Houses of worship face issues aplenty as they discern how best to safely resume in-worship services that were largely paused in mid-March amid the rise of COVID-19 in the state.
The issues are complex, and churches vary widely.
“It’s unique to every church,” said the Rev. Will Rambo, senior pastor of the Orchard Tupelo. “Each one is different. Size. Ages. Building. We are just wanting to be wise.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves last week issued a set of advisory guidelines churches can consult. Reeves has consistently maintained that he cannot directly order churches to cease physical gatherings, but he has repeatedly asked churches to voluntarily use no-contact options for worship, including online streaming video or drive-in services.
But speaking last week, Reeves signaled that he thinks the time for “a safe path forward” is nearing. Caution, however, continued to mark the Republican governor’s words.
“I would encourage you to considering waiting at least another week or two, perhaps till June 1 before you start instituting these guidelines,” Reeves said in a press briefing. “I believe in my heart that our church is not a building. We can honor our Lord, and still keep our neighbors safe. You don’t have to rush back. We do want to provide a playbook for the best way to do it as safely as possible, but we want our pastors to determine when that time is right.”
The advisory guidelines call for clergy and faith leaders to consider some of the following measures:
• Deep clean church buildings before physical services resume, and continue to frequently sanitize buildings, especially surfaces such as door handles, faucets and any shared objects
• Space non-family members apart within services, going to multiple services if needed to accommodate
• Do not take up an offering by passing a collection plate
• Do not pass a common cup, as is done for communion in some faith traditions
• Limit the use of choirs
• Avoid shared microphones
Local pastors emphasized that similar guidelines are now widely circulating among clergy networks and denominational groups.
The Rev. Tim Brown, of East Heights Baptist Church in Tupelo, said he’s read widely and is distilling down the recurring ideas into a plan that is applicable for his church, which has been conducting drive-in services as weather allows.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel,” Brown said. “I’m taking the best of the plans.”
East Heights has selected June 14 as the date for its return to physical worship services, with Sunday School, small group and evening services still on pause.
In order to accommodate social distancing without offering multiple services, the church will stream a live feed of the service at its onsite gymnasium.
Brown acknowledged that some adjustment will be required by the church’s congregation.
“We are preparing for when people get up and walk around and mingle, we are going to have people very graciously and nicely discourage that,” Brown said. “We have the plan in place of how to deal with that.”
Even as Brown, in conjunction with a church team, has selected a date, other houses of worship remain in flux.
Jackson, at First United Methodist, said there will be services before June 21, and a committee will on that date make a fresh evaluation of how to proceed.
“We anticipate having a three or four phase process,” Jackson said.
A phased plan also marks how Harrisburg Baptist Church plans to resume services. The church is currently in “phase two” of its plan, with physical worship gatherings not resuming until “phase three.”
“We think phase three is on the horizon,” said the Rev. Rob Armstrong in a video available on the church’s website. “June 14 is the date we’re aiming for, but if we’ve learned anything in this pandemic, we need to be flexible.”
The process looks different depending on a church’s tradition of governance. Baptist congregations will make decisions about reopening on their own, even as pastors may confer with each other for advice.
Other traditions, such as the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches, are led by bishops who preside over geographic regions and hold the final decision-making authority about resuming services within their dioceses.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz leads the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, which includes north Mississippi. He has called for in-person celebration of Mass to resume beginning May 30, in time for the Feast of Pentecost, with restrictions in place.
Mississippi’s Episcopal Bishop Brian Seage has not announced a date for that church’s parishes to resume in-person services.
The Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church is led by Bishop James E. Swanson Sr. He has asked Methodist congregations to halt in-person worship till at least the end of May, with guidelines for churches to follow as appropriate thereafter.
Even in churches where final decision-making authority occurs locally, larger congregations with multiples services in different locations must manage congregations and buildings that have different needs.
The Orchard, for example, currently aims to resume in-person worship on June 14, but includes three churches in Tupelo, with additional congregations in Baldwyn, Oxford and Starkville. These congregations range from small to large and meet in different kinds of facilities.
“Our campuses are very different in size and makeup,” Rambo said. “We have the same questions every site has to answer.”
Even as churches steer back toward familiar patterns of worship, Rambo insisted that the status quo is not a good enough goal.
“My hope is not simply a return to what it used to be,” Rambo said. “I hope that me, my family, our church, I hope there are things we learn in this season that we do not forget. I want to have new eyes and a new heart.”
Jackson echoed that message.
“We can use this in a positive way,” Jackson said. “We didn’t want this to happen, but rather than letting it defeat us, we can use it.”