Churches navigate in-person opening

Isles Lutheran Church
Nearly half of the parishioners at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church said they weren’t comfortable resuming in-person worship in a July survey. Photo by Becca Most

For Arden Haug, a pastor at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church in Kenwood, the past couple of months have been a “spiritual challenge.”

Before March he had no recording equipment, no camera and nothing that would have allowed the church to transition to virtual worship, especially within the span of a week. Now, five months later, the church has been getting creative with its weekly sessions and has started allowing some in-person worship.

Although the shift to virtual worship has been difficult for most congregations in Southwest, navigating the return to in-person services has been even harder. From worship watch parties to camping trips to not meeting in person at all, different faith groups have taken different approaches.

Justin Schroeder, a minister at First Universalist church in South Uptown, said after a month-long deliberation, the congregation has chosen not to hold any in-person events for the foreseeable future.

The decision comes, in part, out of the church’s anti-racist work and the fact that people of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, Schroeder said. With the number of COVID cases high statewide, he said the last thing he wants to happen is for a community member to contract the virus at a church gathering.

“Rather than just thinking about this as a short-term thing to endure, [we’re] really recognizing that this is going to be here for a while and we need to build new practices of how we connect with one another,” Schroeder said. “Our faith is strong enough to survive in a new way with a new set of practices.”

Under the governor’s order, indoor event spaces are limited to 25% capacity, with a maximum of 250 people. An exception is made for faith communities, which are also capped at 250 people but can operate at up to 50% capacity. The 250-person limit holds for all outdoor gatherings. All organizations must have a COVID-19 preparedness plan and congregants must wear masks indoors.

At the beginning of July, Haug surveyed his congregation at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church about their comfort level with in-person reopening. Nearly half said they weren’t comfortable meeting in-person.

The church has continued holding virtual worship services while opening up to members who want to pray inside individually, although they have to register for a time in advance. In August the church started allowing 40 people to sit in on the weekly recorded worship service, which is 25% of the congregation’s capacity. Although they have to remain socially distanced and masked, Haug said, the opportunity to recognize someone’s eyes and sit in a familiar pew has been welcome.

“Every congregation has to find its safe way to nurture people again, and there is no one-size-fits-all [approach],” he said. “The most important thing is that we have to find a way to live with the coronavirus.”

Other congregations have opted for outdoor events, like Zoom worship watching parties or camping trips. Victoria Peterson-Hilleque, a staff member of Solomon’s Porch church in Kingfield, said the congregation is trying to provide services that meet a variety of comfort levels. In addition to virtual services and online prayer meetings, members have hosted several backyard gatherings — and one indoor movie night — between June and August. Eight people sat in a classroom eating pizza during the movie night, with social distancing maintained between family groups, Peterson- Hilleque said.

Peterson-Hilleque said the congregation has chosen to do these types of activities because its membership of under 50 parishioners is so small and tight-knit. She said it’s important to foster community, especially in such uncertain and challenging times. “Human beings are meant to be in connection with one another,” she said. “Some people can be satisfied with remaining in their home and having virtual experiences, connections with people. But I do believe there are some people [for whom] that has not been healthy.”

Although members are encouraged to wear their masks when standing less than 6 feet apart, Peterson-Hilleque said it can be easy to forget as events go on. Although she said the church has been following CDC guidelines, the church plans to incorporate periodic announcements during events to remind people to keep wearing their masks and stay apart.

The church is organizing a September community camping trip in Waseca, where families will have a chance to participate in various activities like dancing, basketball and swimming. Peterson-Hilleque said congregants will be allowed to participate in any activity they feel comfortable with.

Kumi Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, said dancing or engaging in other physical activities where people are in close contact could make transmission more likely. When doing these activities, masks are more likely to slip or have to be adjusted and heavier breathing expels more airborne particles.

But as a health official, Smith said, it’s hard to ask citizens to take more precautions than they’re being asked to by government officials.

Evaluating whether to meet others in person comes down to weighing risk, she said. State guidance that limits indoor gatherings to 10 people or fewer in private homes is frankly arbitrary, she said. Most important is the number of close contacts each person has. “It’s not really necessarily that there’s a magical number of the people you gather each time,” Smith said. “The recommendation is to keep the contacts consistent and to really, really try to reduce the number of unnecessary contacts outside of that pod.”

If people are not social distancing, or have many close contacts, it could just take one person to cause a superspreading event, she said. Education about the benefits of mask-wearing, setting guidelines and anticipating potentially awkward social situations (like avoiding a hug) can help form good habits and maintain social adherence.

“Quarantine fatigue is real,” she said. “But I think that it’s going to become more important than ever as we move into the fall to really remind ourselves why we’re doing this.”