Services across the diocese evolve as churches cope with pandemic realities

Outdoor church service
Outdoor service at Grace Cathedral, Topeka

On May 1 Bishop Cathleen Bascom issued guidelines under which churches of the diocese could resume having in-person worship services, after eight weeks away, beginning on May 24. Since then, 27 of the diocese’s 44 churches have done that, usually offering communion in one kind (bread only) or celebrating a spiritual communion. Of the remaining churches, most offer services only online, and four have begun small outdoor services.These churches provide a mix of spiritual communion and Morning Prayer. Two churches resumed in-person worship in July but had to return to online-only services after virus cases spiked in their area. And even churches worshiping in-person are continuing to provide online options, too, for those who can’t attend or who prefer to participate from home.

Two churches resumed in-person worship in July but had to return to online-only services after virus cases spiked in their area.

And even churches worshiping in-person are continuing to provide online options, too, for those who can’t attend or who prefer to participate from home.

And whether in-person or outdoors, the bishop’s May directives remain in place. Masks are required for everyone, and people have to keep 6-feet distance from anyone not in their family. There is no singing, and no food or drink can be part of any fellowship time.

Church size plays a role

The 44 churches of the diocese have an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), as reported on the 2019 parochial report, ranging in size from 310 people to 5. Eight churches have an ASA of more than 100, ranging from 310 to 121. Four churches have an ASA greater than 50 (a range of 98 to 77). The remaining 32 churches average fewer than 50 people.

When looking at what service churches now are offering, size appears to be a strong determinant (see the chart above) — the smaller the church, the more likely it is to be offering in-person worship.

This may reflect small congregations with large worships spaces that make physical distancing easier to maintain. It could be that smaller churches frequently are in smaller cities and towns where the number of coronavirus cases can be lower. Whatever the cause, the difference between the current worship practices of larger and smaller congregations is significant.

Making things work

St. Mary’s, Galena, was one of three churches that welcomed worshipers back into the building on May 24. John Smittle, the senior warden, said the congregation already had decided to return to the church as soon as the bishop announced it was possible. “Since our congregation is small it was easy to social distance,” he said. Areas are marked to keep people 6 feet apart, and Ena Smittle, his wife, provides organ music.

Members of Calvary, Yates Center also resumed in-person worship on May 24, with communion in one kind, and its vicar, the Rev. Helen Hoch, said she sometimes has to stop herself from singing along with the instrumental music.

Good Shepherd, Wichita, and St. David’s, Topeka, are the largest churches that have resumed in-person
worship. Good Shepherd waited until July 18 to do so, and limits attendance to 30 people in two weekly services in its Fellowship Hall (for better distancing), with sign-ups required. The rector, the Rev. Andrew O’Connor, said keeping members informed about all the deliberations and decisions being made by the Vestry has been imperative and helpful. Those services also are streamed live on Facebook for everyone who can’t be in church.

The Rev. Vicki Smith of St. David’s said that health department guidelines have allowed as many as 90 or as few as 45 people to meet in-person, so it is critical that they continue to livestream. They do that via Zoom instead of Facebook, she said, “because the community connection is important to us. People are able to talk with each other before and after the service.”

The Rev. Casey Rohleder, rector of St. Luke’s, Wamego, said her church will always mix in-person and online, since only about one-fourth of the congregation so far comes to the church for services.

And that isn’t unique. Most churches meeting in-person say online will remain a crucial form of worship for them.

Starting outdoors

outdoor altar
Outdoor altar at St. Thomas’, Overland Park

The Rev. Gar Demo, rector of St. Thomas’, Overland Park — the largest church in the diocese by ASA — said the church currently is offering four outdoor worship services for groups of no more than 20 people, with communion in one kind.

Demo said he and the Vestry are basing their decisions on specific criteria about local coronavirus cases. He said they initially thought the church could return to in-person worship in July, but cases in Johnson County began to rise. “Sticking with the out-of-doors worship and gatherings made sense, he said.

Now they are guided by two virus-related numbers — the case positivity rate and cases per 100,000 people. The county has created green, orange and red zones for each criteria. The red zone for two consecutive, 7-day periods means the church suspends any indoor activities and might reduce numbers for outdoor worship. But if those numbers turn green for 14 days, they will start in-person worship.

“The thinking is that this is a science-based determination that removes emotion from the decision and also gives us a clear way to gauge activity,” he said.

The Very Rev. Torey Lightcap, dean of Grace Cathedral, Topeka, said after the bishop issued her May 1 guidelines, he and others went into the cathedral nave to measure seats 6 feet apart. He said that would yield about 104 people, far fewer than the 500-plus the pews normally hold. But after seeing a June ordination service with 38 people attending, Lightcap said even that number felt crowded to him.

He said he and the Vestry had many conversations about resuming indoor, in-person worship, “and it seemed there would be too many risks, too many outliers, too many things that could pop up and go wrong, in order for people to feel safe.”

In mid-July they opted for small (about 60 people on average) services early on Sunday morning in the courtyard between the cathedral and the office building. “This feels about right,” Lightcap said, “so we are sticking with this going forward. We try things, and we learn.” In bad weather the service moves into the large parish hall.

Picking the virtual lane

The Rev. David Cox is rector of St. Michael and All Angels in Mission, the diocese’s second-largest church. He said members who are medical professionals have offered valuable advice to him as a Covid-19 task force, and their expertise, plus the growing number of cases in Johnson County this summer, told him that a planned mid-July return to in-person worship just wasn’t feasible.

Because of that, he has told the parish there will not be in-person worship for “the foreseeable future.” He suspects that means a year from now.

He said that the constant planning for multiple scenarios had become a drain on everyone in the church. “We needed to pick a lane,” he said. “I have chosen the virtual lane.”

They maintain a robust online worship schedule on Sunday mornings, along with other weekly or monthly services. Some outdoor activities may be in the mix, too. “We are trying to think creatively but wisely,” he said.

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