MINOT, N.D. -- Edward Nugent, pastor at Our Redeemer’s Church in Minot, describes the days leading up to heightening of COVID-19 shutdowns this spring as a sort of “scramble mode” for the Lutheran sanctuary.
"I remember we were holding services as things were starting to get crazy,” Nugent said. “We joke that we all became televangelists overnight.”
Like many other places of faith across the state, Our Redeemer’s made several adjustments in response to the coronavirus threat, holding confirmation classes via Zoom, for example, and recording Sunday services for the health and safety of its members starting in early March. Now, while plans are being made for a fall season as close to normal as possible, Nugent said it’s difficult to predict what the coming months will look like.
“In the middle of this, we were all saying it’s hard to plan anything more than a week or two out,” Nugent said. “Everything is so up in the air. We just don’t know enough.”
Across North Dakota, places of faith have had to adjust many things, from services to social activities, in light of COVID-19. Although faith-based locations were never explicitly ordered to close, many opted for virtual services and all institutions were strongly encouraged to follow CDC guidelines and keep vulnerable members in mind.
In Strasburg, N.D., the Rev. Shannon Lucht said a return to in-person worship at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church means blocking off every other row of pews to increase spacing within the congregation and a change in rituals such as handshaking and exchanging of peace during Mass.
Lucht said that while offerings were not significantly affected and services were maintained virtually, the biggest effect has been on social events such as funeral lunches and planning for fall dinners.
"Most of my folks are coming back to Mass," Lucht said. "I would say things are approaching normal."
St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church offered televised services on Sunday mornings starting March 22. Restrictions for the church were relaxed on May 6 and in-person services resumed May 7.
Donations up as need grows
Faith Simonieg, an assistant to the bishop at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Western North Dakota Synod, said the synod has actually seen an abundance in offerings through mailed checks or donations through digital platforms.
Simonieg said assistance has been able to continue through collaboration on programs such as food pantries and community outreach such as the Shepherd’s Table ministry’s work to provide meals to those facing food insecurity or job loss.
“For the most part, people have been responding with great generosity,” Simonieg said. “Even without passing a physical passing plate, people are still sharing generously through online giving platforms.”
Pastor Jessica Daum, the director of evangelical mission for Eastern North Dakota Synod of ELCA, said she has seen an increase in financial generosity throughout the 195 congregations that belong to the synod.
The synod usually sees a financial impact on its congregations due to weather-related cancelations in the winter, so it was bracing for an even stronger impact due to the pandemic, but Daum said congregations were able to quickly make use of online platforms.
“We were really bracing for a possible very harmful financial impact on congregations,” Daum said. “We provided some support for congregational leaders to be able to offer online giving and website-based giving and just encouraged pastors to be bold and remind people that giving is a spiritual practice and is needed now more than ever. Some people have even increased their giving.”
Nugent said early plans to go virtual at Our Redeemer’s Church took a couple of weeks to organize. Transitioning back into in-person services means new guidelines such as leaving doors open as much as possible for better airflow, seating in every other row and sanitizing the backs of pews.
Services for Sunday morning will continue to be recorded and available virtually as well, Nugent said. “I think the online service is here to stay,” he said, but “I hope it never becomes a straight substitute for gathering.”
Online services are also an alternative at B’nai Israel Synagogue in Grand Forks, where travel restrictions have halted the ability for student rabbis to conduct services. Precautions surrounding large gatherings also caused the cancellation of Passover observance and Friday Shabbat dinners, as well as affecting prayers that normally require a quorum of 10 people.
Bert Garwood, president of the congregation, said the synagogue’s biggest concern right now is with the effect of the pandemic on social aspects and whether student rabbis will still be restricted from flying into the state in the coming months. (The small congregation relies on visiting rabbis, including students nearing the end of their rabbinical studies.)
“If that's still the case, we may still be having to do things online," Garwood said. “Judaism is kind of a community religion. It’s all community and family-oriented. It’s meant to be done in groups.”
As local religious leaders continue to plan for the future, Nugent said the current circumstances give “loving your neighbor” an entirely new meaning.
“I think in the end, it's an opportunity for the church to grow from within and grow in our faith and service to each other,” Nugent said.
Garwood said now more than ever, being able to maintain and practice faith is a way for members of the community to maintain balance and consistency.
“I think being able to practice faith, whichever way we do it, is a way to add balance to our lives and to remind us of humanity,” Garwood said. "That's even more important now with all the things that are going on in the country and in the world."