After halting in-person services for months due to COVID-19, area Methodist churches are working toward reopening.

Central United Methodist Church in Lenoir City welcomed its congregation back on a limited basis Sunday, which marked the first time an in-person service was held since the church closed March 15.

“Like every church, not just Central, but all churches in the Methodist church, we closed down kind of preemptively when things started to change with COVID,” the Rev. Scott Layer, Central UMC pastor, said. “We thought it might only be for a couple of weeks. Last thing we thought it would be we’ve done 14 services online now. So starting in, I think it was March 15, so it’s been very different during this time. The way the Methodist church works is out of that larger Holston Conference we’re broken up into different districts, so we’re called the Tennessee Valley District and that has 82 churches within basically our area and the Knoxville area.”

Central was the first in the area to reopen, Layer said.

“We want to be safe and we want to make wise decisions, yet at the same time we also realize church is a place where people connect with God and find relationship and encouragement,” he said. “It’s an essential service for people mentally and spiritually, so we want to provide that for people.”

Providing that service comes with a four-phased plan. For two weeks, Central will start simple and have three venues to break up the congregation — some in the sanctuary, some in the pavilion and some in the front lobby. Services are also streamed online, which Layer said will be around “indefinitely.”

“Really the world in which we live today online is huge, so we made some investments in our online and fortunately we’d done that last year,” Layer said. “So each week we kind of try to make it as engaging for people on the other side of the screen as possible.”

If all goes well, Central will provide in-person Sunday services at 8:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. beginning July 5.

“So after people leave we won’t have Sunday school, so basically just worship only, and then we’ll have limited groups that can meet in the church during the week and we can have limited youth ministry,” Layer said. “Then when we get permission to kind of move ahead based on the data — for example, Knox County just in a meeting earlier continues to increase and even some here in Loudon County. When we get permission, phase 3 would basically increase our spaces so that we could have basically ... 125 in worship center, 20 in gathering area and 60 in the pavilion, and at that point we could have limited Sunday school.”

There is no timetable on when phase 3 and 4 will happen.

Loudon United Methodist Church will open its doors to the congregation for Sunday services at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

The Rev. Amy Cook, Loudon United pastor, knows the service will be “very different.”

“The document we’re basing this on is from the conference, even though we turned our plan into the district,” Cook said. “The conference document is going to come in addition, so it’s going to be phases, and this first phase I’m going to hope that we just have our people there. Actually this is for the first time in my life I don’t want us to have visitors, because I want to get our people trained up to what we’re supposed to do right now to keep ourselves and each other safe before we welcome others into this space.”

Everyone will be required to wear a mask, pews will be blocked off and social distancing will be necessary. A church volunteer will wait outside the restroom and provide hand sanitizer for people coming in and out, Cook said.

Cook believes protocols will change as knowledge of COVID-19 evolves.

“It’s not going to be like it was before. It’s not going to be like it was in February,” she said. “So get ready for the weird because it’s going to be kind of strange to gather together, not get close to each other and all be wearing masks and not singing. That’s a big thing in Methodist churches because most of the service is singing.”

Cook jokingly said she looked forward to seeing the congregation’s “eyeballs.”