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Methodist churches beginning to reopen

The Rev. Rick Dawson looks forward to in-person worship services resuming Sunday at 10:45 a.m. at Finley United Methodist Church, located at 958 Lincoln Ave., Steubenville. -- Janice Kiaski

STEUBENVILLE — Finley United Methodist Church will be reopening its doors for inside, in-person worship services Sunday at 10:45 a.m., joining other Methodist churches in the Ohio Valley District that have or are in the process of following suit by adhering to pandemic guidelines and restrictions.

Normally, the church at 958 Lincoln Ave. has a morning and evening Sunday service in addition to a Wednesday one but will stick to the early Sunday gathering for the interim, according to the Rev. Rick Dawson, its pastor.

On average, attendance would be around 150, but Dawson anticipates fewer as parishioners wrestle with their own comfort levels.

“With social distancing and things, we may be half that and maybe not even that,” Dawson said Thursday. “A lot of people are uncomfortable yet in coming in,” he added, noting the church will continue the radio-transmitted parking lot services in place since the end of March. Others, he predicts, will continue to watch online services through Facebook and Youtube.

“We will continue that, and a lot of people are going to stay at home until this thing is all over,” Dawson said.

The church has been fortunate to stay connected electronically. “We have some very good technical people at Finley, and if it were not for them, that would not have happened.”

Precautions have been taken for the reopening, according to Dawson. “We’re following the CDC and governor and the East Ohio Conference — the same thing everyone else is doing,” he said. “We’re not requiring masks but requesting strongly that you wear a mask, and there’s no public singing at this time.

“It is going to be different for everyone as we go through this process,” he added.

As for anticipating the in-person, in-church return, Dawson commented, “The church is the body of believers — it’s not this building, so I think the body has met throughout this thing, but we have an attachment to our worship space, and we like to be in there. We feel when we’re in the sanctuary, this is where we meet with God and that’s what people want.”

Finley UMC is one of 88 churches in the UMC Ohio Valley District, which includes Jefferson, Harrison, Carroll and Belmont counties.

“Small United Methodist Churches worshiping relatively few in number, and able to have safe practices in place, have already returned to in-person worship,” noted the Rev. Bruce Hitchcock, superintendent of the district, which has an office presence in Wintersville.

A mid-June return to in-person worship was anticipated for larger ones, according to a recent e-mail communication with Hitchcock. “Most are open or opening soon. Most are planning carefully and taking precautions.

“Many United Methodist Churches have been using the drive-in approach. People arrive in cars, remain in cars and have the worship broadcast into the car via radio,” he explained.

In-person worship came to a halt March 22 in response to Gov. Mike DeWine’s order of March 15.

“Our buildings closed, but the church has not closed,” Hitchcock emphasized, noting that didn’t stop churches from having a serving presence in their communities. “The decision to stop in-person worship was based upon the teaching of Jesus. He taught, ‘Love thy Neighbor.’ We think that the best way to love your neighbor during a pandemic is not to infect them with the virus. It is following the United Methodist rule, ‘Do no harm,'” he noted.

Hitchcock has been impressed by the way clergy and congregations “made quick adaptations to the situation.”

“In a matter of weeks most of our churches discovered how to offer worship using various online media. The creativity and resourcefulness displayed has been amazing,” he said. “Churches also have gone out of their way to connect to neighborhoods with a wide variety of food programs, checking on neighbors, letter-writing campaigns and Sunday School teachers connecting with students. Many congregations and members used the time to focus on new learning and on a kind of spiritual retreat to pray. Lots of us stopped, reflected on the need and chose prophetic actions to serve the community,” he continued.

The time has been a challenge, though, for people normally in the pews and pastors in the pulpit.

“The challenge for pastors revolves around staying connected to folks they cannot visit,” Hitchcock observed. “Pastors rediscovered the art of letter writing, e-mail, phone calls and safety visits. Many pastors took the time to learn social media to continue the ministry of preaching and teaching. Many churches report increases in the number of people participating in worship. It is amazing to see God at work in trying times.”

The EOC issued an extensive set of guidelines for UM churches to reopen, what Hitchcock likened to a toolbox.

“Each congregation is asked to use the tools that fit their ministry setting. Simply pray, think, plan and reopen in the time and manner that makes sense for your church,” he noted.

The challenge to reopen will revolve around COVID-19. “If the pandemic moves toward an end, then things will go along in an easy manner,” Hitchcock said. “If things turn bad with the pandemic, we may see another postponement of in-person worship. I hope and pray that is not the case. For now churches have had funerals, weddings, baptisms, confirmation and graduations delayed. Pastors and churches may be quite busy caring for those celebrations.”

Asked if the churches will ever return to “normal,” Hitchcock responded, “I think that we are living through a time of permanent change. Many churches that have never used various forms of social media will now use that new way of ministry in conjunction with in-person worship. We have all adopted Zoom for meetings. We should not use Zoom for all our meetings, but Zoom is a useful tool that many will continue to employ. Meetings in the winter can be difficult due to treacherous roads. I can see churches having finance and board meetings via Zoom in January and February. As for the new social distancing guidelines, I am not sure how that will play out. Shaking hands is so ingrained in me, and in the social fabric of our culture, that I cannot see how that changes. It may happen by generation, but I do not see the 40-and-over crowd not shaking hands. That is probably a reflection of my age.”

Hitchcock predicts some parishioners will return to in-person church right away while others will be cautious and wait. “There is a lot of pent-up desire to worship and meet together. There also is a good deal of caution about the coronavirus.”

Some churches will not reopen, according to Hitchcock, who noted COVID-19 can be “the tipping point of congregations already struggling to remain open.”

“Most folks want to reopen,” he added. “We all miss singing and praying together. We all miss hearing scripture read and sermons preached. We miss the opportunity to experience God’s presence and grace. Many of us miss Holy Communion.

There is no substitute in life for the people of God gathered in love.”

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