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.”