“Our biggest concern was having an available bathroom to use or somewhere to go in case of inclement weather, instead of simply canceling our outdoor service,” said Herron, pastor at Apison United Methodist Church in Apison, Tennessee.
When Bishop Dindy Taylor issued a Sept. 16 statement permitting all Holston Conference churches to meet indoors after months of closures caused by rising coronavirus cases, many congregations hurried inside their buildings the following Sunday to worship again in person.
Not all did, however. Apison was one of several churches opting to continue outdoor worship for now.
“Numerous families explained how they actually preferred the outdoor service because many of them have children and it is easy for them to spread out” using blankets and portable play yards, Herron said. Older worshippers also said they feel safer while sitting in their cars and listening to Apison’s outdoor service from the parking lot.
The Call contacted Holston’s district offices to inquire how many churches returned to indoor worship on Sept. 20, immediately after Bishop Taylor’s announcement. Taylor stipulated that churches must meet and follow safety measures to the satisfaction of their district superintendents. She also suggested churches continue worshipping outdoors “as long you can, because it is a safer way to gather.”
The New River District office reported 92 churches returned to in-person worship this past Sunday.
“We have 33 churches still continuing the drive-in services, even though some of those have approved plans for indoor worship but like the atmosphere of the outdoor church while the weather permits,” said Joanna Corvin, administrative assistant.
Thirty-eight New River congregations are “still primarily doing online services,” Corvin said. “Almost all the pastors are continuing an online service or presence.”
The Rev. Kim Goddard, New River District superintendent, pointed out that since the pandemic caused closures beginning in March 2020, all her churches have reopened for in-person worship at some point, whenever COVID-19 cases dropped. “I had two counties, Giles and Pulaski, that never had to close for high numbers once they were allowed to go back [in early June].”
The Three Rivers District office reported 28 congregations returned to indoor worship on Sept. 20.
“Thirty churches continued with outdoor worship,” said Betty Yeomans-Barton, Three Rivers administrative assistant. “At least two of those are going to indoor worship on Sept. 27. This means 21 of our churches are either still closed or have not notified us they have returned [to in-person worship].”
In the Tennessee Valley District, the Rev. Ann Robins said, “Most of our churches stayed the course with their current plans, outdoor and online. Many are preparing to be back in the building this week or next.” Robins is Tennessee Valley District superintendent.
The Rev. Melissa Spiers, a pastor in Scenic South District, said she surveyed her members about worship preferences at Paynes Chapel United Methodist Church in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
“In a group of around 10 people, I was surprised to have a nearly unanimous decision to keep meeting outside as long as we could,” Spiers said.
“We are fortunate that we have a wonderful place to gather as we have a pavilion right outside the fellowship hall. The beauty of God’s creation is all around us,” Spiers added. One church member said he loved meeting outside “because so many people drive by and point or wave while we are holding services.”
In Greene County, Tennessee, the Rev. Mark Laughlin wants to meet the needs of all his congregants, so on Sept. 20 he moved from offering a drive-through service to a new schedule with both indoor and outdoor worship.
The indoor services happened Sunday morning at Hermon United Methodist Church (9:45 a.m.) and Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church (11 a.m.). On Sunday afternoon, Laughlin started a new outdoor worship in the pavilion at Pleasant Hill (4 p.m.). He's also continuing to provide worship through Facebook Live.
“I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess,” said Laughlin. “But we have people who are immunocompromised, who weren’t exactly comfortable coming back into the church, and they don’t have computer access. I don’t want them to be excluded from the church they’ve attend all their lives.”
Laughlin is a full-time employee at a nursing home that saw 73 residents test positive for COVID-19. Ten residents died. So the pastor said he’s especially sensitive to the health concerns of his members, while understanding the desire of others to return to sanctuary worship.
In Blountville, Tennessee, the Rev. Lynn Sorrell has been offering worship by conference call to about 17 church members throughout the summer. When the pandemic caused churches to be closed to in-person worship this spring, Sorrell realized less than one-third of his congregants had computers. "But everybody has a phone.”
Sorrell’s conference calls have been well received by Cross United Methodist Church, whose members average age 70.
However, as soon the bishop allowed it, Cross members were anxious to get back into the sanctuary for worship on Sept. 20. “Everybody was so glad to be back together. The conference call just didn’t feel the same, especially with an older group like that.”
Social distancing was easy to arrange for 14 worshippers meeting in a sanctuary that seats 100, Sorrell said.
Goddard said she also experienced indoor worship last weekend, when she preached for homecoming at Rocky Gap United Methodist Church in Rocky Gap, Virginia.
“It felt wonderful to me to be inside, even with the precautions," Goddard said. "They had planned to meet outside but it was about 50 degrees so it was a real blessing to be able to worship inside.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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