Pastors, Funeral Directors Face Challenges Amid COVID-19

By Sue Moore

Pastor Dave Downs, Chapman Memorial Church of the Nazarene

“We are not able to visit our folks who are confined to nursing home and hospitals.

“However, I did record a video Bible study this past Wednesday that was used at the Bickford Senior Living facility in Portage. Also, last Sunday my sermon was recorded in my office and posted to our Facebook page and website. This Sunday we are starting to use Facebook live for our morning worship service. These will be live on Facebook each Sunday at 10 a.m. until further notice. We will have very limited music. And no one in attendance.

“Our children’s director, Kelly Downs, is communicating with the children via Facebook and encouraging them with activities they are able to do at home with their families.

“Our youth pastor, Brian Robbins, is communicating his weekly message to our middle and high school students via Facebook. Our young adult pastor, Rob Lash, is also staying in touch with our young adults via Facebook.

“Our senior adult pastor, Wes Bittenbender, is communicating regularly with our elderly folks. When they have needs, we have people ready to respond. People have offered to pick up groceries and prescriptions if needed.

“We have also reached out to our schools and Generous Hands. Our people responded this week to some pressing needs at Generous Hands. Superintendent Keevin O’Neal told us he would reach out to us with ways we can be of assistance when something comes up.

“These are very trying times as we are social people. We love to be together! Thankfully, we are also hopeful people. We know that one day we will again be able to meet together. We trust these days to God and pray for healing!”

Pastor Ed Schmidt, Lakeland Reformed Church

Historically churches were designed to respond to humanity’s need to be “social” – be part of a family, community, social distancing in many ways fractured our attachments. But it also forces us to become creative for the “family of God” to remain connected. So Social media – using the internet through emails, Facebook & Facebook Live, Skype, and other platform have emerged as essential to sustain our connections. We are also encouraging a “re-emphasis” by connecting through one on one phone conversations, or walk over and give a greeting with a post it note on your neighbor’s window. Individuals have started calling each other, maybe one a week or every other week because they missed seeing each other at church. When our leadership is calling the members we are asking for what do you need? And what can you give/do?

For most churches I heard the Sunday connection for worship was through a log-in worship through Facebook Live or a recorded message on YouTube. I know of a church who used a phone “party line” or conference call connection for members to dial up the Pastor and 9 others in the sanctuary to share their prayers of joys and concerns.

No great insights or unusual examples. But something we are all trying to learn from one another and apply as we are able. But as churches we will keep working through this new normal, because Church operations “sure aren’t the same as they used to be.” But we will continue to figure out how to share our good news of comfort, hope and faith to a community that’s anxious, afraid and uncertain. It’s still down to showing God’s love to our neighbor.

Pastor Greg Culver, United Methodist Church of Vicksburg

“I think the thing for the church is that while our people experience social distancing, we do what we can to make sure the feeling doesn’t digress into social isolation. For many legacy (aka elder) members, the church is their primary connection with others. The church is also highly symbolic in that it represents Christ to many people – and as pastor, that makes my role symbolic as someone who will keep steady hand on the keel of the ship. People need to hear from their church family and their pastor. I email frequent pastoral messages to be of encouragement. The congregation has been included in the caring. Everybody in our email database was forwarded an up-to-date church directory inviting them to make at least three contacts daily with someone else – not necessarily someone they know well. Never underestimate the offering of ‘small-talk.’

“An order of worship for the missed Sunday is sent out along with a prepared manuscript of the pastor’s sermon as a witness that, yes, the pastor is discerning Scripture on their behalf. We’re moving into video-production to put worship on our website as well as utilizing our social media (Facebook and Instagram).

“Coronavirus social distancing will probably extend beyond Easter. The church has never experienced anything like this and we anticipate contingencies in our approach to ministry. Mortality, viral or not, and how to care for folk in the face of death raises some questions. We might end up “live-streaming” a funeral or two.

“What an under-appreciated blessing we had when we were able to physically gather together. A more robust understanding of gratitude could come from it being taken away by circumstances beyond our control.

“All in all, I think that our people are coping well, thus far. It’s gonna take a lot of Jesus to get us through, but He’s totally faithful even in the difficult times.”

In his letter to the Catholic faithful, Bishop Paul J. Bradley of the Diocese of Kalamazoo has temporarily suspended all public Masses effective Friday, March 20 through Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020. Additionally, the annual Chrism Mass on Tuesday, April 7th has been relocated to St. Augustine Cathedral, Kalamazoo, and will be limited to attendance by priests only. The Mass will be live-streamed and details will be posted on the diocesan website. The Diocesan Pastoral Center will be closed to the public from March 20th through April 5th; employees will be working remotely. In his letter, Bishop Bradley wrote:

“Being unable to come to Mass and receive the Gift of the Eucharist is a huge sacrifice that we must make to protect the health and well-being of all those with whom we come in contact. While this restriction is temporary, and I pray, short-lived, our faith life continues. We must stay strong in the practice of our faith through our individual times of prayer, as well as increased family prayer times; our own spiritual reading and reflection on God’s Holy Word; the praying of the rosary, and other important devotions and spiritual practices. I have asked our priests to keep our churches open/unlocked as much as possible during this time of crisis, and I invite you to come to spend time of prayer and reflection with Jesus Present in the Blessed Sacrament, following all the other proscribed precautions of social distancing. I also want you to know that all our priests will continue celebrating Mass every day privately; I have asked them specifically to offer Masses regularly for the intentions of the Faithful of their parishes and our Diocese, especially those who are sick, alone, and suffering in other ways during this time of crisis.”

Dale Eickhoff, owner of Eickhoff Funeral Home in Mendon

“Funeral homes have always practiced universal precautions, since we are confronted with some type of outbreak or epidemic every five to 10 years. Infection control is nothing new for us. What is new are the restrictions on the size of any gathering – currently limited to 50 people –, by the Governor. Suggesting that we limit attendance to 50 family members is going to be a challenge. In small rural communities, we are all related! At this point we are forced to have a small intimate ceremony (perhaps by invitation only) with the hope of having a larger gathering or luncheon when restrictions have been lifted.”

Steve McCowen, co-owner of McCowen & Secord Funeral Home

“The funeral industry is unique because we handle every deceased person with Universal Precautions and treat as if everyone has a contagious disease. We have training with our staff annually to make sure they are on top of the care for themselves as well as the people we bring into our buildings. I always like to tell the staff to remember if they don’t protect themselves they put their family and our staff at risk. So, I live my life this way every day. I’ve always probably been seen as a germophobic person but I was just always taught to wash my hands a ton in our profession with all the people we come in contact with. My first year as a funeral director I was sick nonstop.

“As far funerals for the public knowledge, we are business as usual. The CDC has guidelines that our National Funeral Directors Association sent out this past week. So, we can make sure our embalmers like myself understand the illnesses like this one and others we could be facing. It also lets us know what extra precautions to take when handling a deceased. This illness doesn’t seem to stay with the body after death like some. At least not what they have found so far. We trained our staff that goes to the hospital and homes what to expect and how to handle this situation and others.

“We have asked all of our staff, much like we do during cold and flu season, to stay home if they have any symptoms. We understand we work with the ‘at-risk’ community on a daily basis.

“We do have extra hand sanitizers at our locations and it’s really hard not to shake a hand but I noticed today people were cautious at the service [we just had]. I don’t live my life in fear, maybe because of all the diseases I’ve had to work around in my career. It also says in my faith 365 times in the Bible to ‘Fear Not’. So, I still give hugs to those that need one and offer to help families when they need someone. It’s what we do. I’m don’t fear getting sick and if the good Lord ask me to come home today I have no fear in that either.”

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