On May 16th, a federal court judge granted a two-week temporary court order to allow North Carolina churches to reopen, although Governor Cooper’s guidelines limited indoor gatherings to no more than ten individuals. This week, we look at how two local churches handled the decision of whether or not to hold in-person services.
“The decision to not regather was based on the advice of the medical community, epidemiologists, the scientific community, and conversations with other clergy and churches in both Durham and Chapel Hill,” The Gathering Church Pastor Kurt Lowndes said. “Right when we were allowed to meet again in person, all the data still said that gathering in large groups, indoors, for an extended period of time, especially if you’re singing, could be one of the worst things you could do to spread the virus. For us, the decision came down to our mission: to love people incredibly well. That includes our neighbors and those who aren’t at the church. The best way we can love our people and our neighbors is to not spread the coronavirus, so we decided not to gather in person.”
While the court ruling allowed churches to reopen, the cases of coronavirus in North Carolina have been climbing steadily.
“We’ve seen the stark contrast between the reopening of the state and municipalities and cities, meaning people can get out and do more, and our health care workers that are still seeing the same, if not an increase in patients. They are still feeling the stress and the burden of that. We are aware that everything is not happening the same way in all sectors of society,” Pastor Kurt explained.
While The Gathering Church hopes to regather in the future, they are exercising caution and letting the data guide their next steps.
“I think we will regather at some point, but there are no deadlines here. We’re taking it a little bit at a time and seeing what the data shows for where we are at any given moment,” Pastor Kurt said. “I’m part of a clergy group that gets a weekly update on the state of coronavirus in North Carolina and the Triangle, so we’ve been using that to discern the best way forward. We do have plans for a number of scenarios that we might regather: in smaller groups in different places, outside, or indoors in a larger room and for shorter periods of time. It is based on a phased approach. We’re also keeping an eye on what the local orders are, because so far those have been more restrictive than the state orders. We decided early on that we wouldn’t just do whatever the government said we could do, but that our guiding principle would be our mission to love people. For us, we don’t feel the need to rush back into this, and we feel like caution is a great way to move forward.”
The Gathering Church has adapted their services to online platforms, recording podcasts and hosting Zoom meetings.
“The first weekend that we didn’t have in-person gatherings, we recorded a podcast. Our music director recorded some music, and we had individuals record readings of scripture,” Kurt explained. “We used a team approach to the sermon as a way of having different voices speak. We did that for about three weeks and then we transitioned to Zoom because we liked the idea of people being able to see one another and gather at the same time.”
However, Zoom meetings do not provide the same connection as in-person services.
“It is challenging, because in preaching, I’m someone who likes to interact with folks,” Pastor Kurt said. “You get feedback as you go and you can see people’s facial expressions to tell if they’re tracking or not. On Zoom, it’s very different. We have more than 70 screens that are joining in, so we can’t just have everybody unmuted at once.”
“There are a number of things that I miss about in- person services,” Pastor Kurt said. “Physical touch is important. We know this in the medical community, we know this in the faith community. Being able to shake hands, to hug someone, to give someone a pat on the back when they’re crying, to let them know that you’re there with them, that’s been very difficult to not offer those greetings and signs of welcome and comfort. Also, not being able to take communion has been really hard. Our practice at The Gathering Church is to do that weekly. Each week, we gather at the altar table and you take a piece of bread, so it’s a very tactile and sensory experience and we don’t have that anymore, at least all together. We miss the fellowship of the time we had together, being able to speak to lots of people who were gathered for worship.”
“We all take things for granted until they’re gone. Part of most faith traditions is learning to be present where we are and grateful for what we’ve been given, but sometimes we’re not great at that,” Pastor Kurt explained. “This time has certainly reminded us of the power and the importance of being able to gather together in that way as a body who is united physically in space and time and in presence. We lament the loss of those good things that we shared together.”
While there are difficulties presented with preaching over Zoom, there are also a multitude of experiences to be grateful for.
“Although it’s been different, we’re grateful that we have this ability to speak with one another, to proclaim good news to each other during this time,” Pastor Kurt said. “My favorite thing about giving sermons online is seeing people’s faces. As a minister and the way I understand pastoring, it involves personal contact. Although that can’t happen, we’ve been able to gather over Zoom so that we can see each other’s faces, hear voices, and use breakout rooms to divide up into smaller groups, just to allow people to say ‘hello’ and share a greeting and pass the peace of Christ. Without a mask on, it’s great to be able to see people smile with their mouths and not just their eyes.”
The Gathering Church has also adapted their youth group and Sunday school to reach out to students without in-person meetings. Every other week, the youth group does a Zoom Bible study, and on the off weeks, their youth director, Jessica Neiman, makes a phone call to each of them. As a substitute for Sunday school, the church produces a video on Tuesdays and Sundays for their lesson.
“We’re exploring what it might look like for our youth to meet outside, socially distanced, wearing masks, but nothing is set in stone yet,” Pastor Kurt said.
The Gathering Church has also gotten creative with new projects and communication ideas.
“We’ve developed the pen-pal project between adults and children, where they write letters back and forth. It’s fostered new friendships in our congregation that probably would not have happened without this,” he said. “One of our leadership team members, Carlos Womack, developed the Gathering Tree, like a phone tree where you get a call and call five other people, so we make communications, share information, and receive prayer requests that way.”
The Gathering Church started a virtual Bible study that meets on Tuesday nights through Zoom, and most of their home groups have also transitioned to online, virtual gatherings.
“Some weren’t able to, but hopefully as Christians we’re pretty good at letting things die and resurrect in new ways,” Pastor Kurt said.
They have also continued their ‘‘Conversations on Race” group through Zoom, where members of the church learn about stories of racial oppression in the community, nation, and world, and they strive to be proximate to the vulnerable around them.
“In light of the recent protests and George Floyd’s death, we are grateful that we have been having those conversations already, and now we are inviting more folks,” Pastor Kurt said.
Pastor Kurt stepped into the role of lead pastor in April, as Mark Acuff, the previous lead pastor, retired after 10 years of leading the Gathering Church. His style is less formal, which is why he goes by Pastor Kurt.
“I’m incredibly grateful for the way Pastor Mark Acuff paved the way for me to come along, as well as the leadership team,” he said. “We spent about a year planning and preparing for this moment in the life of our community. Mark was very gracious, very kind, and he loves to include and share others, so he made it easy for the leadership transition to happen. That said, it’s been really difficult because I can’t have as much interpersonal interaction as I’d love to be able to.”
“Once things began to shift pretty quickly in the world, we started realizing that in some ways, this is going to be very different than we thought,” Pastor Kurt explained. “We had a giant party planned for Mark and (his wife) Libby to celebrate his retirement from lead pastor, and also their retirement from ministry. Well, you couldn’t have a large party at the end of April. That was a loss, our people were looking forward to being able to celebrate and honor them.”
“All our staff have really given it all they’ve got, and put in long hours and effort, and our leadership team has been great, so we have good people who have helped share that load,” Kurt said. “We’re making it happen, and at the end of the day, our mission is to love people incredibly well. It doesn’t matter who the lead pastor is, that stands true. So it’s been an up and down experience, but one for which I am very grateful.”
The Gathering Church values community outreach, partnering with organizations like Corner to Corner, PORCH, and World Relief Durham.
“We’ve had long-standing relationships with our community partners, so our community engagement team reached out early on and asked, ‘How can we best serve you?’ Sometimes that’s been financial needs, sometimes it’s been prayer, sometimes it’s been raising awareness for folks,” Pastor Kurt said.
“We have some folks whose immune systems are stronger, they’re younger, and they don’t have any underlying conditions, so they’re willing to go to the grocery store and deliver groceries,” he said. “There are ways to serve people, even from a distance. We’re trying to be creative. There are some things that are still happening and just look different, there are some things that have stopped, and there are some things that are new and our partners have said ‘Hey, can you do this?’ And ‘Yes, we can, for you. We will find a way.’”
“I’ve been so encouraged by our people’s response to the needs in our community. Our people are so gracious and so generous,” Pastor Kurt said. “Pretty early on, we created a COVID-19 support fund, and we’ve been able to disperse this to our community partners and individuals who need financial assistance.”
Last Sunday, Pastor Kurt preached a sermon on the Psalms, lamenting the passing of the 100,000-death mark for coronavirus victims and the state of the nation’s race relations.
“The Psalms have been an incredible resource for our church because they cover the breadth of the life of faith,” he explained. “There are Psalms that are incredibly joyful and filled with praise, but there are also lament Psalms where the message is to cry out to God with anger, with hurt, and with grief. It’s encouraging to know that God is big enough to handle what we are feeling.”
Pastor Kurt encourages the community to support one another during the challenges brought by the pandemic.
“The best way to support a church and the community is to continue to be present,” he said. “Be present in the life of the church, to your family members, to your neighbors, and to those who are more likely to suffer from the coronavirus or racial inequities. Even when we’re not able to show up in person, we can still be with each other and for each other.”