Churches in Green Valley and Sahuarita face a variety of challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, from technological hurdles to decreased revenues and attendance. We checked in with some and here's what we found.
Grace Church of Sahuarita
Administrative Pastor Rick Vogeler of Grace Church of Sahuarita said the pandemic has “greatly impacted our numbers.”
“We have had a phased approach to reopening," he said. "We’re about one-third of the population right now than we would normally be running."
The largest decrease in in-person attendance is of parishioners age 65 and younger with no pre-existing conditions, Vogeler said. The church resumed in-person services when the governor lifted the stay-at-home order in mid-May.
“The third that is coming, they’re encouraged, they’re concerned, but they’re not worried. They’re not overly worried or fearful and they’re participating,” Vogeler said.
“Financially... our people are being very generous and staying faithful in their giving,” he said, but the church on Sahuarita Road has taken a hit, down “thousands” each month, and is adjusting by streamlining expenditures and limiting other costs.
The church has strongly recommended those at highest risk, age 65 and older with pre-existing conditions, stay home. They have a care ministry group checking in on the high-risk members regularly.
Like many churches, during the governor’s shutdown Grace Church delivered services digitally and small groups met online. Since then, some of the groups have met out in the community such as in backyards but most have suspended meetings.
Grace Church was supposed to restart its children’s ministry this weekend, but Vogeler is not certain that will happen in light of the governor pushing the start date of schools farther into August. Decisions will be made at a meeting with church elders Wednesday evening.
A few members have tested positive for the virus but none have died, he said. He said the church is following guidelines on social distancing and following the direction of Sahuarita’s mayor and the governor on wearing masks.
At Calvary Chapel of Sahuarita, Pastor J.K. Kim is asking members who can to wear face coverings. Kim suffers from asthma and said wearing a mask or covering is like having duct tape over his mouth and nostrils with only a small hole to breathe out of.
“When I put the mask on it’s like trying to breathe through a straw,” he said.
Kim said the church, west of Sahuarita on Helmet Peak Road, resumed in-person services when the governor lifted restrictions but attendance has decreased by about 50 percent.
Kim would like to offer live-streamed services but said the wifi in the area is not sufficient. Instead, services are recorded for viewing on YouTube.
One congregant contracted COVID-19 but Kim said he checked in with him recently and his is almost fully recovered.
“It was so weird to preach to the empty chairs,” Kim said, reflecting on delivering services via YouTube. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years...and never done that before and it was so strange.”
When in-person services resumed “it was like having my family back,” Kim said.
Pastor Dr. Craig Lindsey of Valley Presbyterian in Green Valley, whose membership sat at about 500 around the start of the pandemic, said the church is not conducting in-person services and is pre-recording them for release Sunday mornings. They also are conducting meetings via Zoom.
Lindsey, who became head in October, said suddenly having to shift to preaching in an empty sanctuary and to empty pews was an adjustment.
“Still, there’s a reverence, there’s a faith in God, and trying to pass that through the camera to the congregation,” Lindsey said. “There used to be a time when ministers only had to preach the Bible and be relevant in their text, and now instead, it’s also understanding Zoom, it’s understanding microphones and recording devices and editing.”
“But the reality is we can do more online than we can if the congregation were to come together. Because we cannot celebrate communion with passing the trays, it would just be a petri dish,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey said they would not be able to sing or have fellowship if they were conducting in-person services or meetings and the virtual route they’ve taken has presented “intellectual hurdles.”
“They have been very pleased that we can do this, to keep them connected and grounded,” he said. “We are all very anxious to get back to reality, of being able to be together.”
When the shutdown was lifted the feedback received from parishioners was that it was too soon to come back. But when the church does decide to resume in-person, they are hoping to continue providing the option to participate from home through a recorder or live-streamed service.
Lindsey said Valley Presbyterian and Desert Hills Lutheran Church were hoping to open up this weekend but decided together that they would hold off.
This weekend, Valley Presbyterian will instead release 15 butterflies by its fountains, an act symbolic of releasing onto the winds their desire to be together and their faith in God.
Melissa Buscho, board member at Desert Hills Lutheran Church, said they look at the decision to open on a month-to-month basis and has not set a date for a future opening. Buscho said she would characterize adjusting to the pandemic as “not ideal, but working well.”
“We’re providing options.”
The church pre-records services, one for Saturday night and one for Sunday, with different music and worship styles. Buscho said members are “loving our online worship” and the church leadership is tracking the “overwhelmingly positive” response.
“They would all prefer to be together,” Buscho said. “But they are glad about the decisions we are making and they feel good about those decisions.”
The church delivers a daily update via email and a pastoral care team works daily to check in on members.
Desert Hills has about 1,700 members and guests, according to Buscho, and they are “rising to the occasion” with financial contributions.
St. Francis in the Valley
The treasurer at St. Francis in the Valley Episcopal Church recently delivered a report titled “Surprise, Surprise” to church leadership indicating the church’s income is “fairly close to normal,” according to Interim Rector Rev. Canon Colville Smythe, who goes by the Rev. Colville.
Colville attributes finances holding steady to efforts by the church to maintain connection with its parishioners through steady and regular communication and online classes and groups.
“So they have the sense that church hasn’t gone away,” Colville said. “It’s just changed format.”
“Very few of them are suffering from depression, a lot of them are suffering from cabin fever but their spirits are good,” he said.
Colville said the corps of St. Francis’ members have continued to give generously, with some giving their recent stimulus checks to the church’s general or discretionary funds. Contributions to the discretionary fund have been used to help people in need such as those short on rent because they were laid off from work.
The Paycheck Protection Program provided extra support to the church and helped it continue paying staff.
“I’m 77, I never would have imagined I’d have a learning curve to become a televangelist on video calls. I never imagined I’d spend a lot of my time leading Zoom calls and teaching online, that’s all new to me,” Colville said. “But it’s exciting.”
Pastor John Guillot of Green Valley Baptist Church said worship services resumed in June but have been suspended for July due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. He said the biggest challenge is staying connected with members.
“Since March, we have been unable to visit our church family if they’re in a rehab center or in a hospital,” he said. “In fact, at this moment I’ve got a church member having surgery up at St.Mary’s [hospital] and his wife can’t be there and none of the pastoral staff can be there.”
“Most of the work of your ministry is built around relationships with people, interacting with and ministering to them,” he said.
He said some parishioners don’t think it’s necessary to suspend in-person services and others welcome the precaution. There are about 200 members at the church with about 150 attending during a typical summer and 250 to 275 attendees in fall and winter.
“With a congregation our size, we have quite a few people whose immune systems are compromised and probably many of our people may choose just to continue to worship online even when we can come back together. And that’s just going to be part of the reality,” he said.
“Somehow or other during my seminary training I missed the workshop on pastoring through a pandemic,” Guillot joked. “I’ve been telling folks we’re building the airplane as we fly it right now.”