Churches Take Creative Measures to Connect in Wake of COVID-19, Large Gatherings Ban

Sacred Heart Catholic Church confession. Submitted by Keith Kitzhaber.

As Coronavirus Puts Pause on Worship Services, Churches Work to Keep Up Spiritual Connections

Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) A mandate by Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday to ban gatherings of 10 or more people in Wisconsin to help slow the spread of coronavirus has churches taking creative measures to reach their congregations.

[Related: Gov. Evers Directs DHS to Limit Gatherings to Less Than 10 to Slow Spread of COVID-19]

Like other area churches, 1st Presbyterian Church has made plans to livestream its Sunday worship services online so its members can still “attend” church and feel connected despite social distancing measures.

“Our natural instinct is to gather, to hug, to be near, and all of that is true, but it’s not the only way,” said Pastor Laurie Davis. “Thank God we have alternatives that can also promote some deepening in relationships because we’re out of our normal routine.”

In addition to streaming services, 1st Presbyterian will post daily podcast prayers and reflections on its Facebook page and is brainstorming other means of staying connected, such as a Facebook group for parishioners to share ideas.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church is also going online after the Diocese of La Crosse, which comprises 19 counties in western and north central Wisconsin, canceled all in-person Masses along with parish gatherings and Lenten fish fries.

Rev. Keith Kitzhaber will be streaming daily Mass to his personal Facebook page and uploading it to Youtube. “It’s a hardship because it’s causing people to adapt to an unusual circumstance,” he said of the restrictions.

He said his family has been touched by a mass outbreak before — in 1918, his baby uncle died during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

ADAPTING TO CHANGE

On Monday, when the governor initially banned gatherings of 50 people or more, churches were left wondering how they might still hold services and events, while some feared the implications.

“Some of my initial fears were that churches and places of worship were being targeted and other places — which may be of more concern, even, when it comes to the spread of the virus,” said Pastor Daryn Bahn, Christ Lutheran Church. “There also were many questions and quite a gray area when the limit for gatherings was set at 50. Gatherings were still possible then, and the question was how to keep the number below 50, and do it in a way that was morally responsible. The goal was to keep people safe.”

Chairs were placed six feet apart at Christ Lutheran Church before the 10-person restriction was imposed.

With safety in mind, the church set up a secondary worship area with chairs placed at the CDC-recommended distance of six feet apart — an unusual sight — before a new restriction was issued Tuesday banning gatherings of 10 or more people, meaning that gray area was gone.

The church luckily had the technology already in place to make the move online. It regularly films its services, which are later available on local cable channels and on Youtube, the church webpage, and its app.

This week, Christ Lutheran completed its first livestream of its Thursday evening service on Facebook and plans to do the same on Sundays.

OUTREACH OFFLINE

For those without an internet connection, keeping up connections requires offline methods — inspiring creative solutions.

To keep offering Confession, Kitzhaber parked his car in front of the Sacred Heart church on S. Central Ave. and had parishioners simply walk up. He also considered using a selfie stick with a phone for people to speak into, but found that the “open air” style of confession was adequate.

At Christ Lutheran, Bahn has placed an order for an FM transmitter that’s capable of transmitting up to 150 feet, and plans to experiment with different setups to broadcast services.

“People who might not even have internet access could come and listen in the church parking lot, like when people have Christmas light shows,” he said. “When it gets nicer, we could even do services outside!”

Mail, although slower than electronic means, is still an option to reach those without internet to communicate the changes and share materials. 1st Presbyterian Church already mails its sermons to homebound members and plans to send a hardcopy of its bulletin to anyone who requests one.

KEEPING UP CONNECTIONS

Social distancing means some church members are more isolated than others.

Rev. Keith Kitzhaber takes precautions at a nursing home.

Due to the vulnerability of the elderly to COVID-19, nursing homes and assisted livings have limited their visitors. Kitzhaber was able to administer last rites for a resident on hospice, but was required to wear a gown, mask, and gloves.

“They only allow us to come in for Annointing,” he explained. “They’re on solitary confinement, in a sense.”

Christ Lutheran is sharing DVD copies of its services and printed materials with area nursing homes to reach that population.

While church members may find themselves feeling isolated, churches are thankful that online technology exists to keep up connections in the next best way while the public emergency continues and the public is advised to limit travel to essential trips.

“I was thinking, how do we measure how essential our spiritual strength is? It’s not obvious, like food and medication,” Davis said. “But on the other hand, there is something essential about keeping our spirits close to God and to one another, so the challenge is how to do that within the parameters we now have, and I think there are many ways, especially thankfully because of technology.”

“The way that we carry on our ministry to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and deed will look different, but it is so important to understand that people have ongoing needs when it comes to their faith and their spiritual life,” said Bahn. “The timeless truths of God’s Word apply directly to our lives and to this situation that we find ourselves in.”

With the uncertainty of the outbreak, he believes the church is needed now more than ever.

Pastors at Christ Lutheran Church preach to empty pews during a live setup

“We have a connection with one another that remains, even when we cannot assemble in person. This connection becomes even more important when people become physically isolated and when fears arise over the coronavirus outbreak and the impact of social distancing,” said Bahn.

With its pews empty for now, Christ Lutheran Church has taken the initiative to scrub and sanitize its building and will keep its secondary worship space set up, a sign of hope for when restrictions finally ease and members are able to once again grasp hands before the service in fellowship — if taken for granted before, now a prospect that brings tears to the eyes of its pastors.

“Fear is so hard to deal with when a person feels that they are alone. So, to fight hopelessness, to maintain our humanity, to overcome that which we can only overcome together, every church, every pastor, every believer, needs to continue on in ministry and in love using all the ways that God still provides,” said Bahn.

To learn more about the efforts undertaken by local churches to connect online, visit their Facebook pages to find videos and updates.

Kaylin S
Author: Kaylin S

Kaylin Speth is a Marshfield native with a bachelor's degree in English from UW-Green Bay. She enjoys highlighting the many great things happening in the community and bringing to life the untold stories. Email the team at [email protected]