Rev. Carol Harston leads communion at Louisville’s Highland Baptist Church. (Bill Campbell photos)
By Bruce Maples and Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
As the state and nation endure another surge of coronavirus cases, how are Kentucky houses of worship dealing with the pandemic? Has their approach changed from the spring to now? And what are they doing to encourage vaccination? Kentucky Health News reached out to a wide range of them to find out.
In our sampling of faith communities, and parent organizations if they have one, nearly all said the pandemic had taken them through stages, from a full shut-down that lasted months, with all worship services done virtually, to more recently offering in-person services that include a range of social distancing and masking requirements.
The return to in-person services was prompted by a drop in case numbers and the arrival of vaccines, with all of the faith communities looking forward to the day when they could resume most of their normal activities.
But as the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus caused a spike in new cases, many of these same faith communities are moving back to the more cautionary stages that were seen early in the pandemic, with some again going fully masked. A few are moving back to a full shutdown.
“We were just beginning to get back and now we’re going backwards again. . . . It’s tightening back up,” said Gwenda Bizzle, church secretary at First United Methodist Church in Clinton, near the Mississippi River.
Commonalities across communities
We were struck by the similarity of responses to the pandemic among leaders of churches, synagogues and mosques, including looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the governor’s office for guidance, including virtual options for worship.
They also adapted services to ensure the safety of their members by not passing offering plates, discouraging touch during “passing of the peace,” limiting singing, and doing temperature checks.
Some may be guided by the Kentucky Council of Churches, which meets regularly with the governor’s office. It has issued a guide for healthy worship including many of these suggestions.
“We highly recommend that all of our membership listen to and speak to their congregations in accord with recommendations that are put out by the CDC and the doctors who are speaking as far as the help of the state, and and we highly recommended that all peoples be vaccinated that are eligible for it,” said Melissa Holland, interim executive director at the council, which comprises 21 denominational organizations, primarily but not exclusively on the more moderate and liberal side of the Christian faith.
|Highland music associate Austin Echols leads choir in an
anthem he wrote for returning to worship in the sanctuary.
Only one church in our sample had moved back to virtual-only services: Beaumont Presbyterian Church in Lexington, largely driven by the surge of the Delta variant and a positive-test rate that is the highest it’s been since the state started widespread testing.
“We’re going to keep doing this until this surge starts heading in the right direction,” said the pastor, the Rev. Stephen Fearing. He added, “Some people might say that we’re being overly cautious right now. But we’re trying to set the example. I think the church should be a moral example to folks and we really want to set the tone that way.”
Most churches said they provide masks, strongly encourage people to wear them and encourage social distancing, but said they had removed systems that placed six feet of distance between families and now say masks are optional, calling them a personal choice.
“We are encouraging masks, but we are also saying it is your choice; you are grownups, you are adults,” said Senior Minister Larry Wilson at Woodlawn Christian Church in Campbellsville.
Pastor Vince Farrell at Journey Church of Hopkinsville said mask wearing “is your prerogative. You are welcome here with a mask. You are welcome here without a mask.”
Most of faith communities said such decisions were made by their elders, deacons or church councils, and some had boards or committees that included medical professionals from their membership to offer input.
Some communities have found innovative ways to deal with the pandemic.
Journey Church uses colored arm bands to indicate a person’s level of social comfort. Farrell said 85% of his members use green bands, indicating they are comfortable with fist bumps and hand shakes; 12% use yellow, inviting talking but no touching; and 3% use red, which indicate they would rather not socialize.
Woodlawn Christian is not enforcing social distancing in the same way it did at the beginning of the pandemic, Wilson said the Campbellsville church is keeping track of where its members are sitting, to help contact tracing if someone gets the virus.
Pastor Mike Caudill of Hindman First Baptist Church said they recorded more than 20 choir songs while their choir members stood 10 to -12 feet apart and now use those recording during both virtual and regular services.
The Louisville-based Mid-Kentucky Presbytery offered $2,000 grants to churches to help them adapt to virtual worship.
The Chabad House congregation in Louisville made special booths for members so they could pray without risking their health. The prayer booths are transparent (from the waist up) so congregants can see others and feel a sense of community, yet still be protected. Another synagogue is doing funerals in person, but only at gravesides.
|Rev. Jim and Mary Helen England at Highland.
What about vaccinations?
Parent organizations, who do not oversee most of the congregations in Kentucky, offered a list of ways they encouraged people to get vaccinated.
They have encouraged congregations to sponsor vaccine clinics and several have done so, and pastors have been encouraged to mention “God’s gift of the vaccines” in sermons.
Others reported that pastors have made pastoral calls on individual families to inquire about vaccine status and encourage getting vaccinated, with one church in the Mid-Kentucky Presbytery achieving a 100% vaccination rate among its regular attendees.
Another congregation is providing rides or money for Uber or Lyft for members to reach vaccination sites. And one faith community said getting vaccinated is mentioned every week in announcements, and information posted on their web site.
But among the sampling of churches interviewed, few of them are preaching about vaccines from the pulpit.
Wilson, of Campbellsville’s Woodlawn, said he has been forthcoming with people about being fully vaccinated, but said that as a church body, “We have not encouraged nor discouraged anyone from being vaccinated.”
“We do not speak about current culture issues that don’t reflect biblical things,” said Hopkinsville’s Farrell. “So we focus on preaching Jesus and love for one another. And things [like] vaccinations unfortunately have been so politically charged that we don’t bring that into our pulpit.”
Some others approach the touchy subject very differently.
“From the get-go I have been advocating, vocally, for the congregation to get vaccinated,” said Fearing of Beaumont Presbyterian. “I’ve been encouraging them to encourage their co-workers and friends and families to get vaccinated. . . . And our leadership has also been very vocal about that. So it’s not something we’re afraid to bring up. We see it as a theological issue. Getting vaccinated is how we protect our neighbors. So that’s what Jesus calls us to do. So for us, it’s a no brainer.”
Some take a gentler approach.
Caudill, of Hindman First Baptist, said he encourages his congregation to get vaccinated by telling them that he and many people that they know have gotten vaccinated, “So without telling people you’ve got to go get vaccinated, they receive encouragement.”
Some said they encourage people one-on-one to get vaccinated, but not from the pulpit.
“I personally have been very up-front with my recommendation for [the] vaccine,” said Pastor David Grout of Florence United Methodist Church. “I have had a lot of private conversations with people, encouraging them to get them. I’ve tried to counter some of the misinformation that I think is out there about vaccines, but we have not had any kind of official stance or anything.”
The Rev. Alex Lockridge of First Baptist Church in Corbin said, “I do believe churches should be more supportive of the local experts and health-care professionals, and taking what they have taught us and sending it out to our people, using our platform to encourage people to do the right thing.”
Some have poor compliance
Some churches that Kentucky Health News contacted did not return multiple calls for comment on their practices. But, in the videos of recent worship services from three Baptist churches that are posted online, none of the performers on stage wore masks as they sang for the first 20 minutes of the service. And, in the few shots of the congregations, only one person was seen wearing a mask, even as the congregations also sang and greeted one another with hugs and handshakes while standing close together.
Some churches around the state have been the sources of Covid-19 outbreaks. One organizational leader said they have provided guidance to churches, but have no way to make them comply, even though they have felt the deadly effects of the virus.
Another leader, Rev. John Odom of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, shared this personal observation: “One of our congregations … chose to ignore our guidance, ignore the CDC guidelines. They kept worshipping in person, without masks, without social distancing, they kept singing. And last December, when infections spiked here in Kentucky, the church service became a super-spreader event for that congregation, and the pastor and several members ended up in the ICU, and the pastor actually died as a result of Covid infection. Which is a great sadness, but at the same time, God always tells us our actions have implications. We reap what we sow, right?”