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How local churches have adapted to COVID-19
Tom Smiley
In this screen shot, the Rev. Tom Smiley, senior pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, provides a message during an online service.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, local churches have had to get creative in finding new ways to gather. 

“The hardest thing is not being able to be with your people in times of crisis. That’s been my biggest stress and my biggest struggle,” said the Rev. Tom Smiley, senior pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville. 

While Lakewood has been able to adapt with streamed services and socially distanced in-person services, Smiley said he has not been able to go to the hospital to minister to those with health issues or hug someone grieving at a funeral. 

“I love our people, and I love being with them and serving them in those types of moments, and I have not been able to,” Smiley said. 

At Lakewood, church-goers are asked to distance and avoid contact such as hugs or handshakes. Space is limited, and masks are encouraged. People can also watch services online.  

As many churches limit in-person gatherings to reduce the spread of COVID-19, religious leaders and church-goers have moved to online or outdoor services or have required reservations to ensure there is enough space to spread out in each parish. 

“We hope to, even virtually, be a place where we can offer spiritual comfort and guidance through this time,” said the Rev. Jeremy Shoulta, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville. 

First Baptist Gainesville offers a weekly outdoor service where people bring their own seating and are encouraged to wear face masks. Another weekly indoor service has no congregational singing and requires church-goers to wear masks. Those planning to attend must register online before the service.  

Shoulta said many Bible studies and Sunday school groups have shifted to Zoom meetings, and some are meeting outdoors in the church’s larger gathering spaces. And, he added, people are staying in touch with phone calls and cards. 

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Jamey Prickett, one of the pastors at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, stands with David Lee, pastor at nearby Antioch United Methodist Church, as GFUMC gathers for an evening service at its lakeside property. Photo courtesy Beth Buffington Weikel.

Shoulta, who joined First Baptist in March at the beginning of the pandemic, said he has not been able to meet many members of the congregation in person yet. 

“That is of course sad, but also a necessary reality,” he said.  

At Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch, parishioners can watch Mass online or attend in-person, if they follow a few extra precautions. Rob Montepare, the church’s director of communications, said people register online before the service and have their temperatures checked at the door.  

People are directed to their seats, where pews are marked off so that households can stay 6 feet apart. Montepare said that while the church can usually accommodate about 900 people, gatherings are limited to about 200 now. Like the others, masks are required. 

“It’s just a lot of love, and a lot of smiles behind masks, smiles with our eyes, and just communicating and talking with people and making sure they feel welcome,” Montepare said. 

Gainesville First United Methodist Church has also found ways to bring people together safely, including a lakeside worship service that people can join online, by radio, in-person or even by boat. The church is also now offering a 7 p.m. outdoor chapel service on Sundays, the Rev. Scott Hearn said. Another Sunday worship service at 10 a.m. is streamed online with no in-person option. 

Hearn said religious leaders “did not have a pandemic class in seminary” and are now faced with the challenge of keeping a sense of community during a time of distancing.  

“People that are used to getting out and about just don’t feel safe now, and we’re trying to stay in touch with them by phone,” Hearn said. “We even have people that will go and have conversations on front porches and through windows at assisted living places … so people can see faces.”  

Beth Buffington Weikel, who attended Gainesville First United Methodist’s lakeside worship called the experience “exceptional.” 

“Everybody just broke down, and it was such a relief to see everybody, to know that everybody is OK,” she said. “… For those of us used to weekly worship, four months is a long time to be away from each other, and it was a very sweet service.” 

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Swimmers attend a Sunday evening service at Gainesville First United Methodist Church on July 19, 2020. The church is located on Thompson Bridge Road and has a lakeside service area and dock below. Photo courtesy Beth Buffington Weikel.

Buffington Weikel said that while she was grateful for the opportunity to go to worship in person, the church community has also stayed in touch remotely.  

“Thank goodness for texts and emails and phone calls,” she said. “We have a pretty powerful group text where we put out prayer requests, and we put out updates for anyone who is sick.” 

At McEver Road United Methodist Church, people can come to a drive-in worship service, or watch it on Facebook.  

On Wednesday nights, a contemporary worship service is recorded and put online each Saturday morning. Bible studies and Sunday school classes are meeting over Zoom. 

“It’s really tough preaching in front of a camera, and I have to do that twice a week now,” the Rev. Rob Bruce said. “Especially with the drive-in church, people have to be in their cars. They can’t get out. I can see them, and that’s a little bit better. But it’s not like preaching to the congregation in your sanctuary.” 

Bruce said the church had planned to reconvene in-person Aug. 16, but leadership have decided to monitor the pandemic month-by-month. Reservations will be needed to attend services, he said. 

Jojo Thomas is director of missions for the Chattahoochee Baptist Association, which serves about 75 Baptist churches. Thomas said at a worship service, churches are able to control more variables than at other church events. Most are not offering services like child care or other events in person, he said, but each church’s situation is different. 

“Some are rural and very small and in areas where the virus is not as prevalent. Others are in town or south of town, so those precautions look different,” he said.  

No matter the case, Thomas said, parishes are advised to use credible and reliable sources when seeking information about COVID-19. 

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