Congregational Church

“Church is more than the building,” says Pastor Melvin Foster who has surprised his congregation with his secret piano skills.

Faith is a central part of many people’s lives. So back in mid-March, state stay-at-home orders left congregations in a quandary. How do you hold a service with groups limited to ten? For Bill Puckey, pastor at McKendree Methodist Church, the solution was in plain sight: stream the services.

“My wife, Heidi had been livestreaming our services for months,” Puckey said. Using her phone, she shared the Sunday service via Facebook Live for those unable to attend in person. In January, the church upgraded to a camera and began working out the kinks of the sound system when the pandemic closed the sanctuary doors.

Like other churches in the area, McKendree stopped holding Sunday services the third week of March. But to go live, they needed access to their equipment. So Puckey gained permission to record in the sanctuary, accompanied by minimal staff. The online services begin with music and readings from the Worship Team, which includes a small back-up band. Everyone is physically distanced. Lyrics projected onto a screen encourage folks at home to sing along, and then Pastor Bill, as he is called, offers a prayer and the week’s message.

The first service was a bit rocky, Puckey said, and the chat comments agree: “We can’t hear anyone” was a frequent observation. With sound issues resolved, Puckey added a couple podcasts, one on Wednesdays and one on Saturdays, along with incorporating Zoom meetings for Bible study, prayer meetings, and church council meetings.

“People of all ages, up through their 80s join us online,” Puckey said, noting the patience people show each other as they all learn how to worship in a new way. “We still make phone calls, reach out by email, zoom, Facebook messenger, and text,” he noted. But for Pastor Bill, much of his ministry is hands-on. In the normal course of a week he visits shut-ins to share conversation and pray. Not being able to do that has left them feeling alone, he said.

Adapting communion for the stay-at-home services has been another challenge. “We usually take communion on the first Sunday of the month,” Puckey explained. So, during his weekly podcast, he will remind people to pick up some grape juice and bread during their grocery trip. “I say a prayer to consecrate the communion at home and then everyone partakes.”

Mel Foster, pastor of the Congregational Church, has also worked out a way to provide livestreamed Sunday services. “Our church building does not have internet, so my streaming access from the church depends on my phone,” he said. At first he streamed a couple services from a secluded corner in his home.

“But folks like to see the sanctuary and hear the carillon,” Foster said, so he started recording from the sanctuary. On Saturday, Foster posts a message on the church’s Facebook page listing the readings, songs, and focus of Sunday’s message. On Sunday morning he sets up his device, sits at the piano, and opens with a song. Then he carries his screen to a central location where he can record the readings and message.

Foster sees both pros and cons with livestreaming services. On the pro side: his children want to conduct (and record) a service from the woods; streaming allows the congregation to connect while being separated, and he feels it allows him to reach more people. On the other hand, there are some people who lack internet access or have no desire to worship online.

“I have made more of an effort to call around and check in on people, as have some of my members,” Foster said. “But there is a certain value to being at a service in person. Sharing a prayer request or other concern is different when you can see the community surrounding you than when it is a larger, unknown community online.”

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church embraced the time of solitude by going low-tech. “We didn’t do any Zooming or webinars,” Hope VanScoy, one of the church administrators, said. Instead, she typed up a weekly bulletin and emailed it to members of the congregation. If they did not have email, she called them. VanScoy made sure to list the part of the lectionary appropriate for the week so that people could read the same gospels and lessons.

Then, during Easter week, VanScoy decided someone needed to ring the bells. She volunteered. Donning a mask, she headed down to the church and rang the 1870s-era bell every morning, and continues to ring them every Sunday at 10 a.m.

On May 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo determined that churches could resume religious gatherings, as long as they restrict meetings to 10 people and observe social distancing. Foster had challenged his congregation to re-imagine what church is, a conversation that has been ongoing for a couple of weeks.

As for Pastor Bill, “When we reopen, we will have a plan that is carefully thought through and executed,” he told his congregation on May 24. “It will be done in such a way that everyone is safe to come and worship here.”

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