Welcome back: Holston churches return to in-person worship

Welcome back: Holston churches return to in-person worship

To prepare church members for new rules and safety measures required before returning to in-person worship, leaders of Central United Methodist Church in Lenoir City made a humorous video set to "Welcome Back, Kotter," the theme song for a 1970s TV comedy.

For the congregations that waded through the paperwork and procedures to return to in-person worship over the last two Sundays, there were rewards along with the challenges.
“Everyone was glad to be in the same room together,” said the Rev. Rhonda Hobbs, pastor at Colonial Heights United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. “You could feel a sweet spirit.”
At Salem United Methodist Church, the resuming of in-person worship on June 21 included baptisms of three persons who learned about the church through online services.
“Through online worship, somebody came to know Jesus Christ and came to church for the very first time,” said the Rev. Lew Kizer, pastor of the church in Blountville, Tennessee. The baptisms were approved by Kizer’s district superintendent.
Since Bishop Dindy Taylor and her task force released an extensive plan on June 1 for Holston Conference churches to reopen their buildings, several congregations have received approval from district superintendents to gather for in-person worship for the first time since COVID-19 caused church shutdowns in March.
Some Holston congregations took all the necessary safety steps -- including cleaning, signage, and chair spacing -- and were ready to offer in-person worship as early as June 14. Several more congregations are developing plans and working with their superintendents to reopen in the weeks ahead.
Based on estimates, about one-third of Holston’s 853 total congregations have already returned to in-person worship. About one-half are expected to have resumed in-person worship by July.
Eight of Holston’s nine district offices shared these numbers with The Call on June 23:
  • In Appalachian District, 38 of 103 total churches have been approved for in-person worship. 
  • In Clinch Mountain District, 55 churches of 107 total churches have resumed in-person worship.
  • In Hiwassee District, 21 of 68 total churches have been approved for in-person worship.
  • In Mountain View District, 52 of 117 total churches have been approved for in-person worship by June 28. Ten more churches have received approval to reopen July 5.
  • In New River District, 60 of 164 total congregations have returned to in-person worship.
  • In Smoky Mountain District, 26 of 72 total churches will have resumed in-person worship services by June 28. Seventeen more churches are approved to resume in the next three weeks.
  • In Tennessee Valley District, 13 of 81 churches were approved to resume in-person worship by June 14. Nineteen more churches are in various stages of approval to return within the next few weeks.
  • In Three Rivers District, 47 churches of 83 total churches are approved to return to in-person worship by June 28.

The reopening plan implemented by Bishop Taylor’s task force states that each district office “will keep a database for each congregation’s plan.”
In areas where coronavirus cases have recently spiked, superintendents may delay approval for in-person worship, Holston leaders have said.
In the Smoky Mountain District, Superintendent Jason Gattis has postponed reopening of Sevier County churches until July 5, since a large increase of new virus cases was reported June 23. “He will keep an eye on that and let them know if there are changes,” said Administrative Assistant Cheryl Thompson.
Following a June 22 New York Times report listing Chattanooga as a coronavirus hot spot, based on highest average daily growth rate of deaths, the leader of Holston’s Scenic South District said he is working closely with Hamilton County congregations to determine next steps.
“Several churches are choosing to wait to open,” said the Rev. Randy Martin. “I consult with the pastor to determine when the church should reopen.”
In the Scenic South District, the Rev. Willie Kitchens said the church he pastors, Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist, has not reopened. However, the church where he serves as a worship leader, Christ United Methodist, resumed in-person worship on June 21.
“People are scared, even with social distancing and having to sit through the whole service with a mask on,” Kitchens said.
Christ UMC in Chattanooga reopens on June 21.

The requirement for all participants to wear face coverings for in-person worship is one of the most difficult precautions for their members to adapt to, some pastors said.
“Some left midway during worship because the masks are hot or they have asthma,” Kizer said. “By creating more rules, we are creating more of an ‘us versus them’ situation.”
At Valley Center United Methodist Church in Scott County, Virginia, worshippers were glad to return to in-person worship under the picnic shelter, said the Rev. Carol Alley. “But it’s hard for my people to understand why they need to wear masks even though they’re outside.”
A conference-wide prohibition on in-person congregational singing, to prevent virus spread through airflow, is also difficult for some pastors to enforce. Alley, for one, said she’s finding ways to help her congregation stay safe.
“I sing a song or two and invite them to hum along,” she said.
Many congregants willingly opt to stay home and participate in online worship, rather than risk infection. Many congregations have decided not to reopen.
“First United Methodist Church in Johnson City [Tennessee] is not in a hurry to return,” said the Rev. Jodie Ihfe. “We are still in early stages of planning, but the planning team and church council are feeling that the challenges of in-person worship are greater than the benefits at this time.”
At Auburn United Methodist Church in Riner, Virginia, the Rev. Knox Wimberly said 60 percent of his members are over age 65, a group identified as at high risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19 illness.
“We’re not ready to reopen although we’re still making preparations for it,” said Wimberly, adding that his members are concerned about an impending spike in coronavirus cases as people begin to travel more.
For the churches that have reopened, most have seen reductions in their in-person worship attendance compared to their pre-pandemic averages. Many have opted for outdoor worship as a safer gathering than indoor worship.
“The vast majority of churches returning to in-person worship are our smallest in attendance,” said the Rev. Kim Goddard, New River District superintendent. “For the most part, they were also congregations in areas with poor internet service or little capability of utilizing technology for online services.”
Located in the New River District, the town of Galax, Virginia, has been in the news in recent weeks for coronavirus case surges, especially in nursing homes. The Rev. Elizabeth Hernandez says her church is trying to play it safe with drive-in worship, although some worshippers complain because they are not allowed inside the building or outside their cars.
“We’re just trying to work with the community and at the same time stay on the same page with the rest of the conference,” said Hernandez, associate pastor at Iglesia Puerta del Cielo Metodista Unida (Door of Heaven UMC).
Before the pandemic, average worship attendance was about 55 at Puerta del Cielo, Hernandez said. Drive-in worship is now attracting about 10 cars and about 40 people.
When Colonial Heights offered its first in-person worship in Knoxville on June 21, twenty-three worshippers attended, compared with the usual 80 in attendance. “Many of our people are in the high-risk group or have family members who are,” Hobbs explained.
Trentville United Methodist Church is hosting about 50 worshippers since it reopened, which is the same as its pre-pandemic average, according to the Rev. Chad Roberts. The recent number includes new people who became familiar with the church through Facebook Live worship.
“Our sanctuary seats 200, so social distancing is not a problem,” said Roberts, pastor of the church in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee.
When Central United Methodist Church offered its first in-person worship on June 21, leaders prepared their congregation for new rules and safety precautions with a humorous video. The "Welcome Back" video is set to the theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” a TV sit-com in the 1970s. (See video below.)
“People were ready and grateful to be back in the worship space. I probably underestimated that,” said the Rev. Scott Layer, senior pastor at the church in Lenoir City, Tennessee. “We put a lot of work into it to try to do it safely. We asked people to let us know they were coming.”
Seventy people indicated they were attending. Total in-person attendance was 101 in one service that blended Central’s two pre-pandemic services. “That’s about 25 to 30 percent of our capacity,” Layer said.
At the same time, Central’s online worship attendance remained strong. Layer said he is encouraged by that, while contemplating the challenges of serving both in-person and online congregations.
When the pandemic closed church buildings, Layer, like many pastors, adjusted to preaching to a camera for online worship. Now he's adjusting to preaching to both the camera and a “sea of masks” in the sanctuary – without benefit of smiles and body language that would normally give him feedback.
“It was a struggle,” he said, “but we’re going to keep doing it.”

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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.