As virus cases surge, Holston leaders rely on data, compassion

As virus cases surge, Holston leaders rely on data, compassion

The Rev. David Graybeal leads outdoor worship at Keith Memorial United Methodist Church in Athens, Tennessee, earlier this month. Since then, in-person worship services for all United Methodist churches in McMinn County have been suspended through July.

District superintendents use words like “hard” and “tough” when describing what’s going on with COVID-19 and churches right now.

The Rev. Ann Robins said last Friday was “hard” when she called 31 church leaders in the Tennessee Valley District to suspend in-person worship in three counties (Knox, Anderson, Claiborne) through the end of the month.

The Rev. Hugh Kilgore said it was “tough” when he had to stop in-person worship in Hiwassee District last week for churches in Bradley and McMinn Counties. Yesterday, he had to break the same news to churches in Rhea County.

“Our pastors understand, but they’re anxious,” said Kilgore, Hiwassee District superintendent. “They’re anxious about their people. They’re anxious about their finances. All that together and it’s a hard time. I understand that.”

As coronavirus cases and deaths continue to surge in parts of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, district superintendents in Holston Conference are daily monitoring and analyzing data to help keep people in their churches safe.

For weeks, pastors and their teams have jumped through hoops and followed safety guidelines in order to welcome back worshippers to church property after a long absence since the pandemic was declared in March. Asking them to close the building again and return exclusively to online worship is difficult, superintendents say.

“We may be doing everything right in our churches but unfortunately, the general public is not,” said the Rev. Jason Gattis, Smoky Mountain District superintendent.  

On July 14, Gattis announced that activities in all 72 churches of Smoky Mountain District are suspended through the rest of July.

“Over the past two weeks, active cases for Blount, Knox, Loudon, and Sevier have risen 357%, 155%, 117%, and 57% respectively,” Gattis explained in his announcement. “Some reports say testing is so high, there is a backlog in reporting. Needless to say, things are not improving and as Christians we are called to do our part in stopping the spread.”

Holston district superintendents are currently relying on data managed by the Harvard Global Health Institute, tracking every county in the United States. The website allows the Cabinet to use the same metric for all of Holston’s three states (Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia). Risk-level determination is based on a case rate per 100,000 population.

When a county logs in enough virus cases to reach an orange (“accelerated”) or red (“tipping point”) risk level, district superintendents work together to suspend church activities throughout the county.

Last week, virus cases in Sullivan County, Tennessee, increased by double digits almost every day, said the Rev. Jeff Wright, Appalachian District superintendent. United Methodist churches in Sullivan County reside in three districts: Appalachian, Clinch Mountain, and Three Rivers.

Wright said he worked with the Rev. Lauri Jo Cranford (Three Rivers) and the Rev. Jane Taylor (Clinch Mountain) to suspend in-person activities throughout Sullivan County last Friday. “We felt the upward swing warranted the action.”

In New River District, the Rev. Kim Goddard said she monitors areas with the highest cases per capita along with the lowest. Galax leads the state of Virginia in COVID-19 cases per capita, with as many as 58 per 100,000.

“It has been horrible, especially in the nursing homes in that area,” said Goddard, New River District superintendent. “The city of Galax borders Carroll County, and Carroll also has higher numbers.”

Galax and Carroll County churches have both been closed to in-person worship since March, Goddard said, “though some were gathering for outside or drive-in services. Outside worship has now been suspended for two weeks, and we will re-evaluate on July 27.”

Meanwhile, Bland County has had three total virus cases. Excluding Carroll County, the other nine counties of New River District have also ranged very low on the Harvard scale. “We are praying that is a trend that continues,” Goddard said.

In Clinch Mountain District, Taylor said yesterday “alarming reports” had just come from Smyth County, even though the Harvard metric didn’t show high cases in that county.

“Ten employees of the Smyth County sheriff’s department tested positive, the Smyth County Courthouse closed, and the Saltville, Virginia, town hall closed,” Taylor said. “So as of this morning, Smyth County churches are closed through the end of the month.”

In-person worship is also currently suspended in Grainger, Claiborne, Cocke, Hamblen, Hancock and Jefferson Counties in the Mountain View District. In Scenic South District, in-person worship is suspended in Hamilton, Sequatchie, and Marion Counties. In Three Rivers District, indoor worship is suspended in Carter, Greene, and Washington Counties, although outdoor and drive-in worship are currently allowed.

District superintendents shared the Harvard metric website with their pastors and other church leaders, so they could monitor coronavirus cases in their own counties and remain on the same page with the Cabinet.

“When they hear from me in the future, it shouldn’t be a surprise,” Robins said.

While some church members are content to stay safe at home and worship online, some are frustrated by precautions that keep them from worshipping together with others in their beloved sanctuaries.

Robins says she understands that frustration.

“They just want what has nurtured their souls in the past ... but we’ve got to find ways to do it differently,” she said. “Our end goal is to keep people safe and nurture souls at the same time.”

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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.