Local UMCs Are Keeping Church Together When Virus Concern Aims to Keep Them Apart

March 13, 2020

 By JB Brayfindley
“Our faith was already designed to work with small groups,” said Rev. George Edd-Bennett pastor at First United Methodist Church of Lodi referring to the historical method of developing Christian disciples through ‘class meetings’ of 12- 15 people, an adaption of which his church is using to address the concerns over COVID-19.
“Our faith should be the part of our life we rely on most in a time of crisis,” noted Edd-Bennett who is concerned about his members being isolated at a time when they need their church the most.  “Isolation is a danger,” he added.
That is why this Sunday, his church will be presenting a new program entitled “Watching Over One Another in Love.”
Similar to the class meeting, small groups, called “Compassionate Care Groups,” will be organized with no more than 20 people each. The cell groups will be comprised of individuals who tend to sit together in worship and orient around one another. The volunteer leaders will be trained next week. The hope is that each group will pray for one another and make weekly check-ins.
And, if someone does become sick and cannot attend church, they will be encouraged to stay home. To maintain contact with that individual, their group will send handwritten notes and the pastor, parish nurse, group leader will check-in via phone calls.
In the contingency of a church closure, Lodi First plans to use the groups as a basis for creating multiple services.
“Isolation is a necessary protection, but it is also destructive,” said Rev. Rod Brayfindley serving First United Methodist Church (FUMC) in Sacramento whose worship attendance was down by a third last week and anticipates further decline this Sunday. “So, we are finding ways to keep people connected even if they’re at home.”
FUMC is currently working on enhancing their website and Facebook presence to include live streaming of Sunday worship, video updates from the pastor and other church leaders along with added access to other online resources. The church recently added a weekly inspirational email called, “Our Shared First Word” that contains the coming Sunday morning scripture reading and plans to add more of this type of regular email contact.

“Because I have some church people who cannot do emails or have access to the internet, I will be making additional phone calls in addition to all our other steps,” added Brayfindley. Other measures include maintaining meal programs and keeping doors open to various AA groups keeping the building as well as continually and rigorously sanitizing the site. FUMC is one of many churches making arrangements to serve the public by handing out take home bags and To Go plates of food instead of feeding groups inside their building.
Also, the church is asking members to do something special on Sundays. In a recent church wide email, Brayfindley asked those who stay at home on Sundays to do several things:
“First, say a prayer of love to God and pray love and protection of others and your church in this difficult time,” wrote Brayfindley. “And, either do a ‘Digital Act of Kindness’ or make a phone call, send a letter or love on a family member.”
Then, he requested people give their offerings through the mail or electronically.
Next, he asked that they email him or call him personally to tell him about how they are, share about people who nourish them and what topics they might want covered in future messages or would like to chat about.
Last, he encouraged people to go to church on Facebook or the church’s website during the normal service time to view the service via live streaming.
Many churches are serving their congregations through increased online resources.
According to Shannon Murray, office manager at Woodland United Methodist church, the church has been recording the pastor’s message every week via online streaming for their webpage and Facebook page but have recently started recording and posting the entire worship service.
But online streaming might not be a viable option for some churches. For some congregations, thinking out of the box is required to help meet the needs during this time.
“Some of our frail seniors are not coming to church, yes,” said Rev. Robin Mathews-Johnson serving Watsonville First United Methodist Church and whose attendance actually went up Sunday. “But, now, I’m particularly worried about our families in poverty who do not have the resources to stay at home without working their hourly jobs…yes, you can do virtual church but that’s not going to work for us.”
“Until ordered to close, I’m thinking of dividing the church membership in half, and starting “Dinner Church” on Sunday evenings to feed our families with children, to ensure we fall below the 50 people limit…and to offer them a safety net,” added Mathews-Johnson referring to a program she learned about at workshop she attended at the Gathering of the Orders in January, a worship design similar to Messy Church.
“The Holy Spirit will help us be creative,” said Mathews-Johnson. “We have a lot of loving energy here… we are called by the Holy spirit to be creative in how we serve other, in how we worship together! It’s an opportunity to show our faith and see where God calls us-- to do what Jesus would do.”