OTTUMWA — With churches allowed to gather for worship after the Iowa governor lifted some restrictions, individual congregations are taking different approaches to how they maintain the balance between community and safety.
Heartland Church in Ottumwa decided to open its doors Saturday evening, a decision that took a lot of thought and prayer according to its Pastor Jim Olson, Associate Pastor Emily Covert and Covert’s sister and one of the worship leaders Ashley Youngblood.
“We took the steps to make people safe; people need community,” Covert said. “They can come but not hug each other.”
Those who did come to Saturday’s service were asked to stay 6 feet apart from one another and not bring children.
“We felt like this was the right time,” Olson said. “Other churches are doing this, and we want to be responsible.”
Youngblood said she wanted the church’s doors to reopen because of the first amendment. “People have the rights to worship,” she said. “If they are allowing us to have church, that is a religious freedom. We don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, which is why we also implemented guidelines. They don’t have to come if they don’t want to.”
Olson agreed. “Not everyone has to do this,” he said. “We are all taking measures to be careful. We are using wisdom and discernment and trusting in the Lord. Having church is not us rebeling. We want to serve the Lord and serve the people that come.
“We don’t want to live in fear,” Olson added. “We want the freedom to come together and worship.”
In opening up church, Olson, Covert and Youngblood said they weren’t afraid of the virus exposure despite this weekend’s increase in COVID-19 cases in the county.
“You’re at risk of getting it when you go to the grocery store, when you touch a gas handle,” Covert said. “I don’t think the risk of having church is any higher or lower than the walk in the park.”
Olson, who is nearly 80 and considered “high at risk” also wasn’t worried about the possible virus exposure at church.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “I believe there’s a mandate on my life that the Lord will protect me. We’re taking this one day at a time — we will get through this.”
Pastors Kim and Randy Saylor of Jubilee Church initially were going to open the building’s doors to their congregation in early May and then decided against it.
Kim Saylor is working on a plan for how church will reopen. Randy Saylor also spoke with other pastors across the country and discerned advice from them which also helped with their decision to not open up the church indefinitely.
When the Saylors do make the decision to reopen the facility’s doors, Kim Saylor said social distancing will be stressed. Members, she said, will have to choose to sit at every other pew. The nursery will be closed, meaning children will have to stay with their parents. Reducing church service times, which typically last two hours, is another change the Saylors will make in order to accommodate children’s attention spans.
“We’re also looking at adding services for high-risk individuals on Saturdays,” Kim Saylor said. “Everyone at the service there will be reminded to keep their distance and wear masks.”
“This is all new territory,” Randy Saylor said. “We are still learning. We are trying to really be sensitive to people’s needs and want them to know they are valued.”
As with any “new territory,” there also come challenges. For Randy Saylor it is not being able to physically gather with his “church family” and having to do all ministry online, such as children’s ministry, missions, tithes and online services.
“It’s about trying to do all of church from A to Z,” Randy Saylor said.
Kim Saylor chimed in. “A challenge is “how do we keep our sense of community when we can’t gather together?” In working on how to keep connections, the Saylors, have regular Zoom chats and taking prayer requests.
Social connections is a challenge Pastor Marty Schmidt of Bridge Church faces. “We also just want to figure out,” Schmidt said. “How do we create a daily presence in the fact that our social interactions have greatly reduced — how do we continue to be a presence?”
When it comes time to reopen, Schmidt will also have to see how social distancing will be emphasized, especially among children.
Schmidt and the Saylors are continuing to reflect on the churches’ future in the coming months as they pray and listen to announcements. They’re staying positive.
“I’m optimistic that we will start exploring in-person meetings come the month of June, but it will not be a return to normal,” Schmidt said. “There probably will be restrictions and recommendations that we make on who are services are most appropriately designed for.”
“This is a fluid situation. I’m not sure we will be the old normal anytime soon,” Kim Saylor said. “We’ll have to find a new normal and work on social connections. This will be a gradual process.”
“I think the church has a bright future,” Randy Saylor said. “We are putting the wisdom of God into the church and into the community as we move forward.”