After Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to reopen Virginia’s economy and allow churches to meet in person with restrictions, some local churches welcomed members last Sunday, but others chose to wait.
West Waynesboro Church of Christ is one of the churches waiting to resume in-person services.
“The idea is not really a reopening of the church, it’s a regathering,” said senior pastor Chad Grondin.
The church has made services available on Facebook Live during the governor’s stay-at-home order.
“We just had to gather differently,” Grondin said.
West Waynesboro Church of Christ is tentatively planning to resume in-person services on June 7 with social distancing restrictions, but services will continue to be available on Facebook Live for church members who are at high risk or who just feel more comfortable continuing to worship from their homes.
“Biblically, you can’t close a church, because a church is not a building, it’s the people,” Grondin said. “I hope, if anything, that as a church we’ve learned where we meet doesn’t define us. And we can be the church regardless of where we meet.”
So West Waynesboro Church never closed, according to Grondin, because “the people of God have still been meeting.”
Church members have also continued to keep the church’s food pantry open, deliver food, make face masks and fund the church’s missions.
“The work of God is still going on,” Grondin said.
The church’s delay in reopening after the governor lifted the stay-at-home order on May 15, Grondin said, is just for caution and to take time to evaluate.
“We just wanted to be sensitive to the situation,” Grondin said.
West Waynesboro Church is non-denominational, has a membership of more than 200, and has been at 2212 Cortland Street in Waynesboro since 1955.
“It’s not about just coming to church, it’s about being the church,” Grondin said.
The pandemic has given his congregation the opportunity to see that a church is its people, not a building, he said.
Grondin is unsure how the pandemic might create permanent changes in how West Waynesboro Church operates. But church members are prepared to continue adjusting as circumstances change, he said.
Like many churches in the River City, West Waynesboro has older members.
“We have a responsibility to protect the people who are already in our church,” Grondin said.
First Presbyterian Church of Waynesboro, which has been at 249 S. Wayne Ave. for 175 years, also has many older members
According to Betsy Ruehl, the church’s clerk of sessions, three-fourths of the church’s 120 members are over the age of 60.
So the church is also waiting to reopen.
“It’s not going to be the same when we go back,” said Ruehl, 82. “And everybody knows that. We want it the way it was before.”
Under current COVID-19 restrictions, if the church were to reopen, members would be encouraged to wear masks, not shake hands, let alone hug each other, and singing would be discouraged because the virus can spread through spray emitted while singing.
“We are all scared to death to go back,” Ruehl said of the risks still possible.
The church closed to in-person services on March 15, and since has conducted virtual services in partnership with several other local churches.
First Presbyterian also lost its minister in February when he accepted a job in France.
However, if the church reopened now, Ruehl said guest ministers would make themselves available.
Yet, church members would have to avoid hugging and shaking hands, and Ruehl said one of the church’s strengths is the camaraderie of its members.
“It’s more than just shaking hands and refreshments on Sunday,” she said.
For now, Ruehl said the church has until the end of June to make a decision about in-person services. Virtual services with several other local churches will be conducted until at least then.
“We may not open even after [late June],” Ruehl said.
The pandemic continues to change plans day to day for everyone in the Valley, and First Presbyterian is in no hurry to make a decision.
“I guess we’re not worried about what we’re going to do, because we’re not going to open until we’re ready,” Ruehl said.
Church on the Hill has also delayed reopening in-person services to June 7 in order to prepare to be able to offer quality and safety for its 400 to 500 members who attend on Sundays.
Church on the Hill began in the 1950s in Waynesboro, but has been at 100 Four Square Lane in Fishersville since 1983. Nine years ago, the church added 25,000 square feet of sanctuary and office space.
Pastor Brandon Williams, who is celebrating 19 years with Church on the Hill this weekend, said this Sunday and next Sunday he and the worship team will be on the stage in the church’s sanctuary working on technical concerns while ushers are trained on how to seat parishioners starting June 7.
Williams said social distancing will be practiced, and 140 church members will be seated in the main sanctuary, with additional members being seated downstairs in the family room to view services on a monitor.
Families will be seated six feet apart in both worship spaces, but Williams is not expecting a large number of his congregation to return June 7.
“But most churches so far have seen an average 40%, 30% of their people returning right away,” said Williams.
Williams said rows in the main sanctuary have been removed to encourage social distancing, and church members attending in-person services will be encouraged to wear masks.
“The whole team has just done a remarkable job [in preparation],” Williams said of the church’s worship team, operations pastor Jay Schmitt and staff.
For the long term, Williams said when it comes to reopening the church’s children’s ministry, the church will follow the example set by local school systems on how to protect children and volunteers.
“I think some of the changes are going to be a little bit more subtle,” he said.
And he knows some members of his congregation will continue to prefer to participate in worship from home and watch virtual services on Facebook Live, which was the church’s online platform before the pandemic and will continue to be its platform.
However, church members will see an improved virtual service begin in the coming weeks as viewers from home are able to also see scripture references and notes on a projector just as church members in the sanctuary see them.
When safety permits, Williams encourages Church on the Hill’s members to return to in-person services.
“I think without physical interaction with other believers something will be lacking in all of us,” Williams said.
After 19 years at the Fishersville church, Williams values the “incredible relationships” he has built with church staff and members.
“It’s been very difficult. I think it’s been a challenge not to be able to connect with people, because that’s what it means to be part of the church — to connect with people,” Williams said of the pandemic’s effects on him as a pastor.
Members of the church have been hospitalized, but he and church staff could not visit.
Other members of the church have lost loved ones, but the church could not hold a funeral.
“Some of those things have been pretty distressing,” Williams said.
Since closing March 29 to in-person services, however, Williams said the church’s connection groups and small groups have stayed in touch via Zoom meetings.
And he has received positive feedback from church members who still feel connected to Church on the Hill.