COVID-19 surge having impact

The Rev. Scott Layer, Central United Methodist Church pastor, organizes a bin of masks for the congregation available in the church lobby.

With the rapid increase of positive COVID-19 cases in Loudon County, many churches are taking precautions to ensure the safety of congregations.

Concerns surrounding the new delta variant are growing by the day, Jeff Harris, Blairland Baptist Church director of student ministries/worship leader, said.

“Yeah, there’s some added caution, precautionary measures because people thought we were out of the whole COVID season and this new variant has caused some areas of concern,” Harris said. “Some people we know are back to wearing masks, and we encourage that if they feel better that way, feel more secure that way. We have masks available if they don’t have one. We’ve now moved all of our services and have stayed in the gym, so that way we can spread out more, they can move their chairs and they’re not stuck in a pew that won’t move, create the distance they feel comfortable with as far as their chairs and seats.”

The Rev. Nick Rains, Canvas Church pastor, noted similar concerns among the congregation but said he does not plan to shut down again after missing several months last year.

“We hear some of the concerns and those are some things we’ve considered and talked about, but at this point we’re just urging people to make individual decisions,” Rains said. “We’re not really mandating anything. We welcome people and if they want to wear a mask or if they don’t want to wear a mask, you’re fine either way. We’re completely open on the decision to get a vaccine. We’re in the kingdom of God business and we’re trying to keep our hands and mouth out of the business. Going into the delta variant, our conversations have been, ‘Take precautions that you feel safe with as a family’.”

Members of Central United Methodist Church in Lenoir City were required to wear masks until May. Masks have since been optional and the church has returned to full in-person services.

However, the church still provides masks, wipes and sanitization.

“We met periodically and, like a lot of places, we’ve seen the numbers go up a lot,” the Rev. Scott Layer, CUMC pastor, said. “We actually have seen the numbers go back basically to what it was in January, where we were actually mandated to wear masks by our denomination. They dropped that in May, and so we’ve been kind of mask optional. About two weeks ago, I came down with COVID. I had tested positive the day after church and we had our health team meeting that night, so we did the contact tracing to make sure everybody I was near was alerted. Because of that, we have currently encouraged people to wear masks to stop the spread. I was fully vaccinated and still got it somehow and we have not mandated that, but we feel like people are smart enough to kind of make decisions with their own health.”

Over the last year, CUMC developed a health and safety team, which is responsible for tracking positive cases and trends in the area and providing guidance for church leaders.

Layer hopes the church can remain open and fully functional.

Many churches last year broadcasted services on social media during shutdowns and continue to use technology as a means to reach the community.

Harris said there have been no discussions about another possible shutdown, but he thinks an online format would still be an option.

“We haven’t discussed it, but we do broadcast on Facebook and YouTube and started that during COVID and continue to do it because a lot of people are shut in and some people still don’t feel comfortable getting out, maybe because they couldn’t get the vaccine for whatever reason,” he said. “They’ve just continued to watch and we’ve kept that going. If we did have to cancel or postpone services, we would offer that as well but at this time right now, we have not had any kind of discussion of going back to postponing services. We are going to continue to do what we’re doing right now.”

Despite the challenges the pandemic has caused, Harris said he wants the church to make a difference.

“I think the bottom line is our hope and faith is in the Lord and everything in this world is temporary and things are going to happen, but the most constant thing you can lean on is God,” Harris said. “He’s going to be consistent, and a COVID pandemic didn’t surprise God or anything like that. We’ve tried to let people know as out of control things seem, God is still in control and he’s who we need to put our faith and confidence in. I think the main thing is people need to keep hope.”

Canvas recently restarted outreach programs, including inmate visitations and providing community-wide meals.

“We coordinate chaplaincy for the justice center and the jails have been shut down for quite a while and just recently opened back up as well,” Rains said. “With a lot of our missions work that we do with the homeless, with the incarcerated and also with the foster system, most of that is fully up and running and we’ve been able to continue some of those ministries really at a level that’s close to 100%.”

CUMC recently participated in a back-to-school drive to donate supplies to local students and teachers. The church later this month will help gather supplies and money for a missionary partner that will provide Christmas presents for children in Costa Rica.

“I think there was a lot of anxiety and concern early on and I think like most people, we’ve all gotten kind of tired of it and we probably at times let our guards down and were ready for it to be over,” Layer said. “One of church members is a nurse at Fort Loudoun (Medical Center) and she indicated to me that, like a lot of people, we thought we were done and we’re still having to deal with this. I’ve sensed our church having that can-do spirit, and we’ve done a lot more hands-on mission stuff to try to make a difference.”