Foot washing played a big part in last year’s Maundy Thursday service at Buda (Texas) United Methodist Church.
This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Buda United Methodist can’t gather as a congregation to reenact Jesus’ tender care for his disciples.
But the church will have an online Maundy Thursday service, and the Rev. Lisa Straus, pastor, plans to livestream herself bathing the feet of a family member. She’ll ask those watching to do the same.
“If you’re by yourself, you can wash your own feet, in that holy way of Jesus,” she said.
A different Holy Week looms, and United Methodist churches are scrambling to figure out how to observe Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and especially Easter as COVID-19 restrictions keep them physically apart.
North Carolina Conference Bishop Hope Morgan Ward is among the episcopal leaders cheering pastors and other church leaders as they improvise keeping the faith, while also emphasizing safety.
“People have an opportunity to pause, to reflect deeply on Holy Week, to follow Jesus from the hosanas of Palm Sunday to the cross and the empty tomb in new and effective ways,” Ward said.
The North Carolina Conference, for example, plans to have a conference-wide online Easter service. Ward called it an “added offering” to what individual churches are doing.
“I’ll be the preacher,” she said.
With local and state governments limiting or proscribing even small gatherings because of the virus’ spread — and bishops issuing their own directives — recent Sundays saw many United Methodist churches taking services online for the first time. Those with experience still had to learn to do online services without a crowd present, or a full choir or praise band.
There have been hiccups, but Ward reports that viewership for online services is exceeding that of in-person worship in her conference. It’s been that way in Zimbabwe, which faces its own coronavirus restrictions.
“Our online service of March 22 attracted over 2,500 people worldwide,” said the Rev. Gift Kudakwashe Machinga, pastor in charge of Cranborne United Methodist Church, in the Harare East District. He added that viewership grew to about 4,300 on March 29.
Holy Week presents a special challenge in the number of services and all the rituals and traditions that are hard to imagine without people showing up for them. But churches and pastors are finding workarounds.
At Cathedral of the Rockies, a United Methodist church in Boise, Idaho, hundreds of church members and others typically come during Holy Week to walk a Stations of the Cross made of works by local artists.
That can’t happen this year. But a church member, Ray Spencer, has provided a website for a virtual experience of seeing each work and meditating on it. The church also has put online a Stations of the Cross geared to children and families.
“Like everybody else, we’re learning new ways to be the church,” said the Rev. Duane Anders, pastor.
The Rev. T.J. McCabe, who leads Trinity United Methodist Church in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, was inspired recently by the sight of local teachers driving around the residential streets waving inspirational signs to homebound students.
“I started thinking about the fact that Palm Sunday is a procession,” he said.
On this coming Palm Sunday afternoon, McCabe and church members plan to drive around town waving signs celebrating Palm Sunday.
First United Methodist Church in Brenham, Texas, plans its own Palm Sunday car parade, sparked by youth director Jennifer Patrick.
“We needed something the church could all do together,” she said.
At St. John’s United Methodist Church, in Aiken, South Carolina, the Rev. Tim McClendon chose to follow through with an order of palms and Easter lilies, even though all Holy Week services will be online.
“We want to make sure our florist is not (financially) harmed,” he said. “We’re sort of a hub in the downtown area, very visible, and we’re known as the church with the fountain, so we’re going to put palms all around that fountain.”
McClendon noted that volunteers are using masks and gloves to handle the palms. He’s hoping the Easter lilies can be safely delivered to nursing stations around Aiken, but tightening restrictions have altered the church’s plans once or twice already.
“Everything is evolving so fast,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas is offering the purchase of “virtual Easter lilies” in honor or memory of someone, with proceeds going to the church’s benevolence fund.
Holy Week at Hamilton Park United Methodist in Dallas would not be complete without singing “I Know It Was the Blood.” The Rev. Sheron Patterson, pastor, plans to use Facebook Live for the Palm Sunday service, which will include that rousing spiritual.
“We’re going to sing it with the same enthusiasm we always have,” Patterson said.
United Methodists in Germany treasure the austere Good Friday communion service, said the Rev. Irene Kraft, a district superintendent. But coronavirus restrictions have closed church buildings there, too.
Because of that, German Area Bishop Harald Rückert will lead and preach at an online Good Friday service for the whole Central Conference in Germany, Kraft said.
Kraft said pastors and congregations will be observing Holy Week through other online services, hanging banners of encouragement, lighting candles in their homes at appointed times and staying connected through phone calls, texts, social media and “real letters and postcards.”
“People seem to be anxious and alienated, but also very open for comfort, hope, prayers and God’s presence,” Kraft said.
Not being able to gather in person is hard for any church, but when your name is The Gathering, it would seem a special challenge. The Rev. Matt Miofsky, pastor of that United Methodist church in St. Louis, confirms that’s the case.
“We really miss in-person worship and in-person ministry,” Miofsky said.
His church typically sees weekend worship attendance of 1,600 at two campuses and had 2,300 views for online worship two Sundays ago. The Gathering had 90 small groups for prayer and Bible study, but since the coronavirus outbreak has added eight more that are meeting online.
“In a lot of ways, people are even hungrier for connection and community,” Miofsky said.
This week found him and his staff still deciding details for Holy Week services, with Good Friday shaping up to be a series of online meditations offered through the day.
While some churches are looking toward a second Easter celebration whenever they’re able to worship again in person, Miofsky doesn’t think that should come at the cost of the one that’s impending.
“We need Easter more than ever,” he said.
That’s the feeling of the Rev. Melissa Hinnen, pastor of Park Slope United Methodist Church, in Brooklyn.
The city and state of New York are the national center of the pandemic. Within the extended family of Park Slope are people who have shown symptoms of coronavirus but have been unable to get tested. Hinnen has lost a good friend to the disease.
“It’s very close to home,” Hinnen said.
Park Slope has moved to Zoom conferencing for worship services, which allows those participating to see one another. For Easter, Hinnen is asking members to wear hats bearing messages of hope. They’ll ring bells together at one point.
And while Hinnen hasn’t decided for sure, she’s considering giving a livestream message from outside the church at daybreak, a makeshift Easter sunrise service in a challenging time.
“We’re Easter people. That’s the core of our faith,” Hinnen said. “We’re in this together, and God is in it with us. And there’s still good news to be proclaimed through that.”
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Chenayi Kumuterera, communicator for the Zimbabwe West Conference, contributed, as did Lindsay Peyton of the Texas Conference. Contact Hodges at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.