Area churches have responded in various ways to Gov. Tim Walz’s restrictions on public gathering, designed to control the spread of COVID-19.

After a series of orders limiting social contact to groups of 50, then 10, Walz announced a “stay at home” order on Wednesday, effective this weekend through April 10.

The Enterprise spoke with several ministries this week about the creative ways they are keeping in touch with parishioners, regardless of whether they have Internet access.

“It’s giving us new opportunities on how to fulfill our mission,” said Faithbridge Church Pastor Jeff Lange. “We’re in this together. We’re not afraid, but we also want to be wise and operate with our due diligence, in terms of honoring our leaders, our government officials. But we also want to honor our congregation.”

Virtual church

“It’s a whole new concept for many churches,” Pastor Lauren Hauger of Hubbard United Methodist Church said about live streamed worship. “Many churches do not have these capabilities. We are very blessed to be able to reach people who don’t have the opportunity to worship at this time.”

“It’s created an opportunity for us to test some different technology,” Lange agreed.

Churches in the area that are posting worship videos or live streaming their services online include, but are not limited to, Hubbard UMC, Faithbridge, St. Johns Lutheran (Park Rapids), Eastside Christian, First English Lutheran (Dorset), Calvary Lutheran (Park Rapids), Peace Lutheran (Nevis), the Heartland Lutheran Community (Nevis and Akeley) and Lakes Area Vineyard Church.

“I think this has caused many of our churches who thought they couldn’t do any type of live streaming to take a giant leap into the 21st century and realize that they can,” said former Hubbard UMC Pastor Laurie Kantonen, who now supervises a 77-parish district.

“Our church has been meeting virtually, online, and we’ve been doing our worship planning, and the leadership team has been meeting about how we are going to reach out into the community during this time,” said Hauger. “Faith groups are meeting virtually. Our worship will be live streamed on YouTube. We are also on Facebook live, frequently, and we are reaching out in various ways.”

Hauger live streams services from a sanctuary in the basement of her home, “trying to be as physically distanced as possible, because it’s the smart thing to do at this time,” she said.

The UMC’s Minnesota-Dakotas Conference has received guidance from their bishop, Rev. Bruce Ough, recommending that churches remain closed until at least May 12.

“There’s a good chance that we’ll continue live streaming, even when we have public worship again,” said Rev. James Neubauer, senior pastor at St. Johns. “We have been working a lot harder on our website, and we’ve added a couple of menus that are specifically during this time, although again, they’ll probably continue afterwards.”

These menus offer an increased range of devotions and links to other sites, he said.

Lange said live streaming is an ongoing part of Faithbridge’s services, “but we’ve really had to lean into the technology.”

With videos hosted on Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook, he said, “We have worship and we have teaching, and kind of our normal services, as what our congregation would expect (if they were) here in person.”

In addition to live stream worship Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings during Lent, Calvary Lutheran is also planning a virtual Sunday School. “That’s a work in progress,” said Senior Pastor Steve Norby.

Other ways to reach out

Norby said Calvary is also looking into the possibility of having church members record messages to post on their website. “Then, maybe, there’ll be a devotion, not just with the pastor, but also what’s been meaningful for the people,” he said. “It also could include children.”

Faithbridge is also trying to incorporate elements in its spectrum of offerings “that engage all the generations in our congregation, including kids, senior adults and families,” Lange said.

For example, they are posting children’s activities on their website, and the church’s leadership team is looking for other creative ways to connect with members besides video.

“We are also reaching out to those members of the congregation who are not available by email, through phone calls,” said Lange.

Neubauer said St. Johns volunteers contacted every member of the congregation to make sure they have contact information, in many cases asking about Internet access.

“The first thing we did,” he said, “we added a dial-a-devotion feature. People can call the church and be put through to a devotional. It may not be new every day, but that’s going to be our goal.”

He also talked about updating parishioners with mailings. “It’s another contact with the people who don’t have technology,” he said. “We encourage people to remember those who may not have Internet access, and to be calling them more frequently, since they would be more isolated.”

Parishioner Joy Derr discussed a “phone tree” created by a group of Hubbard UMC members, dividing up a list of the congregation’s most vulnerable people – “those who are living in nursing homes or are convalescing, or perhaps are just single and have no family around them.

“We are calling out to them, usually at least once a week,” she said, “just to see how they’re doing, to chat, to visit, to give them a sense of community.”

“We are working hard at creating all these different ministries in different ways,” said Hauger, adding that for those unable to go online, “I send my sermons to them, via snail mail or in our newsletter. There’s various options for people."

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