With the ban on indoor worship lifted, San Benito County churches are taking a careful approach to resuming indoor services during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some beginning immediately and others deciding to stay outdoors a little while longer.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling, issued on Feb. 5, stopped California from enforcing its Tier 1 ban on gatherings inside churches. It left intact restrictions on seating capacity, set at 25%, as well as a prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services.
Services resumed right away at Sacred Heart and St. Benedict Catholic Church in Hollister, but while the church may hold 850 people, Father Stephen Akers is seeing a much smaller congregation gathering inside.
“We are limited to 25% of our capacity, but that is more than we have had since last March,” said Akers. “We started having services for about 30 people right away but our larger services will still be outside. It has taken a lot of work to set up and provide a beautiful space for people outside of the church, but people appreciate the ability to come and pray together during these difficult times. We certainly have learned a lot, and people’s expectations have, of course, changed over the months.”
At Christ Fellowship in Hollister, Pastor Mike Hogg said his congregation is content with the way things have been recently and does not plan to change soon.
“We will remain outdoors, weather permitting, until people of our congregation in general feel comfortable moving inside,” Hogg said. “We have been worshiping on a large grass courtyard in the center of our campus and our church actually enjoying being outdoors. Every Sunday is a festival.”
For Pastor Matt Kirkland of South Valley Community Church in Hollister, the greatest issue is the health of his congregation.
“We do not think it is wise at this time to do indoor services,” Kirkland said. “The members of our church feel safer outdoors.”
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is bound by their bishop to hold outdoor services only, which occur once a month. Like other churches, they have expanded outreach to their congregation online.
“We have developed a routine in our church life,” Father Ken Wratten said. “We do bible study, church board meetings, coffee hour—all of it on Zoom. A lot of members of my parish, even with the outdoor services, are staying home. A good amount of that is because a lot of our Sunday attendance is an older group. They are at a higher risk and they really don’t want to be exposed.”
At Christ Fellowship, parishioners who choose not to attend in person can come for a drive-through communion and watch live services online, which are archived for later viewing. In-person Bible study is also available through Zoom.
“While it has been a year that has been a challenge in many ways,” Hogg said, “it has also been a great year of breakthroughs and growth in the overall ministry of our church. We have implemented all the recommendations for social distancing and virus mitigation. Our number of small group gatherings has expanded and we have actually had more visitors than ever. Our ministry to teenagers has grown fivefold. They don’t seem to be fazed by the temperature and they are craving time to be together.”
Kirkland said that his church has been following the same routine they created when the shutdown started last year, with a regular schedule of meetings and services available online.
“When the pandemic first hit, we put in place plans for Worship Wednesdays, Theology Thursdays, Family Fridays, and our worship experience on Sunday mornings,” he said. “We also stream our services. You can find most of it on our Facebook page or our YouTube channel.”
Seniors are a special concern for Kirkland, since they may prefer avoiding in-person services for now but may not be familiar with the technology needed to connect to the church every week.
“For a while, we were seeing about a third of our congregation in person and about a third online,” Kirkland said. “But we had a lot of people who were not connecting online or coming to services, and as a pastor that is always worrisome. We have a regular call tree that reaches out to seniors to make sure they are getting what they need, doing shopping for them, and checking in on them. Some of our congregation have been going through difficult times and the mental health side of what’s going on has been hard.”
The challenge of ministering to a congregation remotely or in small groups might be alleviated by the lifting of the indoor restrictions, said Akers.
“It has been difficult when we have not been able to do what is best for our community as far as services and masses,” he said. “I think our community has shown itself to be resilient and I think people are a lot more spiritually lifted now. And I think we can do more now that our church is open again.”
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