Church leaders in Nebraska are used to making tough decisions for their congregations. But now, in the midst of a pandemic, churches must weigh their congregants' spiritual nourishment against a risk to their physical health.
Since May 11, churches across the state have been allowed to reopen their sanctuaries so long as they follow health guidelines, including heightened social distancing during services.
Among the first to welcome back congregants was Epic Church, 6601 S. 70th St. The Rev. Justin Adams said while many are still streaming the church's weekly services, about 50 of its 140 members have returned for one of the two services held each weekend.
While the church is cautioning some of its older members about the risk of attending, Adams said he firmly believes it's not a pastor's place to tell someone when they can come to worship.
"I have a problem with pastors that might be pushing their agenda on others," he said.
Adams said he thinks it's important for his congregation to be able to meet in person. For some in this difficult time, he said, that connection to others and to their faith can be essential.
"I felt from the beginning and still do feel that churches are essential to people," he said.
Since March, however, most churches have had to rely on a virtual connection with their members, with Sunday services streamed on the internet or conducted in the style of a drive-in movie, with congregants watching and listening from their cars.
But as rules put in place to help control the spread of the coronavirus are eased, churches — big and small, rural and urban — are making choices to return to in-person services or to wait for new case numbers to show extended declines.
Epic Church is working to closely follow state guidelines as its members meet in person, Adams said, and if health officials determine that it's unsafe for services to go on, the church will follow their guidance.
"We're not going to do this blindly and without wisdom," he said.
St. Patrick's Catholic Church, 6111 Morrill Ave., reopened last weekend, along with other churches in the Lincoln Diocese. The Rev. Troy Schweiger said the parish is following guidance set out by health officials, which has altered the way the church distributes hymnals and communion and has forced parishioners to sit farther apart.
To block off certain pews to ensure social distancing, Schweiger said members of the St. Patrick's Altar Society sewed 164 cloth pew coverings.
"We've worked hard to make our church a beautiful and inspiring place," he said.
While the parish was closed to in-person worship services, Schweiger said he communicated with members of his congregation through email and by livestreaming Masses. Still, he said it's been difficult not to see church members face to face.
"I was ordained to serve the people and to bring them the love of God," he said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hard on a personal level."
Before the virus hit, around 1,000 people turned out on a weekend to attend Masses at St. Patrick's, Schweiger said. Last weekend, the first since the church reopened, weekend Masses drew a combined 300 to 500 parishioners.
And although he's been eager to see things return to normal, Schweiger emphasized that he wants parishioners, particularly those who are vulnerable, to use caution when considering whether to attend Mass. For those who are not at risk, he believes Mass is a safe experience.
"All of the procedures we put into place went well," Schweiger said. "I am confident in the safety precautions we have made."
Indian Hills Community Church, 1000 S. 84th St., will reopen this weekend, with one service at 10 a.m. Sunday. While the church normally sees between 600 and 700 people for a service, the Rev. Jeff Horn expects only 300 to 400 to attend.
Indian Hills will require 6 feet between families, will not distribute bulletins and will not collect an offering. There will be songs, Horn said, but no hymnals will be used. As a result, the service will likely feel a little different to churchgoers than it did before.
Indian Hills began streaming its services long before the pandemic hit, he said, and will continue to do so. While officials recommend that the vulnerable stay home for now, Horn said the church is looking forward to gathering again.
"Part of being part of the church is coming together," he said.
Other churches across the state, however, will wait to open their doors. The Episcopalian Diocese of Nebraska will keep its churches closed until at least June 28, citing concerns of increased spread of the virus in a news release from Bishop J. Scott Barker.
"We will continue on the conservative path of refraining from re-opening for that purpose until COVID-19 is well in retreat in our Nebraska communities," Barker said. "This approach has surely saved many of our members from sickness if not from death."
Faith Lutheran Church in York also plans to wait to open its doors. Head Elder Kevin Stuhr said the church may reopen sometime next month.
Faith Lutheran is currently without a permanent pastor, Stuhr said, and their temporary pastor is a 77-year-old retiree. To protect him and all vulnerable members of the church, Stuhr said, the church will stay closed for now.
A survey of churches in Lincoln and the surrounding area found a mix of responses to meeting in person.
While the churches in the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln have elected to reopen, large churches including Sheridan Lutheran and First-Plymouth remain closed, in some cases for several more weeks.
In York, Faith Lutheran has been livestreaming its services to members that have internet capabilities, Stuhr said, but the experience is not quite the same. He said the church is particularly concerned about its members who are shut-ins, and they are making phone calls, sending emails and direct mail to stay in contact.
As restrictions loosen and people find more sense of normalcy, Stuhr said, some members of the community are getting anxious to resume services.
With a small staff and limited resources, Stuhr said, it can be difficult to thoroughly sanitize the church for use. Even after restrictions are lifted, he said, it will take time for the church to find a new normal.
"I think we're going to be facing this kind of situation for a long time," he said.
Creating community during the COVID-19 crisis
Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.