It’s been 12 weeks since Minnesota churches have been able to hold in-person services due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
On Sunday, Rochester Assembly of God will hold that many services in one day.
This will be the first Sunday since an order last week by Gov. Tim Walz went into effect allowing places of worship in Minnesota to open at 25% occupancy.
Many area church leaders are holding off on holding in-person services. Much of their congregations, or the clergy themselves, fall into one or more of the categories of people most at risk for severe cases of COVID-19, they said. Finding ways to allow 6 feet of distance between people inside the churches is another challenge some church leaders cited.
The Rev. John Skipworth, lead pastor at Rochester Assembly, said their spacious campus allows them to give worshipers the access to the services and adequate room for social distancing.
“We’re blessed with this multi-site campus at one facility,” Skipworth said.
Four sanctuary centers on the campus will host services three different times Sunday. One sanctuary will have a live, in-person service. Worshippers in the other three centers will see a live video feed of that service.
Once the service concludes, staff and volunteers will sanitize the centers and prepare them for the next service.
With multiple sanctuaries, a volunteer base of 200 people and a staff of nearly 20, Skipworth said the church is ready for Sunday as much as church members are ready to return. To ensure the centers remain at 25% occupancy, people are being asked to register for the services. As of midday Wednesday, more than 300 people had registered, Skipworth said.
Skipworth said he’s glad houses of worship have been given the go ahead to resume some services. He said watching stores continue to operate with few restrictions was frustrating, knowing he could implement even better safety measures for churchgoers than retailers can.
“If people can be out in those places, then the church can be open,” he said.
Entrances and exits will be one-way and controlled, people will be given hand sanitizer and seated at least 6 feet away from anyone not in their household group.
Skipworth said the plan was carefully considered during hours of meetings with other church leaders. Masks will be required in at least one of the service sites.
“We want to be innovative, we want to follow the guidelines,” he said. “We want to provide these rooms. We want to provide safety. We want to provide excellent presentation of the word.”
Other churches are holding off on in-person services.
The Rev. T.J. Parlette, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Rochester, met with senior church members to develop a plan to bring people back to the church.
“It’s not my personal decision, but my sense is we’re just not ready, we’re just not there,” he said. “We have permission to do it, but is it wise to do it?”
Like other churches, First Presbyterian pivoted to learning how to produce online services on the fly.
“Each week, we got a little bit better,” Parlette said.
Parlette added he doubts 25% of the church capacity would fit in the sanctuary under Minnesota Department of Health distancing guidelines.
Southeastern Minnesota Lutheran Synod is taking a similarly cautious approach. Bishop Regina Hassanally said none of the 167 synod congregations are opening to in-person services this weekend.
Her response to people who miss the in-person fellowship and services?
“I do too,” she said.
“What we’re doing now for the time is taking care of the people around us,” she said.
Pastors representing the six Rochester Catholic churches will meet June 12 to discuss opening. The Rev. Father Jerry Mahon said much of the congregation are in one or more vulnerable groups -- many either older than 65 or having other health conditions.
“That’s part of the responsibility we need to take and take seriously,” Mahon said.
As a member of a vulnerable group himself, Mahon said he plans to distance himself when conducting mass. Changes to mass have been outlined by the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in guidelines issued for resuming in-person mass.
“I have many people who say, ‘I’m aching to come back, but I’m not ready to come back,” he said.