Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, Pastor Nancy White has shifted the way members of her congregation at the Milton Methodist Church in Milton, West Virginia, worship together. 

Initially, the virus closed the church, but during the summer months, White began to provide recorded sermons over Facebook and, later, drive in services in the church parking lot transmitted over the radio. 

By the fall, White had opened the church doors again to a limited group of congregants while continuing to provide digital worship options.

“The few that chose to come in were careful, wore masks and followed the seating guidelines,” White said. “But right before Thanksgiving I made the call to stop the in-person option when the numbers [of positive cases in the state] were high and expected to go higher. I personally knew of friends, colleagues and members of the church who were being affected more and more.” 

“I followed the words of advice from our West Virginia United Methodist Bishop and others to do so,” she said and the Milton congregation returned to its drive in and Facebook services. 

“Presently we have a good ‘congregation’ that comes to the parking lot at 11 a.m. each week and numerous others watching the video,” she said. “It isn’t perfect and it isn’t what we would wish for, but it is what we have to do to keep ourselves and others safe.”

White is among hundreds if not thousands of worship leaders in West Virginia, and thousands more across Appalachia, now having to decide how they’ll celebrate the winter holidays with their members as cold temperatures arrive and limit their gathering options.

For White, the health and safety of her congregation remains a top priority so Milton Methodist Church will offer a pre-recorded Christmas service complete with scripture, word, soloists and music followed by another drive in worship Christmas Eve, but COVID-19 and the challenges that come with it have been a burden for these faith leaders. 

“Worrying about everyone at church, worrying about finances and administrative things, as well as keeping people connected and engaged is always right there. We have tried to do different things and most seem to appreciate the efforts but a lot of the time it is a one person effort that I can’t always sustain,” White said. “I think people are doing the best they can in it all. They are tired. They want to be back to ‘normal’ and I can’t promise it will ever be that way again.”

At Bridgeport Presbyterian Church, in Bridgeport, West Virginia, decisions for Christmas celebrations will be made based on how COVID-19 case statistics change over the next few days, said Pastor Robin Ray. In November, the church cancelled  in-person services and childcare for two weeks because of a spike in local cases and has cancelled all Sunday school classes until January.

But Ray allowed her congregants to return to in-person services this past weekend, something she hopes will continue through Christmas. 

“It really depends upon the congregation and infection rates in the community,” Ray said. “We have a strict mask rule; we don’t sing in church and we have pews blocked off for social distancing.” 

On Christmas Eve, Ray plans to hold the Presbyterian Church’s annual evening service, but, she said, it will be different this year.

“The service [traditionally] ends in darkness, and I end the service with a quote from the Bible about Christ being the light. I will light a candle and we will all pass that light to one another and sing ‘Silent Night,’” Ray described. “This year, we’re hoping to light our candles as we leave and go outside to form a circle and sing.”

For Ray, infection rates will determine if her congregation can celebrate the Christmas holiday together this year, but for B’Nai Jacob Temple in Charleston, the decision was clear. No in-person services yet, Rabbi Victor Urecki said.

Of the temple’s 150 to 175 families, Urecki said, many were older or at high-risk of complications if they caught the virus so as the congregation celebrated Hanukkah last week, services continued to be held online. 

“Everything is still virtual. We have not moved one inch from that and we’re doing spectacularly,” he said. “Our congregation seems to be very pleased with it. Of course, we’re tired of having to deal with COVID, but at the same time we know we want to be safe.”

Holiday programming, he said, included a virtual event with Temple Israel, also in Charleston, on the final night of Hanukkah that had 100 screens of families joining together to light their menorahs and join in song. 

Catholic churches in the Diocese of Wheeling/Charleston have returned to in-person services, but many of the larger congregations require families to call in advance and reserve seats for the now limited capacity masses. All attendees are required to wear masks except when receiving communion and many churches require hand sanitizer use as soon as members walk in the door.

Those guidelines, in place for the past seven months, provide for safe social distancing, church officials said, and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

Christmas services will allow for some congregants to gather in-person, but will also be held on the Diocese’s website, on its Facebook page and at midnight on Christmas Eve on television channels across the state, Bishop Mark Brennan said in his weekly newsletter to diocese members.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will affect how we celebrate Advent and Christmas in our Diocese, but we will celebrate them!” Brennan said in a letter to parishioners at the start of Advent. “Masks and hand sanitizers and physical distancing cannot stop us from expressing our faith and joy in the Lord. They actually allow us to gather for worship in a safe manner, considerate of those with whom we worship.”

Pastor White at Milton Methodist will hold another outdoor winter celebration with her congregation tonight – her annual Longest Night/Blue Christmas worship. Members of her church and community at large have contacted the church to put a single word on a luminary bag that will line their parking lot this evening. White will hold a devotion for those prayers after the sun sets. 

“There are many in any year who do not feel the joy of the season but this year especially, there may be great concern on people’s hearts,” White said. “The opportunity to share in a word on that night is a tradition I have offered each year.” 

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