Jefferson City church leaders have been considering when and how to resume in-person services after Missouri's statewide stay-at-home order ends.
"It's uncharted waters for all of us," said the Rev. Brian Credille, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Jefferson City. "I don't know how it's going to go, but we know that the Lord is going to provide what we need."
Gov. Mike Parson's executive order imposing a statewide stay-at-home order to prevent spread of the coronavirus, which began April 6 and expires after today, effectively shut down in-person worship services across Missouri. Although the order allowed for travel to places of worship, social distancing requirements and limits on social gatherings led many churches to suspend services. Many local churches did so even before the governor's action, as county advisories began urging residents to limit travel as early as mid-March.
But even as the way is clear legally for church gatherings to resume, there's no clear path on how best to do so safely — leaving many decisions up to individual pastors.
"There's no playbook," said the Rev. Trevor Dancer, pastor at First United Methodist Church of Jefferson City. "They don't teach you this in seminary."
Trinity Lutheran Church, at 803 Swifts Highway in Jefferson City, has been offering weekend services via livestream since mid-March and will resume some in-person worship next weekend, May 9-10.
"We're going to focus on worship and worship only for at least through the end of May — so no additional in-person things like Bible studies or Sunday school," said the Rev. Sam Powell, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Jefferson City.
It won't necessarily be a return to full normalcy for the church, where an average weekend sees attendance of 500 people.
After churchgoers leave the 8 a.m. Sunday service, a cleaning crew will sanitize all public spaces before the morning's second service. The offering will be collected in the back of church instead of plates being passed around. At least every other pew will be blocked off to allow for physical distancing.
"Because of the size of the congregation, we're still wrapping our minds around, 'Will we ask folks to basically sign up for a service?'" Powell said. "We're blessed to have a very large sanctuary. We can do social distancing very well in our sanctuary."
The Cole County Health Department, in guidance for places of worship as stay-at-home orders lift, recommends families sit in church together as a group but stay at least 6 feet from other families. Personal contact such as hugs and handshakes should be strongly discouraged.
Public celebration of Mass and parish activities in the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City — which comprises 95 Catholic parishes across 38 counties in central and northeastern Missouri, including Immaculate Conception, St. Joseph and St. Peter parishes in Jefferson City — was suspended in late March by a decree from Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, which extends through today.
The bishop issued new instructions for pastoral activities last week, which outline precautions to be taken before, during and after public Masses, such as cleaning high-use areas before and after each service, removing all hymnals, having communion ministers wear masks and use hand sanitizer, and limiting attendance if necessary to maintain appropriate social distancing.
St. Peter Catholic Church, at 216 Broadway St., announced Friday in a Facebook post it will resume daily public Masses on Monday, with an adjusted schedule. Among health precautions the church will observe are limiting attendance to approximately 200, requiring ushers to seat parishioners, and not admitting any additional people after Mass begins.
Cornerstone Baptist Church, at 4930 Old Lohman Road, also will resume in-person worship May 10.
"We know there are still going to be many people who aren't going to be comfortable going out," Credille said.
Where Cornerstone would normally welcome Sunday attendance of about 160 across one morning and one evening service, with many attending both, the church for now will hold two identical morning services and has asked people to attend only one. So far, 40-50 families have indicated they will attend next Sunday, Credille said last week.
The church will practice similar social-distancing and sanitizing efforts as recommended by the Health Department.
"It's in the DNA of this church to want to really give people a hug and shake their hand, but we're not going to be doing that at least until the social distancing is lifted — and it may never be exactly the same again because people are going to have a different feeling then, and we have to be respectful of people's concerns," Credille said. "But we can still worship the Lord and love each other; we just have to do it in a different way."
First United Methodist Church of Jefferson City will use a staggered approach to bringing people back into its building — with in-person worship not expected to resume until at least mid-June.
"I believe we have a responsibility to make sure that we can keep not just our congregation but our community as safe as possible," Dancer said. "Instead of just jumping right in, we just wanted to be careful and cautious."
The church, at 201 Monroe St., will begin by bringing staff back to work in the building throughout May, eventually allowing gatherings of 10 or fewer people, then gatherings of 50 or fewer people, and ultimately reopening to full in-person worship.
First United Methodist has had the benefit of established virtual worship that pre-dates the pandemic.
"For years, we've been broadcasting services. We have the equipment and the knowledge and the experience to do it well, and not every church has that," Dancer said.
Having a reason to begin offering virtual services has been a blessing in disguise for some churches.
"We've realized how many people out there who maybe have other kinds of health problems or limitations, that will be an ongoing thing that will be a help to them," Credille said of Cornerstone Baptist, which will continue livestreaming services.
Trinity Lutheran Church leaned on its adjoining school's athletic director, Ryan Dubberke, who was a "godsend" as he had experience and the equipment to stream basketball and volleyball games, Powell said.
"We're going to consider our livestream for the foreseeable future," Powell said. "We know that there are those that are going to stay away for the time being, and we want to work to accommodate them."
Still, holding worship services virtually can be a lonely experience, and churches have found new ways to feel connected.
Trinity Lutheran's livestreamed services have included just two pastors, Dubberke as livestream coordinator, a sound board operator, and one or two musicians.
"Right before we got to do one of our Sunday services livestreamed, our office manager had her kids put photos from our last directory up in our rectory along with pictures from our students — so we had a couple hundred faces looking back at us, which made us realize we weren't alone entirely," Powell said.
It's one example of how churches have been finding the light even in the darkness of the current situation.
"I think it's been a real time of people drawing closer together as families and also drawing closer to God. I think this has brought into focus what is most important because so many of the things that distract people have been taken away, and they have realized just how important God is in their lives," Credille said. "It's been a terrible thing, but we now that God can bring good even out of what is terrible. We'll pray that that will happen."