Easter message will be the same, no matter how it's deliveredCOVID-19 Missions and Outreach
Over the last few weeks, United Methodist pastors across Florida have been forced to adapt how they hold worship. For many, adjusting to the restrictions on in-person services because of COVID-19 has been a challenge unlike anything they have faced in their ministries.
But Easter Sunday presents an even greater challenge. Under current circumstances, how can a church plan and present a meaningful service on the holiest day of the Christian calendar?
We tried to find out by surveying Florida Conference pastors about their plans for Easter worship.
There is a broad mix of urban, suburban, and rural churches in the state, and no two congregations are alike. Some churches have a long history of streaming online services, but it’s a new concept for others.
It is up the pastor to adapt under these trying circumstances.
Pastor Craig Nelson of First UMC of St. Petersburg plans to unite the congregation in a special way.
“I am driving around, greeting people from the street. I am filming them waving,” he said. “I will then compile the video and people can see each other saying hi. I have asked some to dress in Easter best, some I’ve not worried about. It would be varied anyway.”
For Pastor Tiffania Willetts of Tampa’s Seminole Heights UMC, it means joining forces with her parents, who also are Methodist pastors. Rev. Tim Willetts is the pastor at Good Shepherd UMC in North Fort Myers, and Rev. Lia Icaza-Willetts is with Christ UMC in Lehigh Acres.
“We are putting together a video of worship pieces from all three churches for Easter,” Tiffania Willetts said. “The video will be pre-recorded, but we will post it live at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday on our churches' Facebook pages.
“We will have musicians featured from Good Shepherd UMC and Seminole Heights UMC, and the three pastors will divide up the different parts of the service. My sister, Isabel Icaza Willetts, will also help to lead the worship and will sing a solo.”
Pastor Lia will record a monologue from Mary Magdalene's perspective as our sermon to speak to the Easter fear and joy the disciples felt.
“This year, Easter will still be a celebration. It's been a time of fear and waiting for almost everyone, so it's important for us to remember to celebrate,” Tiffania Willetts said.
“For our family, this means coming together to worship, even if it is virtually. This is our way to share with our communities our collective gifts from our churches and from our family.”
The sunrise service is a staple for many churches. Pastor Steve Price of Trinity UMC in Gainesville will keep that tradition alive with what he called “a brief sunrise meditation that will be broadcast from Trinity's memorial garden, where we typically hold our sunrise service.”
The message of Easter, of course, is the empty tomb following Jesus’ resurrection. It is a message of hope and confidence, especially in these trying times.
“We have been drawn particularly to Mark's account of the resurrection for this Easter, because the story is unfinished. The women hear the news that Jesus is risen, yet they leave the tomb afraid and tell no one,” Price said.
“In this time of so much fear and uncertainty, this account opens the door to each worshipper pondering how they will respond to the good news that, while there is much we cannot know right now, the good news is just as certain this year as others: Christ is risen, indeed!”
Kimberly Uchimura, senior pastor at Emmanuel UMC in Bradenton, plans to record video to present on the church’s website and Facebook page on Sunday morning.
She agreed with Price that the empty tomb has what she called “more immediacy at this time.”
“I serve an older church. No kids or teens at all. In fact, only two or three members are younger than I am. So, we’re all at somewhat higher risk with this virus,” she said.
“I think it’s important to remember that unlike the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus is resurrected it’s for good, just as it will be for those who believe. We have no need to fear for death is but a step on the way to eternity with Jesus.”
She also has a special message.
“I guess I want to remind us all that God is in this with us despite what feels like evidence to the contrary,” she said. “The enemy may look like he’s winning but we serve the Lord Jesus Christ who has defeated death and defeated the enemy.”
Sheron Willson, the pastor at Grace UMC in rural Lawtey, had to change her plans. She originally planned a drive-in service but ditched that after the stay-at-home decree was issued.
They decided to live-stream a sunrise service, but from a different location because, Willson said, “internet in rural areas is not reliable.”
The church also will have an 11 a.m. service on Facebook Live.
“Our God is on the throne and we will worship him on the mountain or in the valley or at a distance or through technology,” she said. “We are blessed to be able to worship our Lord openly.”
Pastor Denvil Farley of Port Charlotte UMC will do what he called “a brief Easter Sunrise reflection from my backyard on Easter morning as the sun rises.”
Pastor Victoria Guthrie of First UMC Pinellas Park is planning to use Facebook Premier to bring the message of Easter to viewers. She is trying to have other options, though, as a backup plan.
“It’s our first attempt at this so it may not work,” she said. “We would like to have the praise director and the choir director both pre-record a hymn and praise song. If Premier doesn't happen, we will download each section separately and people can open each one of Facebook and our website. I will be giving a short message on John 20: 1-9.”
She also will present a prayer that she wrote.
“Loving God, we gather this morning together to celebrate Easter Sunday. But it is unlike most Easter Sunday experiences and yet it may be closer to a true experience of Easter than we realize. We have been mourning and weeping, living with anxiety, fear and difficulty. We have experienced death and illness.
“Today, even as we are separated, sheltering away from one another, you meet us here. The place we are in has become a sacred space. The tomb is empty. We are reminded that the power of sin and death have been defeated. We welcome you our resurrected Lord, into our lives again today. We are not alone. Amen.”
--Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for flumc.org.
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