Very few organizations are as guided by traditional practices as are churches. So, in the midst of the national response to the COVID-19 crisis, churches are finding themselves needing to rethink how they go about being the church.
Since national CDC guidelines discourage groups of more than 10 gathering together, almost every congregation is finding they must cancel or curtail conducting worship services in their buildings.
Ponca City churches are no exception. The four United Methodist congregations in Ponca City serve as an example of how others in the city are responding to the crisis.
Albright, Asbury, First and St. Paul UMC’s each have cancelled all activities in their worship centers for a minimum of four weeks. Instead they plan on providing opportunities for their congregants to access worship online.
Rev. Don Griffith, pastor of First UMC, said that a small worship team will be in his church’s sanctuary on Sunday during the crisis to provide a worship service, complete with music and a sermon. Congregants can join the worship by streaming it on Facebook live. The church’s practice of telecasting the service live over Sparklight Channel 68 will continue. “We are asking our people to be as faithful to participating in worship at the normal time as possible,” he said. “But one can view the Facebook stream at any time,” he said.
“We are trying to keep things as normal as possible and still be faithful to the CDC guidelines.”
Rev. Tracey Ivy, pastor of Albright and Asbury, and Rev. Francis Bartley, pastor of St. Paul’s, both indicated that they will be streaming services on Facebook as well.
Bartley’s wife, Lois, is pastor of Tonkawa First UMC and is a campus pastor at Northern Oklahoma College. The pair will work together from home to provide the worship services for their respective congregations. Francis Bartley also is pastor of the rural Prairie Chapel UMC. Both St. Paul and Prairie Chapel have Facebook pages from which the services can be accessed.
“I have provided a devotional each morning on Facebook,” Bartley said. “That will continue as well as the Sunday worship.”
Each congregation will be given specific instructions about the best way to access the services.
Some churches in Ponca City have indicated they will make decisions about their process on a week-to-week basis. Others, like the four United Methodist congregations, are making plans that will cover an extended period of time.
For example, a tradition of Ponca City area United Methodist churches has been to have a combined service on Maundy Thursday. That service also will be conducted by video streaming this year. The pastors will conduct the service and it will be streamed live. A part of the worship involves the administration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Those watching at home are going to be asked to have the elements of bread and wine ready and those elements will be consecrated by the pastors over the air.
Rev. Ivy also indicated that her churches’ traditional Good Friday services will be not be held this year
One of the biggest events of the Christian year is Easter Sunday when larger numbers than usual attend. This year, congregants of the four UMC churches will find themselves worshipping from home on Easter.
In addition to making worship changes, Rev. Ivy, Rev. Griffith and Rev. Bartley each indicated that their congregations will also be providing other types of ministry to constituents during the crisis.
Calling teams are in the process of being established. The responsibility of a team member will be to place a telephone call on a regular basis to another member to check on that person’s welfare.
“The task will be to provide care, via phone, as much as is possible,” Griffith said.
In these churches, there will be personal shoppers available to pick up needed items for those most vulnerable parishioners. This is a ministry limited to church constituents because of a lack of volunteers to do more.
Offerings are part of worship services for a reason. Religious institutions rely on donations to pay the bills. Obviously, with no central worship being conducted, there has to be provisions made for that essential element. Each UMC has indicated they will provide specific instructions on giving options for their members, whether by electronic giving, by mail or other methods.
As is the case with almost every congregation in Ponca City, there will be a continual reassessment of the situation and adaptations made as necessary. At Albright, Rev. Ivy has a task force that will continually evaluate the church’s ministry.
In situations like this, “the church doesn’t cease being the church,” Griffith said. “We must continually find ways to be the hands of Christ.”