Churches Adapt To COVID-19

Pastor Peter Sample, Father Pat Nields and Pastor Bruce Phillips are among the many who are changing services to continue reaching their congregations during the COVID-19 Outbreak.

As the pastor looked out at his congregation, he hoped the sound coming through his microphone was loud enough. 

“If you can hear me, honk!” Pastor Peter Sample instructed those attending his first drive-in service outside the Calvary Bible Church in Neligh on Sunday.

A resounding blast of car and pickup horns provided the answer he needed

Pastor Sample smiled and asked his congregation to come to the “front row” before beginning the service. Engines started up and the vehicles moved closer to their pastor who stood on a flatbed trailer with guitarist Brooke Curtis in the background. 

“This is the fifth Sunday of the month,” he told them. “Normally, when we have a fifth Sunday, I try to do something a little bit different. Little did I know when I planned this Sunday that we would be doing drive-in church, but it worked out.” 

He first heard about the idea from other pastors who were trying to figure out Easter services as the social distancing requirements were becoming stricter to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — namely the governor’s order which limits public gatherings to 10 people or fewer.

He searched online and found that some larger churches were doing drive-in services in a similar way.

“However, most churches were just boosting sound out of speakers on the lawn for their drive-in service,” he said. “We don’t have that much speaker power, but we do have an FM transmitter, so I thought we would give it a shot.” 

Pastor Sample said he has used their FM transmitter to pipe the service downstairs to the church nursery and thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to get the service out to the parking lot. He asked his congregation to stay in their vehicles and tune their radios to 96.3 FM.

On March 22, Pastor Sample started live-streaming his church services and said he plans to continue doing so, in addition to the new drive-in method.

“It is not the same as being together,” he said. “Many of the congregation are looking forward to being ‘physically present,’ though separated by cars. Hopefully, it works to continue doing this, especially as Easter is coming up. We will still be livestreaming our services for those who cannot make it to our church property.”

Pastor Sample said social distancing has changed the way he prepares for church services.

“I have spent more time during the week on technology than I have ever done,” he said. “Also, when I preach, I enjoy interacting with the congregation. Now, I am talking to a screen, or a group of cars, which requires a different type of sermon. Our music team has to play their songs cold, without congregational support, which appears more like a concert than a worship environment.”

Other area pastors are making adjustments to connect with their church members as well.

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Neligh and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Tilden

Father Pat Nields didn’t even have a Facebook account until a couple weeks ago when he felt there was a need to livestream Mass.   

The pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Neligh and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Tilden said the idea to livestream came primarily from other priests in the Archdiocese.

March 22 was the first time Father Pat had ever used St. Francis’s Facebook page to livestream a Mass.

“I am learning as it goes,” he said. “The response from parishioners was great, it was encouraging. It was of help to me, to know at least we had some sort of togetherness. Certainly not the ideal, but a way to promote community and parish life during this time.”

Father Pat said his Mass preparation is different now that he has to consider sound and how movements will look through the camera. Susie Ames has been serving as a lector, and last Sunday, Natalie Bitney began providing music. He said this was another step to make it “more familiar” to those now watching Mass on Sunday mornings.

Hope Parishes - Ewing United Methodist Church, Orchard United Methodist Church and Page United Methodist Church

On March 22, Pastor Momo Larmena started using Facebook Live to livestream his Sunday church service on the Hope Parish Facebook page. The pastor is also live streaming a Lenten message on Wednesdays at noon.

“The church members have reacted with positive feedback,” he said. “It is serving as a connection to the church and the church family which is needed at this time of social distancing.”

One positive out of all this is the larger audience he’s reaching, “not only local, but statewide, nationwide and from other countries.” The pastor admitted, “This has made me come out of my comfort zone.” However, he plans to look at it as an adventure and “a beginning of new possibilities of doing church in the future.”

Ewing Full Gospel Church 

The Ewing Full Gospel Church started using Facebook Live and YouTube for its church services on March 22. Pastor Mark Hoffman said he had used this method to do “weekly words of encouragement” a few weeks prior. 

He said although church members miss seeing each other face to face, he would like to remind people that “the church has never been about the building.”

“The church is about the people,” Pastor Hoffman said. “I believe that one of the good things that could come out of this is that it has allowed the Church (people) to get outside the four walls of the building.”

United Methodist Church - Neligh, Oakdale and Elgin

Last Sunday morning, Pastor Bruce Phillips used Facebook Live for his first online United Methodist Church service.

“It’s new technology to me, but I have folks in the church that helped me set it up,” he said. “Folks just have to like our page, Neligh UMC, to listen in.”

Pastor Phillips said it is important to find different ways to be the church and do ministry in these uncertain times.

“God is still on his throne and we’ll get through this,” he said. “I do miss the people though.”

First Congregational United Church of Christ in Neligh and Park Congregational Church in Elgin

Dr. Becky McNeil, minister of Neligh’s First Congregational Church and Elgin’s Park Congregational Church, said she decided to use Zoom for her worship services. She liked the fact that her congregation can see and hear each other “and those who rely on land-lines can phone in and hear and be heard.”

“Last Sunday we had 14 people in worship with Park Church, including guests who joined us from Detroit, Michigan,” Dr. McNeil said. “Park Church ordinarily averages around a dozen in worship, and at First Congregational in Neligh we had 31 in worship, including two who were on their four-wheeler waiting for the veterinarian to show up to help with a cow in distress. Our average worship attendance in Neligh is around 25. This way of worshipping allowed some of our folks who aren't usually physically able to be with to join in. That was an upside of holding worship this way.”

Grace Lutheran Church in Neligh and Trinity Lutheran in Elgin

The Lutheran churches in Neligh and Elgin suspended in-person services on March 22 and started live streaming Sunday morning worship services and Wednesday evening Lenten services on Grace’s Facebook page, according to Vicar Norlyn Bartens.

He said both services are also posted to YouTube. The vicar said they have tried to inform church members through Facebook and emails.

“The greater challenge has been reaching those who do not have internet access,” he said. “We are trying to stay in touch with them by emailing bulletins and sermons, phone calls and making them aware of where they can find Lutheran programming on the radio and television.”

Church of Christ in Tilden

March 22 was the first online “gathering” for the Church of Christ in Tilden, Pastor John Petersen said.

“We are planning to continue as long as this situation is at hand, and maybe one of the blessings of this change has been, the response has been tremendous and has revealed many basic principles of the purpose for gathering regularly,” he said.  

Pastor Petersen said even after the situation is over, he may try to continue some form of this "online gathering” to fill a need we had not been able to fill before. 

“One of the other blessings we have noticed because of the Facebook gathering is that we have been joined by people all over, and that even if they cannot participate live, they are able to take it in later,” he said.

Abundant Life Christian Center in Neligh

The Abundant Life Christian Center in Neligh has not had church services for two weeks; however, the Pastor Randy Schutt has found other ways to reach out.  

 “I have been speaking to them via media, texting, some phone messages, and short messages of encouragement through the course of the week,” Pastor Schutt said. “My congregation has appreciated hearing from me although they would rather gather in the church.”  

He said staying in touch via media is fairly new to him and church members are looking forward to assembling again.

“It's a sad situation, but we will get through this and remain strong as a church and a nation,” the pastor said. “We all want to get back to normal, but we also want to do our part in keeping the virus from spreading.”

St. Boniface Catholic Church in Elgin, St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Clearwater, St. John’s Catholic Church of rural Clearwater, St. Peter de Alcantra Catholic Church of Ewing

Father John Norman and Father Kevin Vogel said their “normal” weekend Mass schedule typically consisted of two priests at six churches; however, they are now each using Facebook Live for one Sunday Mass each.

Starting on March 22, Father Vogel now live streams Mass at 8 a.m. and Father Norman begins at 10 a.m. Their online schedule now includes: Tuesday-Friday: Mass at 8:30 a.m. with Father Vogel; 10 a.m. Liturgy of the Word and Reflection with Father Norman; Thursday: 3 p.m. Live Stations of the Cross; and Friday: Pre-recorded Stations of the Cross.

“We have found that our parishioners are grateful for this engagement,” Father Norman said. “Being distanced from each other can bring feelings of disorientation, isolation, helplessness, even abandonment by God and their faith community. We had a sense that people would seek and need God more now, and we wanted to see how we could meet them within the current restrictions.”

Although Father Vogel has livestreamed other programs before, he said livestreaming Sunday Mass is something new for both of them.

“The early Christian churches met in "house churches" and right now, we are too. Families are called to hold the torch of faith and pass it on. Within the limitations of technology, we are working to accompany our families, and we are inviting each other to be together spiritually,” Father Norman said. “We are still part of the mystical and spiritual body of Christ, even when distanced.”