For the first time in more than two months, Living Hope Baptist Church Senior Pastor Jason Pettus may hear an “Amen” this Sunday, albeit one muffled by a cloth mask.
Like nearly every minister in the area, Pettus has been delivering his sermons virtually since the coronavirus pandemic and state of emergency started in March. Streaming services on Facebook or YouTube with no congregants in the church became the new normal for Pettus and his fellow pastors as they made the transition to socially distanced church services.
“It has been like preaching blind because you can’t see how people are responding to what you’re saying,” Pettus said. “Preaching is really a dialogue because the audience reacts with cues that let me know they’re grasping what the Word is saying.”
Now, with Gov. Andy Beshear and the courts clearing the way for houses of worship to again begin meeting in person, ministers like Pettus are making another transition. That involves figuring out how to welcome people back into pews while also abiding by guidelines put in place to continue slowing the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory disease.
For Living Hope, that has meant taping off some pews to maintain the social distancing and conform to the mandate that attendance be limited to 33 percent of capacity.
Pettus said Living Hope will have four invitation-only services Sunday.
Those attending will be required to wear face coverings, and entry into and exit from the services will be orchestrated to avoid close contact.
Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Smallhouse Road is taking a gradual approach to in-person services. Pastor John Thomas said Holy Spirit planned its first public Mass at 8 a.m. Thursday and will celebrate Mass on Friday and Saturday before holding a single Mass on Sunday.
“It’s not our regular schedule ... ,” Thomas said. “The crowd should be low at 8 a.m. for our first one, and we’ll be able to see what this is going to look like.”
Thomas said those attending the services will notice some big changes.
“We’ll have only one entrance into the church, and everyone will be required to have a face covering,” he said. “We’ll seat people from the front to the back and then escort them out again to keep people from congregating.”
Holy Spirit is using an online signup system to schedule attendance at each Mass, with a limit of 180 people at each service in order to conform to the 33 percent mandate.
“If we need to add Masses, we’ll add them,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to do this responsibly. It’s hard to make some of these decisions because it’s all so new.”
Although his church is following state mandates, Thomas sees the guidelines as in keeping with Christian principles.
“We’re doing this not out of obligation but out of Christian charity and love,” he said. “These rules will help protect the elderly and the frail, who are asked not to attend. The (Owensboro) diocese has released people from the obligation to attend Mass.”
Likewise, Eastwood Baptist Church Interim Lead Pastor Brandon Porter sees the restrictions as another way for his members to do their Christian duty.
“We want to abide by the guidelines for safety,” said Porter, whose members will gather in the church building Sunday for the first time since March. “It will take some time to figure out how to do social distancing in hallways and during worship. We have to make sure we have the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment) for volunteers, and we have to take everyone’s temperature as they enter the building.”
Despite the extra work, including deep cleaning of the church between services, Porter is excited to have a live audience after two months of online services.
“Preaching to an empty room is the nightmare of every pastor,” he said. “But during this pandemic, we know it’s a necessity.”
Eastwood has done two drive-in services – one at Easter and one on Mother’s Day – but has mostly relied on streaming to reach its members during the pandemic.
Porter has been pleased with how Eastwood’s members have responded.
“While it may not be the ideal form of worship, they’ve been receptive and gracious to participate through the live stream,” he said.
Pettus has had a similar experience at Living Hope.
“Fortunately, these days we have the technology to stay connected,” Pettus said. “Our people have been very positive about the live streaming. Our congregation has been so faithful, and they have shown great stewardship.”
While many other churches will be opening their doors this weekend, some are taking a more patient approach.
Broadway United Methodist Church, like many churches of that denomination, is opting to wait a while longer to resume in-person services.
“We haven’t set a date,” Adam Shourds, Broadway’s senior pastor, said in an email. “We are surveying the congregation this week and our council will meet again in June. We are still watching and waiting.”
Despite the difficulties local churches have faced with the shutdown and transition to virtual services, Pettus has been encouraged.
“I can’t say that I ever fathomed anything like this,” he said, “but in a lot of ways it has been a good thing. These are not bad days.”