The doorsteps of College Baptist that has worked to keep their con­gre­gation wor­shipping throughout the COVID-19 pan­demic. Col­legian | Carmel Kookogey

What do Hillsdale’s churches look like amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic? For most of them, not much dif­ferent. Masks are encouraged, but not required; seating may be more spaced than usual; some churches now offer prepackaged com­munion, yet many church­goers still choose the com­munal chalice.

“Right now, our ser­vices look fairly normal,” Sean Willman, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, said. 

Some Hillsdale churches, like College Baptist, closed tem­porarily at the beginning of the coro­n­avirus out­break in America, when many states — including Michigan — shut down all indoor gath­erings in March of this year. Some, like St. Paul’s, reopened as early as May 31, while others, like Hillsdale First United Methodist Church, remain online-only as of Sep­tember.

College Baptist Voca­tional Elder Pastor Ben Cuthbert said their con­gre­gation was “very patient and appre­ciative” of the church’s decision to worship remotely during the first 14 Sundays after Michigan’s Safer-At-Home order went into effect on March 10.

Some churches, like Hillsdale Free Methodist Church — which was already live-streaming ser­vices before the pan­demic, in addition to in-person worship — switched to Facebook and other plat­forms to broadcast Sunday ser­vices to con­gre­gants. At College Baptist, Cuthbert pre-recorded sermons and posted them on the church’s website on Sunday mornings, together with weekly music selec­tions and bul­letins so members could worship at home. 

To keep the unity of the church body during this time, Cuthbert said his wife also put together weekly photo col­lages of con­gre­gants wor­shiping in their homes, which she shared on social media on Sunday evenings.

“It was a thing that kept us together,” Cuthbert said. “We were all still feeding on the same word. We’re all gath­ering around the same sort of order of service.”

On June 21, after hosting an outdoor worship service at a family home in town to gauge con­gre­gants’ comfort level, College Baptist returned to in-person ser­vices, Cuthbert said. Recordings of the church’s weekly ser­vices are still available online for those who wish to remain at home.

“Since two-thirds or more of our normal local con­gre­gation chose to attend at night, we felt like it was wise and right and prudent to start getting back together,” Cuthbert said. 

Cuthbert men­tioned this choice of date was “middle-of-the-road” in terms of other churches in town. While some churches con­tinue with online-only ser­vices even today, others, like Free Methodist, returned a few weeks earlier, at the beginning of June. 

Pastor David Turner explained that the lead­ership at the Free Methodist church in Hillsdale felt this was appro­priate, though other Methodist churches in their con­ference waited longer before reopening, because of the size and location of their con­gre­gation.

“The coro­n­avirus pan­demic response is going to look much dif­ferent in Detroit, you know, than it does for us in Hillsdale,” Turner said. “We could be a little bit more aggressive, a little quicker, in getting back to nor­malcy at our churches that are in our com­mu­nities that are still expe­ri­encing a low rate of infection and that sort of thing.” 

Free Methodist has set up hand san­i­tizer sta­tions in the church, prepackaged com­munion ele­ments, and keeps every other pew blocked off, with an overflow room in the gym­nasium. Masks are not required.

“If your con­science tells you to wear a mask, we def­i­nitely want you to wear a mask,” Turner said. “And we’re fine with that. We have a tra­di­tional pianist who wears one for the entire service. However, we are also telling people, espe­cially in low-risk cat­e­gories — if their con­science says not to wear a mask, we are fine with that as well. We’re encour­aging people to respect each per­spective, respect the people that choose to wear a mask.”

Con­gre­gants at College Baptist are also encouraged but not required to wear masks; pur­suant to the goal of reducing viral spread, Cuthbert said they have reduced the number of songs con­gre­gants sing together on Sunday morning as well. College Baptist church members are asked to commune outside after the service, to encourage dis­tancing, and for the first two weeks of school, the church also had a sep­arate student section for Hillsdale College stu­dents returning to campus. 

At St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Willman said the biggest changes have been the number of members in masks. 

“If you came to St. Paul’s right now, it would look pretty much like it did at this time last year. The main dif­ference is that there are a number of folks wearing masks,” Willman said. 

Masks are not mandatory at St. Paul’s, and Willman added that the church lead­ership has refrained from making any other similar man­dates on the parish. Instead, they have marked off every other pew to dis­tance church­goers within the con­gre­gation, while still allowing house­holds to sit together should they so choose.

“Gen­erally, we’ve left these things to their own wisdom,” Willman said. 

St. Anthony’s Catholic Church of Hillsdale declined to dis­close any changes they made to their ser­vices in the pan­demic. St. Anthony’s parish website reports that regular mass times con­tinue, with adults asked to wear masks and addi­tional seating areas pro­vided to allow guests to dis­tance. Con­fes­sions con­tinue to take place on Wednesdays and Sat­urdays at 3 p.m. in the parish parking lot. 

Com­munion in COVID-19

For many churches, the crux of the problem pre­sented by virus con­cerns lies in com­munion. The sharing of this important meal may have varied meaning for each church, but all agreed the bread and the cup are the heart of why they gather.

Willman said St. Paul’s members “might not be quite so close to one another at the com­munion rail,” but that decision, too, has been left up to them. Pastors still, as always, offer indi­vidual hosts to be placed in the hands or the mouth of each parish­ioner, and the cup can be received either indi­vid­ually or from the com­munal chalice.

“There are regular san­i­tation prac­tices that we have always done, and those con­tinue,” Willman said. For example, after each indi­vidual com­munes from the chalice, it is wiped with a san­itary cloth called a purifi­cator. Indi­vidual cups in com­munion trays are also more spaced out, to further reduce the pos­si­bility of a member touching anyone’s cup but his own. 

At both College Baptist and Free Methodist, com­munion now comes prepackaged. Instead of passing a plate, members pick up a wrapped piece of bread and cup to eat and drink at the appro­priate moment in the service. 

Making dif­ficult deci­sions

From the size and average age of its members to the very engi­neering of the church’s physical structure, every church is dif­ferent, and this is no less true in Hillsdale County.

As an elder-led church, Cuthbert said College Baptist received helpful sug­ges­tions from the larger Baptist denom­i­nation but had to make deci­sions about where and how it would reopen for itself.

“We took seri­ously the exec­utive orders from the state of Michigan, but we also took seri­ously the guidance of scripture to gather,” Cuthbert said. “We took seri­ously the spir­itual well­being of this con­gre­gation as a whole and the makeup of this par­ticular church.”

Cuthbert pointed out that each of Michigan’s exec­utive orders during the pan­demic pro­vided for reli­gious worship to con­tinue to take place without penalty.

“I’m not pre­tending like it’s the gov­er­nor’s pref­erence that we meet,” he said. “But I am grateful we’re in a state where reli­gious liberty is valued enough that it gets its own dis­tinct point in these exec­utive orders.”

He added that as a result of the pan­demic, his con­gre­gation has had a “heightened appre­ci­ation for the necessity of gath­ering for worship.”

“To be the church is to gather,” Cuthbert said. “The word ‘church’ means ‘gather.’ That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cancel church if there’s a blizzard and nobody can get here safely. Or it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have encouraged people to worship at home for those 14 Sundays because we were still unclear about whether or not it would be safer…But that shared oppor­tunity to worship the God on the ver­tical and encourage others on the hor­i­zontal is crucial to our exis­tence both per­sonally and pas­torally.”

For the parish at St. Paul’s, Willman said throughout the pan­demic church leaders have sought to respect each member’s varying level of concern.

“We’ve allowed the space to encourage pre­cau­tions, while at the same time not losing sight of the gifts Christ has given us in his word and his sacra­ments,” Willman said. “We don’t have a ‘safety-first’ mindset on those things if that makes sense. The world is not a safe place and there is no life outside of Christ. For us to tell people we can keep them safe would simply not be true. But we can offer eternal life. That’s been a guiding point for us.”

The virus is real, Willman said, but so is eternal life in Christ, and the church’s respon­si­bility to give that gift to the world. Cuthbert echoed this sen­timent.

“I felt like the respon­si­bility of myself and my fellow elders was to shepherd this par­ticular flock,” Cuthbert said. “So even though there were churches in town doing dif­ferent things, and cer­tainly dif­ferent churches around the country and the world doing dif­ferent things, we had to figure out how we as a con­gre­gation would con­tinue to worship.”