As news of the coronavirus pandemic grows more alarming, pastors and members of Holston’s 864 churches seem to accept they'll be away from their beloved congregations and sanctuaries for a longer period than first anticipated.
Late on March 18, Bishop Dindy Taylor extended her initial two-week mandate to cease public worship by announcing that church buildings will close "until further notice.”
“The good news is medical experts know social distancing is helping slow the spread of the virus,” Taylor said. “The bad news is it is still spreading.”
On March 17, the bishop's office announced the Alcoa Conference Center is closed to the public and meetings must be postponed. Holston Conference staff are required to continue working in the office, unless they make other arrangements with their supervisors or use banked vacation and sick days, according to an email notice.
Also this week, General Conference organizers determined they have no choice but to postpone the denomination’s top legislative assembly, scheduled May 5-15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
"This news is not unexpected based on the current guidance from health officials and we expect to move forward with new plans as quickly as possible,” said Kim Simpson, chair of the General Conference commission.
Meanwhile, Holstonians are responding to church and government orders to close down, stay home and stay away from other people by creating new ways to worship, give and serve.
Concerned about loss of tithes, Holston staff created an online giving link to help local churches who still depend on passing the offering plate for income.
At Holston.org/churchoffering, people will find an easy way to give directly online to any local church in Holston Conference. The 3% cost for the transaction will be paid by Holston Conference, while 100 percent of the gift will be forwarded to the designated local church.
After Taylor’s mandate to cease public worship, clergy rebounded quickly to provide online worship and devotions through social media, live stream, and video in time for Sunday worship on March 15.
“Pastor Randall Wright at Glen Alpine United Methodist Church shared a wonderful online message this morning,” said Elaine Steadman Faust in a post on Holston’s Facebook page. “Yes, I missed seeing my church family. This day has felt very different, but through faith and prayer we will all get through this very trying time.”
Many pastors and church leaders said they were grateful to see colleagues preach or to join in more than one online worship service not only because the options were so plentiful, but also because they were free from their Sunday-morning routine.
“Thanks to technology and all the work pastors, staffs and musicians did to put the worship services together, I was able to watch and worship with Burks UMC in Hixson and Broad Street UMC in Cleveland,” Debra Miller said on Holston’s Facebook page.
Communications Director Tim Jones invited pastors to share their online addresses for a cumulative list of worship offerings available throughout Holston. (See Holston.org/worshipresources for the growing list.)
Through email, Jones also asked churches with equipment and skills to share with others who need help to set up online worship and devotions. “We realize online worship is new or foreign to many of our churches, but others of you are veterans and are doing great things with this style of ministry,” Jones said. (Email email@example.com.)
At Tyner United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, the Rev. Ty Harrison and a team that provides monthly drive-through prayer saw an opportunity to expand the ministry.
Last night, Tyner began offering drive-through Holy Communion on Wednesday evenings 5-7 p.m. and on Sundays 10 a.m. to noon.
"This will keep our congregants connecting as well as being an outreach to the community,” Harrison said. “We feel this is a very effective way to minister in our current situation, and it would be a great ministry for United Methodist churches throughout Holston to do as well.” (See Tyner's drive-through communion video.)
Other church members and leaders sprang into action to provide new or expanded services to home-bound families or to the communities they could no longer serve as intimately.
Last week, Holston collegiate ministers began to brainstorm ways to offer wifi, food, and counseling to college students unable to return to home after residence halls closed and on-campus classes were switched to online.
When Wesley House Community Center in Knoxville announced a need to supply food for senior citizens and children who are usually served inside the building, several churches responded with food and gift-card donations.
In Rosedale, Virginia, Elk Garden School Community Ministry closed its thrift store and moved food distribution for families to a drive-through operation in the parking lot.
“If you need internet access for your child to complete schoolwork, you are welcome to use our parking lot,” the Rev. Brooke Atchley announced to clients earlier this week. “We have picnic tables or you can sit in your car."
While sharing reports that the homeless population is among the most vulnerable to coronavirus infection, the Rev. Will Shewey announced March 17 that Shades of Grace United Methodist Church in Kingsport was temporarily closed as a day center.
Yet 160 meals were served within two days outside the Shades of Grace buildings, he said. Other neighbors were assisted with utility payments, blankets, dry clothing, medical co-pays, and a hand-washing station.
“We’ve been in conversation with other ministries this week, trying to have a plan in place concerning any homeless person who potentially may become infected with the virus,” Shewey said.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
Ministry leaders in Holston Conference are bracing for economic shortages related to the spread of COVID-19, which is keeping people home, shutting down ministries, and eliminating traditional ways of making financial gifts. In response, ministry ...
March 18 update: Bishop Dindy Taylor has closed Holston churches until further notice. "The good news is medical experts know social distancing is helping slow the spread of the virus. The bad news is it is still spreading," she said. "Like you, we ...