A return to the pew in Sumter

Churches take varying approaches in reopening their in-person services


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Unpredictability has been a part of the coronavirus pandemic since it burst on the scene this spring.

Whether with the models, the statistics or how to combat it, there has been little rhyme or reason in people and organizations dealing with it. That has certainly included houses of worship on moving forward with returning to in-person services.

Sumter First Church of the Nazarene "regathered" on May 17 with two services in its sanctuary out near Patriot Park. The Rev. Greg Pressley said the decision to come back together on that date was not made on a whim.

"We formed a committee to discuss this right after it happened," Pressley said. "It met every two weeks by Zoom, and it helped formulate a plan."

The committee worked for eight weeks toward planning their return.

"We worked with local officials, other people, to make sure we were following the CDC guidelines and that it was safe to do that," Pressley said. "We felt like we had done all of our work ahead of time and had followed all the guidelines."

There were two services held that Sunday with about 60 in attendance at each service. There was a deep cleaning of the facility prior to the services. Instead of pews, the church used chairs so they were spread out for social distancing, and if some wanted to sit by themselves, they could. There were hand sanitizers at the entrances, as well.

The church produced a video showing what it would look like upon returning to the campus. After the service, a survey was sent out to congregants asking how they felt about how things were handled.

"It was questions like, 'do you feel safe? Is there anything you would change?'" Pressley said. "It was all very, very positive."

Pressley said he has not heard of anyone testing positive for the coronavirus among his parishioners who attended the services.

Christ Community Church, at 320 Loring Mill Road, had its first in-person services this past Sunday, May 24, since the shutdown. Its services were held outside behind the church in a well-wooded area called "The Grove."

There were three services held - as the church normally does - at 8:30, 10 and 11:30 a.m. Between the three services, Pastor Mark Yoder estimated there was an attendance of 300 people.

"Being outdoors is a lot different," said Yoder, who normally has about 1,200 congregants each Sunday between the services. "Social distancing is a lot easier. We could have had 600 out there, and social distancing still wouldn't have been much of a problem. We decided to stay on the regular service schedule because we didn't want anyone to think that one was the less important of the three.

"We got a lot of information and read what state and local governments were suggesting we do. We wanted to make sure we were following the proper guidelines. We encouraged people to wear masks, but we didn't require it. People sat in clusters with their family. We didn't feel like there was a problem with that."

CCC has made a slight change to its schedule for this Sunday. While there will still be three services, only the first two will be outside. The third will be available via live stream.

The reason for the change? A common one for outdoor activities in mid- to late May in South Carolina.

"At 11:30, it was starting to get very hot," Yoder said. "It was messing with our equipment, and you could feel the heat."

Bethesda Church of God, at 2730 Broad St., will be holding its first in-person services this Sunday, which is Pentecost Sunday. That is one of the reasons why that date was decided upon.

"I talked to a number of (Church of God) pastors from across the state that were opening up on the 17th," the Rev. Al Sims said. "We felt like that was a little too early. Then the next week was Memorial Day weekend, and we felt like a number of people would be traveling and that would put them in a quandary; go back to church or cancel a trip. We thought Pentecost Sunday would be a day that we could celebrate and recognize."

Sims said a lot of work and preparation has gone into establishing protocol and sanitizing the building for their two services. Bethesda normally holds just one service.

"About the only thing that someone is going to need to touch is a chair," Sims said. "We've amped up the sanitation stations. There are going to be six feet between rows. People will be asked to wear masks. We've gone the extra mile to make sure that people are as safe as possible."

Each of the three pastors has expressed one common thing to his respective congregation: Don't feel obligated to come to an in-person service if you don't feel you're ready for it.

"We've told people, 'If you do not feel comfortable coming, please stay home,'" said Yoder, who will be celebrating his six-year anniversary as the lead pastor at CCC.

"There are a number of people in our congregation who are caregivers for people, and they've told me they're not comfortable with the health situation," Sims said. "I've told them I have no problem with that. I encourage it (people staying home and viewing services online if they're not comfortable). Everyone knows what their health situation is, whether it be a diabetic, blood pressure problem, whatever. I'd rather have people for the long haul than for the first day back."

Pressley and Yoder said as preachers it was exciting to again have people in the seats as they delivered their sermons.

"That was a great thing," Pressley said. "To actually have people responding to the message was tremendous. And it was fun to watch and see how grateful everyone was to see each other."

"It wasn't quite back to normal for me, partly because there was about 50 feet between me and the congregation," Yoder said, laughing. "Still, it was a lot better than preaching to an empty room. It's a whole different time in doing church, what we're doing now."

While churches may not have been able to meet in person for the last couple months, that doesn't mean God hasn't been moving.

"We've seen God do some significant things though we haven't been meeting in a single place," Pressley said.

Bethesda had members of its church prayer group walk the property earlier this week and pray for the church and restarting its in-person services. Sims is anticipating a lot of energy in the sanctuary on Sunday.

"I do think it's going to be a high-spirited congregation," he said. "The reason I'm saying that is people getting back together, but most of all people getting back into the sanctuary to worship."