South Carolina United Methodist churches reopen—or not

By Jessica Brodie

After months shuttered because of coronavirus, South Carolina United Methodist churches got the green-light to resume in-person worship last month.

Some chose to resume June 14, the date churches were authorized to begin holding in-person worship gatherings, while some chose later dates, and some still remain entirely virtual.

Still others are forgoing indoor worship to hold outdoor-only services in church parking lots or nearby parks, citing safety reasons.

‘It was time’

The largest UMC in the state, Mount Horeb in Lexington, resumed June 14 with four services in two venues, though worship looked decidedly different, with no in-person children’s ministries and with worshippers required to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

Senior pastor the Rev. Jeff Kersey said they had about 600 people in-person that first Sunday, with another 2,000 participating online.

Kersey said they opened because it felt like a disconnect not to offer in-person worship given that the majority of their congregation was already trying to resume normal lives the rest of the week.

“The majority of our people are back at work, doing normal stuff all week long in a normal capacity, going out to dinner at restaurants, so it seemed like we should be offering worship if people are resuming normal lives,” Kersey said. “It’s important to maintain momentum in the church.”

Smaller churches also resumed worship, requiring masks and distancing, as well.

David Salter, who serves as organist at Warrenville and St. John UMCs, Graniteville, said the two churches on that charge resumed in-person worship June 14. He said Warrenville has had normal attendance for the two Sundays they have been back, while St. John, the larger of the two churches, has had about half or a little more than its normal attendance.

“In-person worship began then because most of the congregations felt that it was time. However, folks are encouraged to stay home if they still do not feel comfortable worshiping in-person,” Salter said.

Lexington UMC, Lexington, also resumed worship June 14, with about 80 people between two services, said the Rev. Elizabeth Murray, youth minister there.

“It went very well, and everyone was wearing a mask and respected the social distancing rules,” Murray said. “The reason we went back so quickly I think was because both of our elders are leaving the church, so it was an opportunity to be in worship with them for a few weeks before they move onto their new appointment.”

Karen Hightower said Lebanon and Epting Memorial UMCs, Newberry, resumed June 14. Everyone participating must have their temperature taken before entering the sanctuary and wear a mask, she said.

St. Luke UMC, Walhalla, resumed in-person, indoor worship June 14, said the Rev. Kevin Lindley. At that time, Lindley said, the trend was low numbers of COVID-19 cases in their area. They chose to limit indoor occupancy to 25 percent of the space's capacity, plus require masks and social distancing, no singing and various other safe regulations. They also continue to offer online worship.

However, given the rise in local cases, Lindley said they may soon go back to online-only worship.

Other churches delayed a week or two, including Nichols UMC, Nichols, which resumed in-person June 21.

“Our decision was based on being ready for the more vulnerable among us by making sure the worship space was sanitized and safe,” said Nichols pastor the Rev. Tim Burleson.

Staying outside

Other churches are holding outdoor worship only.

Disciples UMC, Greenville, began “drive-in worship” beginning June 21, where people stay in their cars to participate in a service in the church parking lot, in addition to online live worship.

“Our congregation is mostly older folks who are in the high-risk category, so inside worship wasn’t smart,” said Disciples pastor the Rev. Sandra King. “Drive-in, along with online live worship meets our need for the short future and helps determine how many may return once we re-enter the building. But if the governor reinstitutes stay-home orders, we will suspend drive-inn worship and only offer online, again.”

Franklin UMC, Denmark, is continuing with its Sunday services in the church’s parking lot with communion being served. They also have a Wednesday night teleconference Bible study and a “Saturday Church School” via Zoom.

“Our members were not comfortable with re-entering the sanctuary, so we will continue outdoor services and virtual meetings through June, and then we will re-evaluate,” said the Rev. Minnie Anderson.

New Light UMC, Orangeburg, has been holding “Park and Praise” services in their parking lot since April and plan to continue for the foreseeable future. They broadcast over a radio station so people can sit in their cars for worship and use their air conditioners. Rosa Kennerly-Dance, church lay leader, said attendance has been steady with about 65 people per Sunday and another 50-60 viewing online, plus visitors every Sunday.

“Our financial giving has actually improved, and members like the outdoor service,” Kennerly-Dance said.

At Platt Springs UMC, West Columbia, started parking lot worship June 14, said the Rev. Michael Hood.

“My original intention was to do it for two weeks, then move into the sanctuary, but with the rising numbers of coronavirus cases, I think we're going to be outside for a while,” Hood said.

They are meeting at 10 a.m. right now, but he anticipates moving it to 9 a.m. or trying the evenings soon.

The Rev. Dick Waldrep said his churches, Mount Bethel and Porter’s Chapel in Pickens, are continuing their outdoor services only for now with a mix of people staying in vehicles and sitting in lawn chairs.

“We are making ready established protocols to move into our sanctuaries, (though) with no established date of return,” Waldrep said. “Readiness, age of congregants and rising COVID-19 cases in our area are main factors in our decision.”

The Rev. Shay Long said her churches, Mill Creek and McLeod UMC, Eastover, continue their outdoor-only and drive-in services because of the continued rise in positive COVID-19 tests.

O’Neal Street UMC, Newberry, held its first drive-in worship June 21 using a radio transmitter.

“Some people live close to the church so they were able to listen from home. As for right now, we are continuing with drive-in worship,” said the Rev. Amanda Richardson.

Mauldin UMC, Mauldin, resumed its worship with an outside service June 14 and plans to remain outside for now.

“In the last 48 hours we polled the congregation concerning returning to our buildings for worship,” said the Rev. Webb Belangia. “The vote was 9:1 to remain outside. It seems that most people now understand that COVID-19 is transmitted by breathing in the same air as others. While worshiping outside, about 60-70 percent of our people are wearing a mask.”

Fun but safe

Central UMC, Spartanburg, has been holding outdoor worship Sundays at the amphitheater in Central’s own Central Park, complete with masks and no congregational singing for safety reasons.

“I will say that it was such a joy to be back together in worship in person,” said the Rev. Paige Wolfe, minister of Christian education and programs at Central.

They plan to resume worship in their sanctuary the first Sunday in July. The Rev. Tom Norrell, Central’s senior pastor, wrote what he’s dubbed the “Ten New Commandments for Worship,” a humorous guide to safe worship amid COVID-19.

I wanted to interject some humor while impressing people with the absolute nature of new rules to keep each other safe,” Norrell said.

The commandments are as follows: 1) Do not touch anyone; 2) Stay at least six feet from other people; 3) Place offering in plates located near exits; 4) Wear a mask if you have one; 5) Do not use hymnals or pew Bibles; 6) Pick up your own bulletins; 7) Do not sing; 8) Do not mingle before or after worship; 9) Sit in every other pew; and 10) Do not sit within 6 feet of anyone not in your family.

Norrell said when they do return to the sanctuary, only one in three pews will be open, with many sanitation stations available with masks, gloves and sanitizer.

“I encourage pastors and staff to take a new level of responsibility as shepherds for safety. Now is no time to wait on a committee to do what can be done in two hours,” Norrell said.

Some remain online-only

Other churches, given the continued rise in COVID-19 cases and the health and demographic of their members, continue to suspend in-person worship for now.

The Rev. Bill Masciangelo, pastor of Smyrna UMC, Moncks Corner, said they are delaying in-person worship until at least August.

“Almost my entire congregation is over 65 years of age. Most have underlying health issues. Thus the delay—just to be sure the spread is slowing down,” Masciangelo said.

In the meantime, Masciangelo said, the congregation is enjoying Smyrna’s Facebook Live worship, and they receive a copy of his sermon each week, as well as daily devotionals and prayers.

When the time comes, Masciangelo said, “I’m looking forward to having us together, and those who are willing and able are looking forward to it, as well.”

Other churches remain closed for different reasons, such as Trinity UMC, Conway, whose sanctuary was damaged in last fall’s hurricane.

“We have nowhere to worship other than our parking lot,” said Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Kim Strong. “The congregation was polled, and the vast majority did not want to restart in-person services until requirements for being together were loosened and the effects of COVID loosened. The school where we had been worshipping is closed indefinitely.”

What has your church been doing? Share your thoughts with the Advocate for our August edition. Email [email protected].

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