Amidst a pandemic, OBX churches choose a mix of worship options

By on June 5, 2020

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After closing their doors for more than two months due to COVID-19 restrictions, some local churches will begin to offer indoor services again this weekend while other houses of worship are opting to continue providing online services or holding a variety of outdoor gatherings for their congregations.

The Voice interviewed representatives and clergy at 10 local churches and found a mix of approaches when it comes to holding services. But whether they continue to livestream services or cautiously fill their pews, congregations on the Outer Banks have been creative in finding ways to worship together during the pandemic.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge James Dever issued a temporary restraining order as part of a lawsuit against Governor Roy Cooper’s Phase One mass gathering limits that restricted indoor crowds in churches to 10 people. Several days later, the governor’s Order moving into Phase Two of re-opening exempted religious gatherings from indoor restrictions on crowd size.

Three of the churches interviewed — Roanoke Island Christian Fellowship, Liberty Christian Fellowship and Kitty Hawk Baptist Church — are opening for inside worship this weekend. Four are currently holding outdoor services — Bethany United Methodist, All Saints Episcopal, Kitty Hawk Methodist, and Church of the Outer Banks. And three others — Mount Olivet Methodist Church, Colington Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation— are proceeding for now with online services.

Roanoke Island Christian Fellowship is one of those that will open its doors on June 7 by taking reservations to limit the number of people inside the church. Pastor Aaron Burgess said it will open in accordance with its Church of God denominational headquarters and Governor Cooper’s orders. He also sought guidance from the Fellowship Council and members of his congregation.

“We have blocked off every other pew to help maintain social distance and we are restricting our pews to only five individuals per row,” Pastor Burgess said, explaining that five is the average family size in that congregation. He also noted that access will be restricted to only portions of the facility that are going to be used, such as the foyer, restrooms and sanctuary.

By requiring reservations, the church will be at less than 50 percent occupancy with 55 members in the sanctuary. “It’s different, I don’t like it, but it’s where we are,” Burgess said.

Liberty Christian Fellowship on Colington Island will also begin indoor services on June 7 by using a reservation system to limit capacity.

Liberty’s executive assistant Michelle Pruitt told the Voice that the church has been holding outdoor services for the past two weeks. She said the main goal when deciding how to proceed with church services is to honor the wide spectrum of feelings on the issue. “We have to care for everyone’s feelings as we ease back in and create a middle ground,” she said.

Pruitt added that when indoor services resume, church members will not be able to congregate like they used to and provisions will include spacing out in the sanctuary, as well as no children’s ministry or coffee ministry.

As for Kitty Hawk Baptist Church, it also plans to hold indoor services this week. “We are planning on opening this coming Sunday,” Deacon Mike Ross said during a brief interview with the Voice. “And we are going to great lengths to follow all social distancing guidelines.”

For other churches, the decision, for now, is to wait before re-starting indoor services.

At Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, Pastor Matt Seals says his congregation continues to meet for worship online and through Zoom.

He said the church has created a workgroup that is reviewing CDC guidelines and recommendations for houses of worship as well as guidelines and recommendations put forth through the North Carolina Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“My hope and prayer are that sometime in June we will begin outdoor worship services in the parking lot of the church,” he wrote in an email to the Voice. “Our goal is to return back together for indoor/in-person worship when we can do so without the potential of doing harm to the health of our community and those who worship at Mount Olivet.”

At Colington United Methodist, Rev. Teresa Holloway said the church continues to offer online services through its website, Facebook and youtube. “We are taking it one day at a time to see the [COVID-19] numbers,” she said.

Bethany United Methodist Church has been able to offer outdoor services on its large parcel of property, said Pastor Ken Mann. “Some people come, and they bring their own chairs…some folks come and stay in their car and some are riding in golf carts.”

Along with being outdoors, there have been some other changes. “We haven’t done a communion service and we don’t do our normal fellowship where we hug and shake hands. Everything is kept at a distance,” Mann noted, adding that the majority of the congregation is content with outdoor services for now.

He added that there have been discussions about where to go from here and a lot of questions about what an indoor service would look like.  “But right now,” Pastor Mann concluded, “that’s up in the air. We’ve been blessed and we’ve had beautiful days…and the people seem to have a freedom outside. I can’t explain it, but it seems like the worship and praise has been more vibrant, so it’s really been really been a special time.”

At the Church of the Outer Banks, which has a long-term lease with the Outer Banks YMCA in Nags Head, Father Joey Fitzgerald said his congregation has been holding services in the parking lot for the past three weeks while also streaming via Facebook live. For the time being, he said, his church is satisfied with holding outdoor services.

“Of course, we are practicing social distancing and making sure that all precautions are being taken. Most people bring their chairs and blankets to sit on, but a few have chosen to remain in their cars,” Father Fitzgerald wrote in an email. “For those that sit in their cars, we have an FM transmitter that lets them tune in their radio to hear the service. Our sound system is small, so this helps everyone hear.”

He noted that regardless of when services move back inside, the church will not be holding children’s Sunday school or nursery until the fall. “We will use the school system as a barometer for when to resume activities with children,” said Father Fitzgerald. “We will also stagger and alter our seating to allow for distance between people.”

Noting that many churches have been working hard to continue their mission during the COVID-19 crisis, Rev. David Morris of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Kitty Hawk said in an email to the Voice that, “It’s been enormously important for our members and friends to find ways to keep connected and continue our work of spiritual exploration, building loving community, and seeking a more just society.”

Morris added that his congregation wasn’t hurrying to resume in-person services.

“Our national leadership has encouraged us to anticipate online worship continuing into 2021,” he said. “Locally, we will make careful decisions about how to re-enter our building gradually and in stages, following the guidance of public health officials and making our own judgments as we watch the effects on local virus cases of the stages of ‘re-opening’ in our local community and state.”

According to Jen Swaringen, parish administrator with All Saints Episcopal Church in Southern Shores, the church held its first outdoor service on its grounds on May 31. Prior to that, the church was offering pre-recorded services for its parishioners.

And Rev. Colin Snider of Kitty Hawk United Methodist Church told the Voice that his congregation held its first drive-in worship service in the parking lot of Kitty Hawk Elementary School on May 31. As far as when that church might open its doors, he said he was hesitant to speculate because of rapidly changing information related to the pandemic.


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