Local places of worship vary in approach
After seemingly a departure from his Wednesday announcement about restrictions on places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz announced Saturday, May 23 that churches, mosques, and other faith facilities will be allowed to reopen for services at 25% capacity or 250 people, whichever is smaller, as long as they can adhere to social distancing requirements. The announcement came just days after area leaders of the Catholic Archdiocese and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church called on Walz to reopen churches immediately, giving their churches permission to openly defy the governor’s orders.
In the Forest Lake area, Saturday’s announcement means a wide variety of responses from churches.
On Thursday, Father Dan Bodin at St. Peter Catholic Church, prepared to reopen the church on May 26, in accordance with the archbishop’s guidance, which at the time required limiting attendance to 33% fire code capacity and adhering to social distancing requirements. The archbishop announced on Saturday following Walz’s announcement that churches should follow the Governor’s newest guidelines, which Bodin indicated he’d follow the archbishop’s directive.
“We take vows of obedience to our bishop,” Bodin said. “As long as we feel it’s safe and we’ve met all the guidelines that have been put out by the archdiocese…as long as we feel comfortable we can do that and maintain that, then it’s on us to do that.”
Craig Bertram, senior pastor at Lord of the Lakes Lutheran Church, a Missouri Synod church, declined to comment, but in an announcement by Bertram on the church’s facebook page, a decision was made last week to keep the church closed until at least June 15. Another announcement on May 23 indicated that the decision to keep the church closed to in-person still stands, pending any changes by the eldership of the church.
“At Lord of the Lakes, we’ve tried very hard to stay out of political discussions,” Bertram said in his online address. “…That as much as I am unsure as to what is the best thing for us to do as a church, I am sure that no matter what we do, that it must be out of love and concern and grace and mercy and compassion.”
Other area pastors are split on what they will do, ranging from meeting in person as soon as possible to considering holding church gatherings outside, but still refrain from holding in-person gatherings.
Shan Towns’ first week as senior pastor of Grace Church in Forest Lake was over Easter. The east-coast transplant moved to the area with his wife in October for her job, and has been trying to get to know his new congregation.
“I’ve had limited access to people,” Towns said. “That’s just how it’s been. It’s been phone calls, communication via email and internet and having board meetings on zoom. It’s a very different way of trying to connect.”
He said that he had been in discussion with the church's leadership just hours before the governor’s Saturday announcement about holding services for 10 people at a time in accordance with the Stay Safe MN order. Those plans, he said, would likely shift to in-person meetings as soon as they are able, and could be as early as Saturday, May 30.
“The congregation, they’re longing to be together. So the question is how do we lean in and let the congregation be together, and how do we reach out and minister to community surrounding us,” Towns said. “We’ll follow the guidelines governor gives and CDC gives and adhere to it.”
Dave Ostercamp, senior pastor at Linwood Covenant Church, said that he’s been planning for the possibility of outdoor services with FM broadcasting to those who want to remain in their vehicles in accordance with health safety guidelines.
“As we get our civil liberties back, it’s up to us to use them wisely,” Ostercamp said.
John Klawiter, senior pastor at Faith Lutheran Church (an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church), said that the church has a committee that will determine how to best move forward, but did not indicate what that would look like, yet.
"We will continue to provide updates ... as we discern how to best care for each other and our neighbors with the safest protocols in place," Klawiter said.
One thing is clear, according to Walz, and that is these lifted restrictions are against a backdrop of continued increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and recommended to faith leaders to continue to do virtual services.
“I'd be clear to Minnesotans, the worst is not yet passed,” Walz said, adding later, “I encourage Minnesotans to do the right thing. Limit interactions. Continue to wear the mask.”