches of the South Carolina Conference have responded to the ongoing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic,” he said in a statement released May 15. “Your commitment to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and your care for one another are evident in so many ways. South Carolina United Methodists are truly seeking a more excellent way—following God beyond the bounds of expectations.”

Holston said the June 10 re-open date is a recommendation made in consultation with the Cabinet and according to the latest guidance from public health officials, and that he hopes churches will make use of a new resource developed by the South Carolina Conference titled “Reset, Restart, Renew” to guide them in best practices as they transition to resuming in-person worship.

“Even when the church doors are once again open and we can safely gather, this does not mean a return to business as usual. It is critical to recognize the importance of the safe and sanitary practices necessary once we return to church buildings,” Holston said. “We support you in making the best decisions for your congregation as you care for one another.”

While Annual Conference—originally planned for June 7-10—has been postponed indefinitely, Holston said moving day for clergy transitioning to new appointments will be June 30.

Holston said he and the others on the Annual Conference committee are working to discern a new date as soon as they can.

In the meantime, churches continue their efforts to be the church even when unable to gather in their sanctuaries for worship.

Many churches have transitioned to online services on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms to stay connected during the pandemic. Others are gathering for outdoor activities or leaving encouraging Bible verses and other love messages in chalk.

Here are a host of ways churches are staying connected in spite of coronavirus restrictions.

Drive-up churches increase

Churches are increasingly offering “drive-up” worship and fellowship opportunities. At Cedar Swamp UMC, Kingstree, the Rev. Tommy Conway is staying connected with his congregation through Facebook devotionals and online church services. He has “drive-up church” and provides all with an outdoor sermon from the church steps. Beth Cox also holds Zoom gatherings with all the church children each Sunday.

Mill Creek and McLeod UMCs, Columbia, have enjoyed services in the parking lot since Easter Sunday. Members stay in their cars with radios tuned to a specific frequency to hear the broadcast of the service. A keyboard has been put into use, and members are keeping their hymnals from week to week. The Rev. Shay Long offered communion Easter Sunday, but has announced that communion will not be offered again until she receives the all-clear from the conference. The drive-in services were postponed for a couple of weeks following Easter, and several members were disappointed. Even if we can’t hug, we can still visit with whoever is parked next to us, one member said. Prior to Easter, Long had been posting services on Facebook. She continues to do that in addition to the drive-in services. Attendance has remained steady each week, Long said, with a significant crowd Easter Sunday.

Elim UMC in the Oates community, Hartsville District, began drive-up services May 3. The congregation also receives devotions each morning from their pastor, Rev. W. Edward Herlong. A Bible study has begun using video material and journaling by participants. Once the congregation can gather in groups again, the other aspects of the study will be presented.

Prospect and Bethlehem UMCs, Hartsville, are holding drive-in church at both locations each week, said the Rev. Dan Sullivan, and they are also worshipping online with a midweek devotion on Wednesdays. They also offer their services on Facebook live for those who do not feel comfortable attending in-person.

Franklin UMC, Denmark, is also holding outdoor services each Sunday. “We are serving communion as a reminder of the saving grace of Christ,” said church pastor the Rev. Minnie Anderson. “We have had excellent attendance from our members and visitors from our community.”

Their Bible study also continues on Wednesdays via teleconference.

Breaking bread—at a distance

Feeding ministries and fellowship meals are often a mainstay at many United Methodist churches, and the pandemic has sparked creativity here, too. While some churches have paused their typical free community meal, others have transitioned to a takeout style or even a canned-food drive-through pickup for people in need.

One church, while they couldn’t gather in person, managed to hold a churchwide fellowship meal through Zoom. The Rev. Michael Goldston of St. Paul UMC, Greenville, said people were encouraged to order meals from a local restaurant if they felt comfortable doing so, then meet on Zoom at 6 p.m. for gathering time. After a welcome and blessing, they split into virtual “tables,” using Zoom breakout rooms of three or four so they could have more intimate conversations. They ate and talked together for about 30 minutes, then gathered again to say goodbye.

“The kids loved seeing each other and also the adults that they hadn’t seen in a while. The people who had been very isolated at home really appreciated sharing a meal with people,” Goldston said. “It was a great experience.”

Can’t stop love

COVID-19 also couldn’t stop one couple from exchanging their wedding vows. Charlie DeLancey and Bonnie Wilson, members of Travelers Rest UMC, Travelers Rest, had been planning their wedding for Palm Sunday, and their original intention was to invite the entire congregation to be present. While their guest list plans changed, their plans to get married did not. In an intimate, socially distanced ceremony consisting of the couple, TRUMC’s two pastors and two family members as witnesses who were video-recording and sharing on Facebook Live), the DeLanceys united in marriage.

Their small group surprised them outside the church after the ceremony with a socially distanced “parking-lot reception” with their fellow group members spaced apart, wearing masks, cheering their congratulations and playing “The Wedding March” over a karaoke speaker. A flower girl had even thrown petals around their car.

From Q&As to ‘picture pews’

The pandemic prompted Brookland UMC, West Columbia, to start a new contemporary worship service on Sunday evenings, available to all on Facebook Live.

In Cheraw, the Rev. L. Kim Eanes of First UMC is working hard to help her congregation feel connected during social distancing. Eanes shares an inspirational message on the church’s one call system each day, plus she sends Bible study material by email. Also, she and the worship team tape a worship service each week to send out to the congregation. “Having all these things has really helped the stay-at-home situation feel a little less stressful,” said Angie Smith, the church’s administrative assistant.

The Rev. Elizabeth Sullivan, pastor at Point Hope UMC, Mount Pleasant, said she knows many in their church may not come back until after the summer because of health concerns, so she is trying hard to foster community spirit in unique ways. Recently, she and church staff put a photo of every church member on a seat in the pews.

“That is pretty ironic since I am definitely against people having assigned seating in church, but COVID-19 has changed so many things for me,” she said. “We will use this to share how much we are missing each member but also to help our members realize that we are saving a seat for them! We want that seat to be a safe seat, too, so as we prepare to come back, we will make sure that we separate the chairs with their pictures on them, giving families six feet in every direction.”

They are continuing to livestream services on various social media platforms until they can meet again in person.

“We can’t wait to be together again, but we understand that we have to put these practices in place to keep everyone physically and spiritually healthy,” she said.

Lyttleton Street UMC, Camden, has also been working hard to provide meaningful ways of worship and connection. Mary Abbott, director of children’s and youth ministries, said the church is offering fun activities and encouragement on social media and elsewhere, including a Palm Sunday parade featuring members’ decorated front doors; a Musical Meditation on Monday evenings featuring their organist, Ike Pitts; and a Facebook Live Thursday night Prayer Meeting led by senior pastor the Rev. Michael Arant.

They have also started a new question-and-answer production called “Bridging the Gap,” where children in the congregation ask questions of their older adults. The first episode aired May 8 with more than 700 views, Abbott said.

Advent UMC, Simpsonville, also offer a question-and-answer event on Facebook live every week called “What’s Up Wednesday,” led by the Revs. Michael Turner and Laura-Allen Kerlin.

The first week they did a series of getting-to-know-you questions, such as “What was your first car?” and “What is your most annoying habit?” They also encouraged people to comment with their own questions. One Wednesday during Lent they baked pretzels. Kerlin explained that pretzels used to be a common food in Lent when people were fasting from sugar and other things, so they talked about that and then made pretzels. Another Wednesday featured Bible trivia.

The Advocate welcomes photos and other information about how your church is staying connected and doing God’s work in spite of the pandemic. Email [email protected].

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