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story.lead_photo.caption In this screen capture, the Rev. Beau Underwood of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Jefferson City preaches his May 3, 2020, sermon via Facebook. The virtual church services debut on Sunday mornings and are archived for later playback.
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While some congregations are gathering today for the first time in weeks, other Jefferson City church leaders have opted to suspend in-person worship services further amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Missouri's stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which expired May 4, effectively shut down in-person worship services across the state. Many local churches suspended services even before the statewide order, as county advisories began urging social distancing in mid-March.

In guidance for places of worship released as stay-at-home orders lifted, the Cole County Health Department recommends churches protect their congregations' health with measures such as seating families at least 6 feet apart and discouraging personal contact such as hugs and handshakes.

But some churches are finding it more practical and prudent to continue worshipping virtually for the time being.

"For us, it's been about how do we protect our congregation, how are we helping the community get through this — and we don't want to do anything to increase the probability that the community has to endure this for longer," said the Rev. Beau Underwood, senior minister at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Jefferson City.

As many church leaders have found, there's no "right way" to go about getting "back to normal."

"There's no playbook for this. There's a lot of uncertainty; there's a lot of unknowns," Underwood said. "I know that every minister and every church leader in our community is doing the very best that they can in their circumstances for their own individual church."

At First Christian Church, at 327 E. Capitol Ave., Underwood and the church's board have said they won't resume in-person worship until at least June 7, a week after Missouri's current social-distancing order is set to end May 31.

"We're being very cautious ultimately because we love our neighors and we love our congregations," said the Rev. Doyle Sager, lead pastor at First Baptist Church. "My theological conviction is that physical distancing is an expression of servanthood. It's saying, 'You matter at least as much as I matter.'"

First Baptist Church, at 301 E. Capitol Ave. in Jefferson City, hasn't publicized a hopeful reopening date.

"We're trying to sort of plan for the long game not short term — by that I mean because we love our congregation, love our community, we want to be sure that people are healthy 12 months from now, 24 months from now," Sager said. "We're trying to be patient and look at the big picture."

The Rev. Ian Lasch, rector at Grace Episcopal Church, echoed a similar sentiment.

"As much as we long to be back together and worship in person together, doing that prematurely when it could mean making people sick and even leading to serious illness, and loss of life is not something that we want to be living with," Lasch said.

Underwood and Sager expressed concern about congregation members at higher risk for complications from COVID-19, such as older adults and people with compromised immune systems, who might attend in-person services despite Centers for Disease Control guidance encouraging them not to.

All three church leaders wondered at the practicality of maintaining the recommended precautions and how they might affect the quality of worship.

"Even if we had met in person the first Sunday it was available, the worship would have looked so different than what people were used to — it would have looked so radically different that it was almost impoverished," Underwood said.

And not every consideration is as simple blocking off pews or whether to gather for coffee after a Sunday service.

Some concerns have arisen in recent days about whether congregational singing can spread the coronavirus.

Out of caution and without definitive answers, Lasch asked, "Do we need to consider not having a choir and instead having a soloist or duet or instrumental music?"

"In our rush to have fellowship and worship, if it's too convoluted and respectful of the distancing recommendations, we might end up with something that looks like neither," Sager said. "It won't look like fellowship or worship. It won't feel like it if we can't sing, if we can't be closely connected. I'm not saying we won't phase it in, but I think we have to acknowledge that we could create something that doesn't look like or feel like church."

Grace Episcopal Church hasn't yet targeted a specific date to resume in-person services. Following orders from its bishop — based in St. Louis, where COVID-19 has been more pervasive than in Cole County — the church will be closed until at least May 31.

"We have a lot of things to consider in order to make sure that we're taking this very seriously and being as safe as we can possibly be," Lasch said. "There's all sorts of ways to do this wrong and to do harm without intending to."

For churches choosing to wait longer, when to gather in person remains a moving target based primarily on COVID-19 case trends over the next few weeks.

"There is some risk that our communal re-emergence following the shelter-in-place order could lead to a spike in the number of local cases," Underwood wrote in a letter to the First Christian Church congregation. "We hope and pray this is not the case, but waiting this additional time allows us greater confidence that the major threat is over and physically regathering is safe."

Cole County had only three active cases confirmed as of Friday, among 54 total reported in the county since March.

"Our cases are low locally because we are doing our part in keeping distance and following recommended guidelines. For this reason, I stand by many local church leaders' decisions to limit in-person services by continuing to offer virtual options," said Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin, who has worked with several local church leaders as they have discussed reopening.

"Having a gradual reopening for churches, and having respect for those decisions, is extremely appreciated and important," she added. "Reopening with careful thought and a plan will make us stronger into the future and for our friends and family around us."

Many churches will continue offering virtual gathering options whether they reopen now or later.

First Baptist records services ahead of time and posts it online Sunday mornings. First Christian streams its Sunday morning service via Facebook Live. Grace Episcopal livestreams its Sunday service through Zoom and Facebook Live.

"I've been, at least to this point, really impressed with how well everyone has stuck together and how connected everyone stayed," Lasch said. "It feels like we're still in community even though we can't be together."

All three churches' members meet throughout the week for virtual Bible studies, youth groups and prayer meetings.

"We're all longing for normal," Sager said. "I know, as pastor, I'm really aching to be with my people. But part of that is that we have to acknowledge we're living in a time of uncertainty, and as much as we ache for the normal, we have to acknowledge that some things can't be rushed."

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