Churches confronting virus-related challenges - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Churches confronting virus-related challenges

April 9th, 2020 development
Churches confronting virus-related challenges

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Pastor Mike Japenga describes himself as a hugger.

He likes being able to calmly reach out and comfort members of Chandler Presbyterian Church during moments of grief, sadness, and despair.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly forced Japenga to keep a safe distance from his parishioners. Even during a recent graveside funeral for one of his member’s fathers, Japenga had to remind himself not to make contact with the mourners.

“It was so weird to see each other and just wave,” Japenga said, “that’s the way it has to be for right now.”

The pastor finds himself facing the same challenge as all faith leaders across the country – maintaining a sense of community among parishioners, but from a distance.

With Passover just celebrated last week and Easter being marked today, rabbis, ministers and priests  confronted unprecedented challenges.

Churches and synagogues in Chandler and throughout the East Valley had closed their doors because of social-distancing guidelines, morphing congregations into digital audiences.

Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation Rabbi Irwin Wiener started sending weekly letters to his congregants while  Japenga transitioned to taping his sermons every Sunday and posting the videos on his church’s website and social media channels.

Videotaped services seem like an easy fix to working around the pandemic’s limitations, but Japenga said challenges, questions and conflicts arise every day because of COVID-19.

His church can’t have its music team in the room while recording sermons, the pastor said, because it might put them over the government’s 10-person quota.

The church has had to restrategize how it will keep helping homeless individuals, while keeping them and the church’s staff safe.

One of the toughest decisions Japenga’s had to make thus far was to cancel Chandler Presbyterian’s Easter celebrations – some of the church’s most popular services of the year.

“It just breaks my heart that we’re not going to be able to be together physically as a church family,” Japenga said. “That’s just the way it is.”

Before the crisis hit, Japenga was planning to have the theme of this year’s Lent focus on “change,” a word that’s taken on a new meaning for the pastor these last few weeks.

People grow and change during times of extreme adversity, Japenga added, so this global pandemic will probably be a test to everyone’s character.

Cornerstone Church, located on Alma School Road, is also grappling with the reality of not being able to host any Easter celebrations this year.

The church will typically commemorate this week in April with well-attended activities that feature carnivals, games, and petting zoos.

“All of that’s off the table right now because people can’t be present in person,” said Pastor Linn Winters. “That’s a radical shift.”

Cornerstone will broadcast a Sunday service online, but no other festivities are currently planned.

Since Easter traditionally brings more non-churchgoers out to the pews, pastors across the country are preparing for the lack of in-person services to impact their church’s finances.

Nearly 80 percent of pastors surveyed across the United States have already reported a drop in their donations, according to data collected by the Barna Group. But 95 percent of the survey’s respondents are confident their churches will survive the pandemic

Winters said his church has noticed a 9-percent drop in contributions, which is enough to force some minor adjustments, yet not quite significant to trigger a catastrophic impact.   

COVID-19 has further pushed Cornerstone to completely re-evaluate how it serves the community, Winters said, and the church continues to approach new challenges on a daily basis.

“We’re rewriting the book every single day,” the pastor said.

In addition to live-streaming his sermons, Winters is filming a variety of supplemental content to keep church members engaged while they’re stuck at home.

The pastor records 10-minute discussions that tackle specific questions related to self-isolation and staying safe during the pandemic.

Cornerstone also is calling all 1,100 of its elderly members and asking them if they require any assistance buying groceries. A prayer chain Cornerstone recently started got 800 initial responses and the church is in the process of reaching out to each respondent.

Rabbis also are facing the same challenges as they prepare for Passover this week.

Rabbi Susan Schanerman, whose Congregation NefeshSoul meets at a Unitarian church in Chandler, held a virtual seder on YouTube, where she also is presenting Shabbat services.

As with church leaders, she added, closures have put a financial strain on synagogues.

“Rabbis, cantors and other synagogue staff absolutely depend on the financial support of their congregations for their livelihoods,” she said. “We do not receive funds from an umbrella organization. If donations begin to decline, this will put a serious financial strain on synagogues and staff.

“We hope that our members continue to support us, knowing that they are often struggling financially themselves,” she added.

With donations plummeting, some pastors also have to worry about mortgages for churches or other buildings on larger campuses, and Bishop Deborah Hutterer, the spiritual leader of the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which covers 89 congregations serving 44,000 members across Arizona, southern Nevada and St. George, Utah.

Most couples put their wedding plans on hold, she said, and those that have been held were limited to 10 people.

And she and Schanerman both reminded people that social distancing doesn’t mean that pastors and rabbis have put their sense of responsibility on a shelf.

“We continue to provide services and classes through online platforms,” Schanerman said. “We continue to provide pastoral care and support from a distance or in person. Our work does not cease when our physical doors close.”

As for reopening for services, Pastor Ryan Gear of Chandler’s The Well said his members will be following the guidance of medical professionals.

“We are glad to worship online as long as needed to flatten the curve,” Gear said.

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