For anyone familiar with the issues surrounding the United Methodist Church, the COVID-19 pandemic was just another divisive issue to deal with. The church has been split in a near civil war between conservative/orthodox churches and members and the liberal wing of the church that dominates seminaries, bishops and clergy.
Leaders on both sides are hoping for some sort of amicable split very soon.
Trinity United Methodist Church in Albia is one of the conservative churches in the Iowa Conference and has, on any number of occasions, gone head-to-head with Iowa Conference Bishop Laurie Haller. There have been serious discussions of Trinity leaving the United Methodist denomination, siding with another conservative group like the Wesley Covenant Association or even an African conference that adheres to traditional biblical teaching and supports the current Book of Discipline.
So it really came as no surprise that Trinity did not fall into line when Bishop Haller basically shuttered churches across the state last spring.
Trinity did follow Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds request to shut down for about a month in April and May, turning to virtual worship Sunday mornings, but reopened as soon as Reynolds gave the all clear. As the governor told churches they could reopen, Bishop Haller told churches in the Iowa Conference to pretty much lock their doors on Sunday morning.
Pastor Roger Henry, with the full backing of Trinity’s Administrative Council, said, “no.”
It’s not like the church became maskless renegades. The church ordered masks be worn inside their buildings, cancelled choir rehearsals and carefully monitored use of its Family Life Center. The congregation was one of the first churches in Albia to begin broadcasting services over Facebook using an iPhone, then purchased $14,000 worth of sophisticated video equipment.
Last spring the church cancelled its popular Wednesday afternoon children’s programming (which complimented the school’s early dismissal), but brought it back in the fall as school reopened to in person learning. When the Albia Community School District had to revert to hybrid learning for a time, Trinity adjusted its Wednesday program as well.
Attendance on Sunday mornings was affected by the pandemic, but between a third and half the congregation returned immediately and attendance is probably two-thirds of normal. Pastor Henry has discovered that virtual (Facebook) attendance has continued to grow, sometimes outstripping actual membership.
“I think we have a number of people watching Sunday mornings who aren’t in our regular congregation,” he said. “There are several reasons the church decided to remain open against the wishes of the bishop. First and foremost is our commitment to serve our congregation through in-person fellowship and worship. Isolation really isn’t part of the Biblical church model. We also trust our people. We trust them not to expose themselves to others in the congregation if they weren’t feeling well and we trust their decision-making if they feel it is safest for them to stay home and connect virtually.”
The church had to battle through an outbreak of COVID-19 that likely came into the congregation through junior high athletes picking it up at school and then through the church’s confirmation classes. “We didn’t seek to find blame,” said Pastor Henry. “We did some tracing and just quarantined those who were ill and those who were exposed and kept ministering to people.”
Probably the biggest hit to Trinity’s ministry came in the serving of its popular Wednesday night suppers. As the school moved in and out of hybrid and virtual learning that landed on Wednesdays, the church complied and moved from in-person dining in the Family Life Center to a drive-through approach, where meals were served for carry-out.
On Sunday, Feb. 1 one of two children’s choirs sang, along with a performance of the puppet ministry. On Sunday, March 28, the first potluck gathering was held in over a year. If you know anything about Methodist churches, missing regular potlucks on Sundays after worship and Sunday School is like being shipwrecked on an island.