It’s a question that has vexed area churches during the coronavirus pandemic and now with surging COVID-19 cases: How does one worship together with others safely and responsibly?

Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter announced earlier this month it would cease its Sunday morning in-building worship service until further notice about the same time Gov. Tim Walz ordered further restrictions on bars and restaurants, gyms, sports and social gatherings.

“I would describe our reaction as a voluntary one. I believe that the governor’s restriction just embodies good advice for community members. And as a church that values our community we’ve made decisions to support our community,” Lord of Life Senior Pastor Steven Rye said.

Steven J. Rye
Steven J. Rye

The reason stated in the announcement for the cessation of in-building services at Lord of Life was “in order to live out our mission to deepen and enrich our connection to our community, and in support of our local health care providers, businesses and schools.”

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“I am always concerned about serving people in the best way possible,” Rye said of some worshippers demanding in-person services. “I would just say that we’re not letting that (desire) drive the decision for us. It’s important for us to do the right things.”

Lord of Life Lutheran Church continues to livestream a 9 a.m. worship service Sundays and a 6 p.m. worship service Wednesdays on YouTube and Facebook. And drive-up communion is still available in the parking lot at the main entrance from 10:30-11 a.m. Sundays.

“Certainly the governor’s announcement may have been part of the backdrop of that decision,” Rye said of Lord of Life’s recent cessation of in-building worship services. “But we have been monitoring the Crow Wing County cases throughout this pandemic.”

There were 101 deaths in 41 counties reported by Minnesota Department of Health officials on Black Friday, which set a new single-day record in the state, the third such record in 10 days.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on that number and really have felt like it had come to the point where to be a responsible community member was to cease in-building worship services,” Rye said.

Lord of Life Lutheran Church is located on Fairview Road in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Lord of Life Lutheran Church is located on Fairview Road in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Doing things differently

Marcia Good is the secretary at First Lutheran Church, which counts almost 270 families in its congregation. The Brainerd church official said some of the changes they’ve made, like limiting in-person worship services, have actually been positive.

“We weren’t getting that many in our worship services. But in a parking lot, we’ve been averaging probably right around 50 members in our parking lot services,” Good said.

Good said First Lutheran Church also has a Facebook page and posts YouTube videos to keep connected to its congregation members in an age in which social distancing is encouraged. In addition, she sends a weekly email of the pastor’s sermons to about 40 households.

“And on our church website, we have a recorded service each week where the pastor records his sermon, and we have our music and lessons and all that online. I’m not sure the number of views that we’ve been having, but we have had pretty good success,” Good said.

Good said First Lutheran Church followed the school districts’ example regarding distance learning, such as weighing the desire to be together versus the risks of congregating in a group, and the church’s elderly members played a factor in the decision to make changes.

“We had a request from the Boy Scouts to be able to meet here and that did change, and any small meetings — we had a couple of different things scheduled, you know, with small groups — those were also put on hold with the restrictions,” Good said.

People can gather for religious services, weddings and funerals at a church as long as they maintain 6 feet of space between people of different households and adhere to an indoor limit of 50 percent capacity or a maximum of 250 people. Outdoor gatherings can’t exceed 250 people.

“It’s a busy time of year usually,” Good said of the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. “Personally, it breaks my heart.”

First Lutheran organized a Thanksgiving Eve service Wednesday conducted via Zoom, the online virtual meeting platform many have turned to instead of meeting in person.

“We are experimenting and starting to do more with Zoom,” Good said.

Pass the (virtual) plate

Collection plates at traditionally in-person worship services have in the past raised money for churches. Good said First Lutheran Church’s members remain giving in this time of need.

“Our people are very dedicated, and we haven’t suffered greatly financially. What we do each week in our parking lot is hand out plastic baggies with an attendance sheet and an offering envelope and people can do that. And we get a lot of our offering through the mail,” Good said.

Rye said, “Even though we’ve not passed a collection plate since, well, really since this pandemic started, we continue to be supported by our generous congregation members and for that I’m exceedingly grateful.”

Those who attended First Lutheran Church’s outdoor worship services were asked to enter the parking lot via South Eighth Street and follow the directions of the parking attendants. Those in taller vehicles were asked to park in the back rows, so those in smaller vehicles could see.

“I know some people just are very adamant about wanting to worship in person … and I have been told were worshipping elsewhere, but we have not seen a huge number of people transferring to other churches,” Good said.

In fact, Good said the parking lot worship is drawing people who otherwise did not attend the church.

“We actually have some people that have started coming to our parking lot worship that don’t belong to our church, and I know one gal every week she’s been coming and appreciates our parking lot worship so much,” Good said.

Worship together

The Rev. Daniel Weiske is pastor of St. Andrew's and St. Mathias Catholic churches in Crow Wing County. Weiske serves as daily administrator of the faith formation programs at St. Andrew, St. Mathias, St. Francis and All Saints parishes.

“The governor stated that there was no change in protocol for religious groups or gatherings, so, in terms of our institutional activity, there have not been changes required by the governor's order,” Weiske said.

Father Daniel Weiske
Father Daniel Weiske

In May, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter to Walz announcing their intention to open their churches later that month.

Regional church officials had called on the governor to resume religious services as businesses gradually reopened and the stay-at-home order was lifted by Walz amid the pandemic.

“We just know that, you know, parishioners — people in the community — certainly are asked not to engage in certain types of activity and that is a challenge, so we had that in mind of praying for and how to support people in the challenging weeks ahead,” Weiske said.

The Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran churches had earlier pledged to have services at one-third of their normal capacity and implement strict new social distancing and sanitary practices.

“The executive order did not change the protocols, didn’t require a change in the protocols for our religious activity, so I’m happy to say that,” Weiske said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.