As the state slowly begins to reopen, local churches are following their own timeline to best determine when congregations can make their way back into the building for services.
For some, like Central United Methodist Church in Lenoir City, the wait may be longer.
“All Methodist churches are awaiting for instructions of when to open from our bishop, so in a sense all Methodist churches throughout East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and a couple churches in Georgia are going to all open together,” the Rev. Scott Layer, pastor, said. “... We’re kind of in a period of waiting, therefore, we might be one of the later churches to open in our area. We’ve already worked out kind of a phased-in approach at our church. We have a team with our staff and a couple of way leaders that have been developing a plan but we’re sort of waiting for when our bishop communicates so that we can adapt our plan accordingly.”
As of Monday, Layer did not know a timetable for reopening.
“Per the language that our bishop has used, we’re looking for data versus dates,” he said. “So that’s what she’s looking at, but my personal belief is that we have a number of people we’ve been communicating regularly amongst our congregation as well as calling people. I think we’ll see people will prefer doing things in small groups better than large groups just to minimize risk. ... Partially it depends on the stay-at-home order in Virginia is through June 10, so I would assume that it’ll be after June 10 unless the state of Virginia changes their order.”
Central has a congregation of about 900 members, Layer said. About 500 are active.
In the meantime, the church has offered livestreamed services and averaged 300-400 each time, Layer said.
Community Church at Tellico Village leadership is determining when reopening is best.
The Rev. Stephen Prevatte, pastor, hopes that could be in June. A seven-person committee has been devising a plan.
“We will stagger our opening,” Prevatte said. “Whenever that is, we’re going to take the precautions that whatever the reopening task force recommends, but they’ll be things like half capacity. We’ll be operating at half capacity. Our sanctuary seats around 1,000 people, and so we’ll be operating in about half capacity of that. We’re going to be prepared for overflow, so if the sanctuary fills up and we’ll be prepared to potentially flow over into the chapel and use our chapel as well. Our chapel seats around 400 normally, so we could get around a couple hundred people in there as well.”
Prevatte doesn’t definitively know yet how the church will enforce half capacity.
“There will be some type of procedure, every other pew, maintaining that social distance of 6 feet, and we’ll count heads as they come in to make sure we’re able to do those things,” he said.
The closure hasn’t been all bad. Prevatte said a new website has been launched that he hopes will allow people to stay connected while social distancing. Prevatte has also been involved in virtual communion.
“That’s something I never thought I’d be involved in, but we’ve had a couple of communion services where members are at their homes and they use whatever element they have available to them via wine or grape juice or whatever and then bread or a saltine cracker or I’ve heard a couple folks say they were going to use Goldfish crackers,” he said. “I think the Lord certainly understands in times like these when you want to be safe but actually partake in communion itself, so that’s been kind of a neat thing.”
Calvary Baptist Church in Lenoir City will reopen its sanctuary doors Sunday for the first time since March 11.
The church has hosted on Saturdays for four weeks what the Rev. Jody McGaha, pastor, called “drive-in church.” Online services on Wednesdays and Sundays were also available.
“Various things factored into our decision recognizing again that churches were allowed to begin to come back in earnest on May 3,” McGaha said. “We felt like we wanted to wait a couple of weeks and see if there was an uptick in any other cases of COVID-19 in the community, giving enough time there that should we have to adjust our target of reopening we would be able to do such.”
The church will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, along with suggestions from the federal, state and local level, McGaha said. Masks and gloves will be available but not required.
Personal spacing should not be an issue in the sanctuary, he said.
“Thankfully, because of our facility that seats almost 1,000 people, we are well able to welcome back most of our church membership that would desire to attend, recognizing that we do have people that are in high-risk categories,” McGaha said. “I am cautioning them as to the decisions they make in returning. Thankfully, we will be able to practice social distancing throughout our sanctuary with plenty of room spread around so that people would not come within 6 feet of one another.”