Church leaders split on how to worship amid COVID spike: 'It's really hard'

Some churches go online while others remain in-person during omicron surge
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Posted at 7:16 PM, Jan 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-09 19:23:47-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Pastors, priests, and other church leaders across Central Virginia are scrambling to change COVID-19 protocols amid record numbers of new daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. While some have moved services online, others are continuing to gather in person with strict measures reminiscent of 2020: mask requirements and social distancing.

“One thing about the faith community: we're learning we don’t need a building all the time," said Ralph Hodge. “If your faith is anchored in a building, we missed it.”

This Sunday, the pastor of Second Baptist Church South Richmond gave his 95th consecutive sermon to a room of empty chairs and a camera which live-streamed his message to Facebook Live.

“We've been virtual since the third Sunday of March 2020," he said.

Hodge and his team were in the middle of a reopening plan that was supposed to begin January 9th. It included blocking certain seats off, limiting capacity, and mask requirements. However, Hodge decided to put the plan on pause due the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.

“I’d probably give a right leg to come back to in-person services right now," Hodge said. "The only reason we're not coming back is simply because we don't want to be responsible for anyone getting sick."

A couple miles across the Southside, a similar scenario plays out at The Life Church. Pastor Vernon Gordon has moved all weekend services exclusively online as he monitors coronavirus data.

“Our priority is the health and safety of everybody in our congregation," Gordon said.

Before making the call, Gordon said he consulted with his medical advisory committee which includes health professionals within the church as well as outside influences. As expected, he said not everyone supported his decision.

“A church is full of people who love each other, and we're a family," Gordon explained. "But nonetheless, even family has differing opinions.”

He said every decision he's made so far throughout the pandemic has been done with wise council and good intentions. Even though some people disagree with his approach, he asks his congregation for grace as they navigate this season together.

“For every opinion and the data that supports that opinion on one side, there's data and opinions on the other side that are in alignment," Gordan said.

Across the river, Pastor John Wagler of Hill City Church is also walking the tightrope of varying opinions on how to move forward.

"It's really hard," Wagler said. “As a leader, you're bouncing their emotional health, their physical health, and their spiritual health.”

For now, Wagler said Hill City will continue in-person services, with a virtual option, while asking everyone to mask up. He said the community and human connection of being physically together have served as lifelines for some, especially after virtual work, school, and gatherings took a toll on peoples' mental health.

“I had three people come up to me, just absolutely in tears of being able to be together and God doing something in them this morning," Wagler said. “You just can’t get that online.”

Like Gordon, Wagler said not everyone is fully on board with his direction. However, he emphasized that every church congregation has different needs, and he's doing the best he can to support his community.

"Every leader has to take into account the nuanced elements and so many different pieces that fit in to this, and some of us arrive at different conclusions," he said.

In Chesterfield, Elizabeth Felicetti, the rector of St. David's Episcopal Church, is keeping an in-person option as well.

“I’ve dedicated my life to this," she said. "I think that church is essential.”

Part of her decision to continue in-person worship stems from a personal time in her life when she underwent cancer treatment and was unable to gather with others on Sundays.

"I had to watch my congregation on a screen, and for me, that was not worship," Felicetti said.

Recently, her diocese moved to suspend public worship, but Felicetti quickly filed for an exemption.

“In order to qualify for the exemption, we had to require masks, require distancing, and have the ability to contact trace," she said.

However, she said her decision drew criticism from the congregation.

“Some of the comments have been very harsh," Felicetti said. “If I did not believe sincerely that God was calling me to this, I would not want to do it anymore.”

To those who may be feeling the toll of COVID-19, these four faith leaders offer words of encouragement and advice.

"I think it's important to name our fears and have really honest talks about our fears and then to move ahead," Felicetti said.

"I would just encourage people to keep trying to find ways to just stay connected," Wagler said. "And through that, you'll be able to have some people to walk through all of this with and to give you a sense of hope."

"I will remind people of a brief scripture that is found in the New Testament that says, 'For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, power, and have a sound mind,'" Gordon said.

"We wait and trust in God. He's going to get us through it." Hodge said. "God has always done that for His people. He'll get you through a crisis."

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