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The past year taught churches a lot about how to adapt to Holy Week

The past year taught churches a lot about how to adapt to Holy Week

Conference News Missions and Outreach

At this time last year, United Methodist churches throughout Florida were scrambling and uncertain as Holy Week approached.

In-person services were shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic and many pastors struggled with the nuances and technology demands of live-streaming. It was, to say the least, unsettling.

For the Christian faith, Easter Sunday is what it's all about. The pandemic, however, made it impossible to offer the kind of service people want and expect on that holy day.

"Last year was so depressing that we only had an online outreach," Rev. Terri Hill of Key West UMC said. "We knew Easter was going to be very hard. I was going to be preaching in a room with a camera person." 

Key West UMC

That was then.

But although most churches still have safety protocols in place and full, wide-open worship hasn't returned, things are much more hopeful as the most sacred season for churches is upon us.

"We have four services on Sunday morning in person. One at the beach and three at our facilities that are social distanced, masks, and all the protocols," Hill said.

"We have a very sizeable presence online that a year ago we didn't have at all. Our Facebook Live services are very well attended, and our online giving is strong. Our technical savvy is much greater than it was ago."

"We still don't have a choir, and that's sad. For the choir people, they meet every week on Zoom. They're a community and they love each other. When you're a singer and can't sing on Easter Sunday, that's a profound loss."

There is, however, real hope that loss won't continue much longer.

Kim Uchimura, the pastor at Emmanuel UMC in Bradenton, called what's happening now a "resurrection for a lot of churches."

"As tough as the year has been because of what we didn't get to do and what people were sad about, this has been an exciting year. It's because of the things we got to do and the way we got to grow," she said. "I'm looking forward to Easter!"

Most of the Florida Conference churches now offer live-streaming services. That seemed like a novelty for many until the pandemic struck, but as pastors and staff became comfortable with the technology, they discovered a new audience far beyond their regular membership.

That, in turn, opened doors and gave churches a new way to reach a wider audience. The uncertainty of closing the doors to in-person worship gave way to the realization that they could not only get through this, but they also could thrive.

"What I remember was the fading hopes we would be able to be back in person. It was a real scramble we and other churches had to figure out how to do Holy Week online," said Magrey deVega, pastor at Tampa's Hyde Park UMC.

"It was a crazy adaptation we had to do, but the changes we made sustained us through the year. I remember the first

Hyde Park UMC

line of my sermon last year: Easter has not been cancelled. Although things have changed, the resurrection has not."

A survey of some Florida Conference churches showed a generally more upbeat approach to Holy Week, even though restrictions remain in place.

Rev. Craig Nelson, senior pastor at St. Pete First UMC, will hold an in-person service on Good Friday, with social distancing enforced between pews. There will be three services on Easter Sunday – two traditional, and one contemporary.

"Our contemporary service will be in a park across the street. It will be huge, and by that, I mean it will take a lot of work to get the band, mics, and their own chairs out there," he said.

"We'll put out about a hundred chairs out and encourage people to bring their own."

Easter Sunday normally would mean a full house at First UMC, with about 1,800 attending. Nelson expects about half that number this time.

St, Pete First UMC

Tiffania Willetts, pastor at Seminole Heights UMC in Tampa, has an ambitious schedule planned for Holy Week.

The church scheduled an Easter Bunny Hop on March 27, where families were invited to sign up for reservations. Wearing masks and keeping social distancing, hey would move through different outdoor stations completing activities and collecting eggs.

There are plans for an outdoor service on Palm Sunday with special music.

"We are asking everyone to wear masks and bring their own chairs and blankets to sit on," Willetts said.

On Maundy Thursday, a special online service will tell the story of the Last Supper, and worshipers will be invited to wash their hands and the hands of those in their households as Jesus washed the disciples' feet.

For Good Friday, the church plans in-person Stations of the Cross around its property and a Tenebrae service.

And on Easter Sunday, the church offers both a sunrise service and in-person worship.

"Sunrise worship is a tradition at our church. We will sing, hear the story of the Resurrection, and share in communion together," Willetts said. "We will have one indoor worship service in the Sanctuary. We have already started taking reservations, so we don't exceed our Sanctuary capacity.

Seminole Heights UMC

"We will pre-record online worship for Easter so that online worshipers have a special experience and celebration to enjoy as well."

At Trinity UMC in Gainesville, co-Pastor Steve Price has seen a major shift to online worship. Although the church will offer multiple in-person worship opportunities during Holy Week, he expects the online audience to be strong.

"We've learned a whole lot this last year, I'll tell you that. We've gotten much more technically savvy. We moved one service inside this month for first time since last year. That was our 11 a.m. service because the age demographic is older for that service and many have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

Trinity UMC Gainesville

"But honestly, I think in the past year I've seen a major shift to where some people will just say, hey, I'll just watch online today."

Back at Hyde Park, in-house worship won't return until April 11. As this Holy Week approaches though, deVega said an amazing thing has happened at his church.

"If you had told me this time last year that we would have gained 100 new members over the past 12 months and many of those folks are online only and have never set foot on our property, I wouldn't have believed you," he said.

The new members took classes via Zoom and took their vows by the same platform. One was even a former atheist from out of state who reached out to God in 2019.

He said God led him to click on the Hyde Park steaming service.

"You talk about resurrection. This is new life," deVega said. "As hard as it has been, and for many of us it has been the toughest year in ministry ever, God has been at work.

"Like I told people last year, Easter has not been cancelled. It still hasn't been."

Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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