GREAT FALLS — The pews at Montana churches are usually filled with faithful during Holy Week, but COVID-19 concerns have made religious leaders rethink the way they deliver messages.
"We’ve been using every technological means possible," said Bishop Laurie Jungling of the Montana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
From live-streaming services to meeting with other churches over the Internet, Covid -19 is not slowing religious leaders down.
"Strangely it may be the busiest I’ve ever been," said Bishop Michael Warfel of the Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.
Episcopal Bishop Marty Stebbins was ordained in December 2019. Previously she worked as a veterinarian with a specialty in epidemiology and infectious disease. She was preparing for high tech worship before Coronavirus came to Big Sky Country.
"When we started having cases near Montana I had a discussion with the clergy about starting to practice virtual services," said Bishop Stebbins.
In a time where spiritual connection is important, sometimes it’s the old school communication that can be most effective.
"I really encouraged my pastors to actually phone people so its not just a text or an email, but people hear a live voice," said Bishop Warfel.
"We still have many congregations in our Synod, particularly the rural part who use radio," said Bishop Jungling.
One benefit broadcasting affords churches is the opportunity for a larger audience.
"Our services and our other offerings are potentially a lot more public,” said Bishop Stebbins. “So we've actually had a higher Sunday attendance than we've had before."
Leaders say stay at home directives can be a way to bring families closer together.
"All too often we think the only way we can be in church is when we're in a building that's called a church, but we're church all the time including when we're together as family," said Bishop Warfel.
In addition to many on-line services during Holy Week, churches will use other innovative ways to observe the time leading up to Easter.
“Some of the things that have been discussed is putting greenery out on either your front door or your mailbox, whether you can get a hold of palms or whatever greenery you can to remember Palm Sunday into your neighborhood,” said Bishop Stebbins. “Most (of our) churches are doing Liturgy of the Word or morning prayer.”
Stebbins added that her family will be washing each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday and observing the Good Friday fast. She says Episcopal churches will observe Easter Vigils and Easter Sunday services but will stop before they reach the eucharist, waiting to observe that portion until it is deemed safe to gather together.
Bishop Jungling says many Montana Lutheran ELCA congregations will offer live streams of Holy Week sevices. “We also have people passing out a variety of different home worship services,” said Bishop Jungling, who along with her staff will provide recorded Holy Week services. She said many Lutheran churches will also wait to celebrate Easter Sunday until they can gather again safely.
“Many of our pastors are going to be live streaming the Holy Week services,” said Bishop Warfel. He will broadcasting Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday masses from the Trinitas Chapel at the University of Providence in Great Falls.
The Coronavirus outbreak has been accompanied by economic uncertainty. In addition to looking out for their own employees, churches are doing what they can for congregation members who may be impacted.
“There’s a concern among my pastors about what’s going to happen in the months ahead,” said Bishop Warfel. “Will they be able to keep the staff they have and will the parishioners have jobs?”
“The reality is all of our parishes, all the churches are basically funded by the members of that church community and if they’re out of work, there’s no way to fund it,” said Bishop Warfel.
“For our employees we are encouraging no furloughing,” said Bishop Stebbins. She says the church will need those employees to help them recover. Stebbins added the church has been asking people to increase giving to the clergy’s discretionary accounts because those clergy have community connections to make sure financial resources flow to places needed.
“Both at the Synod and local levels as well as the Evangelical Church in America, we are working on a variety of ways to provide grants and resources to congregations who then can help the people in their congregations,” said Bishop Jungling. She says the church has groups that continue to provide outreach ministries including helping local food banks and providing masks to clinics and hospitals.
"Who knew we'd have our lives defined by a little virus that's not even alive. In all of that, we are still finding good news," said Bishop Stebbins.
Check out the extended interview below.