Churches, synagogues adapt to social distancing The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Churches, synagogues adapt to social distancing

Churches, synagogues adapt to social distancing
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By Zach Alvira
Tribune Sports Editor

Social distancing is forcing churches and synagogues across Mesa and the rest of the nation to retool their outreach to the faithful while bracing for the impact of lower financial support.

Social-distancing restrictions also are firmly in place at one of the most sacred times on the Jewish and Christian calendars as Passover begins at sundown Wednesday, April 8, and Holy Week begins today.

Red Mountain United Methodist Church in Mesa is typical of the way congregations in all faiths are feeling COVID-19’s impact.

Senior Pastor Jen Lambert said the move to virtual worship sessions has been a hard adjustment for some congregants, but everyone is learning to cope with new norm.

“There’ve been mixed reviews,” Lambert said. “We have some folks that aren’t technologically connected. I’ve had people ask if I can mail them copies of my sermons so they can read them. Then there’s others who are embracing the technology.

“It’s actually helped some of our winter residents who are going home for the summer stay connected,” she added.

It’s just not the people in the virtual pews who have had to adjust.

Some pastors also have had to master a virtual pulpit, said Bishop Deborah Hutterer, the leader of the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which covers 89 congregations serving 44,000 members across Arizona, southern Nevada and St. George, Utah.

“Most of them have figured out how to use their phone at the very least and put something online,” Hutterer said. “They’ve had to do a quick learning, master a sharp learning curve and they’ve done that.”

Lambert, in her fourth year with Red Mountain United Methodist Church, said her church has canceled a slew of other activities, from Sunday school to youth programs.

Lambert described that development as “disappointing,” given the number of people who turn to a church as a safe haven during life-changing events like a pandemic.

“Church is so structured around being in community together. We look forward to being together on Sunday mornings,” Lambert said. “All of a sudden, it’s all gone. When 9/11 hit, I was an associate pastor at a church and I remember the first thing we did was open the doors. People were coming in to pray and just to feel safe and secure.

“That’s what church is to a lot of people. It’s safe. Now all of a sudden, we are saying the safest thing to do is not be there. That’s challenging,” Lambert lamented.

Many church leaders nationwide plan to host digital Easter as the country, according to a survey by Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm based in California.

Barna conducted the online survey among 180 Protestant senior pastors from March 24-30.

“A majority of pastors, 58 percent, said they planned to hold a digital service with 45 percent sharing plans to livestream online and another 13 percent recording an Easter message to send out to congregants,” according to the survey.

“While one in five or 20 percent admitted there was no plan in place yet, others said they will hold an outdoor service, find another unique way to convene or meet as usual this Easter. Just 5 percent planned to postpone their Easter celebration for the time being.”

It’s no different for Jewish congregations and their spiritual leaders as they prepare for Passover.

Rabbi Susan Schanerman has cancelled services for Congregation NefeshSoul, which meets in Chandler.

“We have cancelled our in-person congregational seder,” she said, adding she may have a virtual seder on YouTube, where she also is presenting Shabbat services on the NefeshSoulAZ channel.

“We have been including online resources for Passover on my weekly newsletter and hope that our congregants find a safe way to observe the festival,” Schanerman said. “Passover is one of the most celebrated of the Jewish holidays because it is so family- and community-oriented, so this year will be especially difficult for Jews all over the world.”

Social distancing and the shuttering of businesses also are putting some churches and synagogues – and their leaders – in a financial bind as donations drop.

Red Mountain United Methodist saw a dip in offerings when the church initially shut its doors on March 25, Lambert said, but they have started to pick back up.

However, it’s still not up to par with the the results from in-person services.

“While we have had electronic giving in place for a number of years now, not everybody is comfortable with it,” Lambert said. “We now have a text to give and the old-fashioned snail mail. I think people are still trying to figure out the new norm of everything.” 

Synagogues face the same challenges, Schanerman said.

“Rabbis, cantors and other synagogue staff absolutely depend on the financial support of their congregations for their livelihoods,” she said. “We do not receive funds from an umbrella organization. If donations begin to decline, this will put a serious financial strain on synagogues and staff.”

Churches and synagogues also have had to put a nearly complete stop to other ceremonies, including baptisms, funerals and weddings.

Lambert said one celebration of life for one of their longtime members who passed away in January was scheduled for the end of March. However, the ceremony was pushed back to fall.

Lambert said she has heard from colleagues about possibly using video services to still host the celebrations of life, but for now all have been postponed.

In a few cases, Hutterer said, some weddings have been held, but only if the total attendance in church is limited to 10 people – including the bride, groom, witnesses and the presiding minister.

Central Christian Church since March 13 has hosted remote services on Saturday nights as well as at three different times every Sunday.

All Saints Catholic Church has hosted livestreams as well, with Mass celebrated by Father Robert Caruso each morning on the church’s Facebook page.

While some conduct their virtual service in an empty church during worship, Lambert has asked her worship leaders to seclude themselves in their homes.

“It’s still church,” Lambert said. “Church doesn’t have to be about the building. Church is the people and what we do with our time.”

Online services hold promise for the future, according to Nona Jones at Barna.

“Up until now, church has really been deemed as a model that requires a date, a time and a location,” said Jones, head of faith-based partnerships at Facebook and a pastor, along with her husband Tim, at Open Door Ministries in Gainesville, Florida. “Now we’re seeing that technology allows us to actually minister to people 168 hours a week. I’m excited about what the opportunities are here.

“I think this present situation has allowed us to realize that just because we have physical distancing guidelines doesn’t mean that we have to truly socially distance,” Jones continued. “There are platforms where we can still connect.”

Still, pastors are saddened by the prospects of a very different Easter celebration next Sunday.

“For a while we had hoped maybe we could host a sunrise service but now we can’t,” Lambert said. “One of the things I focus on is the idea that the tomb was empty. So, while our church is empty, Christ is still with us. We are sending resources to our members so they can worship at home.”

“We are in this together,” she added. “The church has left the building, but God has not left us. We will come through this and we will be stronger.” γ

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