Local Church In-Person Worship Protocols Refined After Second Test Services in Rural Areas

June 25, 2020

Rev. Blake Busick, Superintendent of the Great Northern District and Superintendent Rev. Debra Brady of the Central Valley District oversaw the implementation of in-person worship protocols in eight California-Nevada United Methodist churches in their districts over the past two weeks.
The Wednesday Webinar on June 23rd was the second of two Zoom panel discussions devoted to hearing feedback from the second set of four churches holding in-person worship services this past Sunday.
“Get as many people as you can [to help],” stated James Woofinden, pastor at Ely UMC, who had one greeter and two ushers to assist with the new protocols but needed to step in when a younger parishioner balked at keeping their mask on. “It’s always nice to have extra people on hand to help. Having that team—that is part of it and, not to do it all on your own.”
Each church had been planning and training teams for more than three weeks after receiving approval from their district superintendent to open their churches to in-person worship services. The pastors stressed the importance of training team members and staff. Teams onsite varied due to each congregation’s needs.
Community UMC in Middletown had 6 people on their planning team. On Sunday there were two ushers—one inside and one outside to manage a congregation of 15. Ely UMC had a 6-person team with three assisting a congregation of 25 on Sunday. Firebaugh-Mendota UMC pastor, Robert Gilberg, had a planning team of 7 with five people onsite to assist an expected attendance of 45-50 people. Modesto Centenary UMC had a team of 10 covering duties overseeing 104 people during two different in-person services.
“Is this too much detail?” asked Mark Vasche, lay leader at Centenary. His team wrote a 43 paged document outlining protocols, schematics, and job descriptions for each different usher.  “The average person coming to church doesn’t need to know that. But the details in the planning really matter. Paying attention to the details as people come in, too—in a loving manner, is important.”
The panel members emphasized the need to communicate with the entire congregation about the approved protocols ahead of time. Most churches used a variety of media including phone calls, mail, email, videos, Zoom conferences and web postings. Signage throughout the building, inside and out, added to visual reminders of the new protocols for attendees on that day.
“We polled our congregation,” said Gilberg. Firebaugh-Mendota UMC set up the social hall instead of the sanctuary for their worship time using the narthex as a sanitizing area limited to one person or family at a time so they can receive temperature screening, hand sanitizer and masks. “We asked, ‘What would make you feel most comfortable regarding attending church?’ and found that 85% listed temperature screening.”
“It is a tremendous amount of work to prepare for,” said Gilberg noting that preparations for the online worship was higher than for the drive-up services and that once set up, in-person worship may not be as difficult. “Now, that it is all set up, it [seems to be] less work.”
And, revisions, even after protocols are submitted, are to be expected especially if the county changes restrictions. Service adaptions are expected too, evolving the worship over time to meet the needs of the local church.
For two services, Vasche recommended a 35-minute service ending with music followed by the second 35-minute service ending with music.
“I highly recommend chopping 15 minutes off the normal service time,” said Woffinden. Although people were very happy to meet face to face, he was concerned about the length of time involved. “People are not used to wearing a face mask that long. I plan to cut a song and shorten the sermon.”
“It was our first week to do Facebook Live, too,” said Woofinden. The church plans to post the Facebook video for future viewing. The church had been averaging 20 to 30 people on Zoom while the church was closed. Now, attendance neared its’ peak with 25 showing up for the in-person worship and four more on Facebook Live. The church ministry plan continues to include a digital presence. “We wanted a way to reach out to new people, those we could not reach by sending out invitations or emailing.”
The discussion also addressed protocols for small groups using church facilities.
Rev. Brady stated that all groups who use the church building must follow the church protocols - masks, 6-feet distance, no food, wiping things down, signage, bathroom cleaning before and after, etc.  Braded noted that this must be included in the church protocol template submitted to the district superintendents. It was noted that churches might find it best to begin a step at a time starting with worship before expanding to other groups.
“There is no need to rush into this,” explained Busick. He asked congregations to evaluate their ministry needs and compare that to the risks involved. Most of the work in opening back up, he noted, was hearing back from people and assessing their buy-in—their willingness to follow the protocols. “Even though all 8 churches had positive outcomes, still two-thirds of the members did not come back—most people are still not coming back. There are good reasons not to open.”
Brady reviewed the evidence that district superintendents are looking for in church protocol plans including addressing the conference protocols, having a team in place, addressing the needs of a church specific site, signage, communication plan and addressing county restrictions. All churches are expected to fill out the conference template after completing their plan and submitting the template to their district superintendent for approval.
“We are going to be different,” concluded Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño. Bishop Carcaño thanked the churches for their hard work and prayed for the safety and ministry of the churches. “We are different already. We’re being different because of what God’s teaching us—so we can be the church God is calling us to be.”
This webinar, the draft protocols and template are available on the conference website at https://www.cnumc.org/covid19