Though Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order from March deemed places of worship “essential,” he urged them to conduct services online to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Many across the Highland Lakes did just that.
The stay-home order expired April 30, and the state is restarting the Texas economy by allowing some non-essential businesses to reopen beginning May 1.
Highland Lakes church leaders are now re-evaluating how they reach their congregations. Some will hold in-person worship services starting this weekend, while others are delaying that decision.
“To me, if we could (meet together), shouldn’t we?” said the Rev. Jon Weems, lead minister of Lake Shores Church in Marble Falls. “I think everybody needs to make their own decisions with prayer and consultation.”
Lake Shores Church will hold one service at 10 a.m. Sunday, May 3. Church leaders sent emails to members asking them to RSVP to the service.
Weems calls it a “soft opening,” noting that rows of seats have been removed from the worship auditorium to ensure social distancing of 6 feet apart. The lobby leading to the sanctuary also has been rearranged for proper safe distancing, and ushers and greeters wearing face masks will hold open doors for members.
Weems will wear a face mask until he begins preaching.
Based on the number of people who have said they’re attending Sunday’s service, Weems anticipates church capacity will be under 25 percent, or 87 people, but that number could change.
While churches were allowed to remain open with safety protocols in place under the stay-home order, Lake Shores decided to move services online, “a very difficult decision,” Weems said.
“I would have never thought we wouldn’t meet,” Weems said. “I’d been thinking about it for days before it was announced. I’ve had many people in our church asking us when we’re coming back together. There have been good conversations on both sides. Some of our (members) know the best choice for them and for others is not to come now, and that’s great. There are people dying for hope and community right now.”
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Marble Falls is waiting a few more weeks before holding in-person services. The Rev. Harold Vanicek, the church’s lead pastor, noted the congregation’s purpose statement of “boldly living together and sharing God’s grace,” emphasizing the word “together.”
“This is a way to stand in solidarity,” he said. “We’re going to delay our worship services as an act of solidarity to stand with the people of New York or Europe, who can’t meet together. It’s another aspect of being connected to the human race.”
Vanicek pointed out other reasons for the delay: Texas hasn’t experienced a decline in COVID-19 cases over several weeks, and many of St. Peter’s members are 65 and older, falling into the vulnerable category.
His congregation is following the lead of the governor and church bishops.
“We want to make a choice out of care,” he said.
Marble Falls Fire Chief Russell Sander held a virtual meeting April 28 with the city’s lead pastors to go over guidelines from the Governor’s Office.
Sander emphasized one recommendation from the governor: Church leaders should section off an area of the sanctuary or auditorium “for the vulnerable or have a separate service for them.”
He noted that Abbott’s order is specific on what churches can do; therefore, some leaders made a difficult decision.
“I know some of the churches said they were not going to go back to in-person church services yet,” he said. “They said, ‘We want to see how things progress.”
Some safeguards set by the governor include:
- All attendees should maintain 6 feet of distance between each other, except for members of the same family or household. Two people not from the same household, but who are attending together, can sit adjacent to one another with two seats or 6 feet of separation on either side.
- Those who are sick or over the age of 65 should not attend in-person services.
- Congregations should continue to broadcast or stream at least one worship service each week for those unable to attend, or promote another broadcast or livestream.
- Hand-sanitizing stations are to be provided at entrances and for liturgical and altar ministers.
- Attendees are encouraged to wear face masks during services.
- Pews and regularly touched surfaces should be disinfected after each service.
- Liturgical and hospitality ministers should be trained to follow new hygiene protocols, and signs should be posted to remind parishioners of these protocols.
- Every other row must be empty.
- If hosting multiple services in the auditorium or sanctuary, pews and seats must be disinfected in between. All items that come into contact with attendees must be disinfected.
“As Lutherans, we’re always living in gray and paradox — that we’re both saint and sinner,” Vanicek said. “It’s okay to not have just one answer and trust each other and God’s grace as we walk forward into an unknown future.”
People can still watch Lake Shores Church’s services through its website if they don’t feel comfortable attending in person.
“I pray that when we come out of all this, we’ll be more respectful of each other’s differences,” Weems added. “We can only try to do what we can do. We want to give people an option they didn’t have.”
For more on how COVID-19 is affecting the Highland Lakes, visit the DailyTrib.com coronavirus resources webpage.