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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

The Pandemic

Clergy leaders work to balance facts, faith and fears amid pandemic

“This is not the devil. This is what science is telling us.”

Monika Coats prays during the mass marking the 180th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass in Memphis, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019 at St. Peter Church. (Greg Campbell/ Special for The Daily Memphian file )
Monika Coats prays during the mass marking the 180th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass in Memphis, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019 at St. Peter Church. (Greg Campbell/ Special for The Daily Memphian file )

Closing a house of prayer in a crisis might not seem like an act of faith. But in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, clergy leaders are deciding that closing their doors to on-site worship services and other prayerful gatherings is the most faithful action they can take.

“What’s faith and what’s not faith?” asked Dr. Stacy Spencer, senior pastor of New Direction Christian Church in Hickory Hill, one of the largest congregations in the country with more than 18,000 members.

“As a faith leader, I’m being more responsible to my people by not meeting for worship and having faith that God will meet our needs,” Spencer said. “The church is not the building, it’s the people.”

Spencer was speaking Tuesday to more than 250 local clergy leaders who participated in a webinar to talk about how to work together in the coming weeks and months to help each other continue to serve their congregations and the community at large.

They agreed to form a new interfaith, ecumenical coalition for the digital age – a new interactive Facebook group for all area clergy leaders called Memphis Clergy COVID-19 Response.

They also agreed that their first response should be to stop gathering in-person for worship.

This weekend, and for an unknown number of weekends to come, thousands of congregations across the community are closing their buildings and moving worship services, prayer meetings, Bible studies and other regular activities into virtual spaces, in an effort to protect their members and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, one of the nation’s largest and most influential Southern Baptist congregations, is postponing all in-person activities and moving all services online.

The church created a special web page to show its members how to watch services, share prayer requests and donate online. “Our priority is your safety,” the church noted on its Facebook page.

Pastors of Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova, another megachurch moving online this weekend, launched Hope on Demand, a special web page filled with links to live and archived sermons and other resources.

The changes are an effort to “balance facts and faith and avoid paralyzing fear,” senior pastor Rufus Smith told the congregation in a video message.

David Waters
David Waters

A number of churches in the Presbytery of the Mid-South are working together to host joint worship services via the radio and live streaming beginning this Sunday.

Some clergy leaders are responding to requests from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who declared a state of civil emergency Thursday and asked places of worship not to hold in-person gatherings.

Others are responding to a joint statement issued Tuesday by the Shelby County Health Department and Church Health: “The best way to protect parishioners is to keep them out of harm’s way because there is no anti-viral treatment or vaccine yet. Conducting any programming possible virtually, or suspending, will protect the most vulnerable.”

But many clergy leaders already had decided to close their buildings for the duration of the pandemic.

“In the interest of an abundance of caution and care, our ‘in person worship experience’ for today is suspended, but we WILL worship God today,” Dr. Gina Stewart, senior pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church in South Memphis, posted on her Facebook page at 4:50 a.m. last Sunday. “Join us at at 11 a.m.”

Temple Israel, the region’s largest synagogue, moved its services online more than a week ago. On Tuesday, rabbis began posting daily lessons and messages on the congregation’s Facebook page.

“Physical distance doesn’t have to impede spiritual closeness,” Rabbi Micah Greenstein said. “Social media is community. This is another way we can provide inspiration, comfort and learning even when we are not physically together.”

All eight Memphis mosques decided Tuesday to suspend five daily and Friday congregational prayers and to live

stream evening prayers and lessons.

“Leaders of the Memphis area masjids and religious leadership met earlier this week with infectious and respiratory disease experts who are members of their community,” mosque leaders said in a joint statement posted on all of their social media pages.

They “strongly recommended aggressive and immediate proactive measures to be taken in order to limit the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in our community,” the leaders said in a statement on Facebook.

“Based on guidance and evidence from The Qur’an and Sunnah and in order to preserve the life and the well-being of the community, our religious leadership unanimously agreed on the permissibility of suspending daily congregational and Friday prayers during a pandemic.”

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a week ago that all public gatherings including worship services were temporarily suspended worldwide until further notice.

”During this unique period of no Sunday Church services, we are hearing from many how special it has been for them to be able to worship and study as a family in their homes,” said Rich Floyd, LDS Mid-South director of public affairs.

Bishops of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee, and the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church also are asking their congregations not to conduct services in their sanctuaries and to allow their staffs to work remotely.

“One of our biggest challenges is that many people don’t believe in the seriousness of this pandemic,” Catholic Bishop David Talley told his colleagues in Tuesday’s webinar. “Please believe in what science is saying. This is not the devil. This is what science is telling us.”

While most clergy leaders believe that closing their buildings is the faithful, rational and responsible thing to do, they agree it might not be possible for everyone.

“Some places have to stay open because they are providing food, health care and spiritual guidance,” said Bishop Brandon Porter, senior pastor of Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ and a member of COGIC’s general board of bishops. “And remember, people are dying and being hospitalized. Churches have ministries to help families through these crises.”

Porter is livestreaming all of Greater Community Temple’s worship services, but he’s also offering a Social Distance Worship “only for those who are healthy and feel driven to attend,” he said. “People will spread out in the auditorium to avoid contact. Since the attendance will be smaller, they can do that easily.”

Porter, who oversees his own congregation as well as dozens of smaller ones in the area, was among a number of local clergy leaders who participated in a conference call Wednesday with Mayor Strickland.

“We told him that if some small churches were closed for three months, they might never reopen,” Porter said. “They have mortgages and utilities to pay.”

Smaller and more remote congregations face other challenges.

“Fortunately, we do have livestreaming already. We’ve been doing that for awhile,” Stewart told her fellow clergy in Tuesday’s webinar. “But a lot of small churches and their members don’t have the ability or capability to do that. A lot of them are barely keeping their doors open as it is.”

Helping smaller congregations move into virtual sanctuaries will be one of the missions of Memphis Clergy COVID-19 Response.

On Thursday, Spencer and T. Ray Greer, pastor of small Salem Baptist Church in Mason, hosted a webinar to give congregations technical advice about how to host virtual worship services on Facebook Live, Zoom and other streaming platforms.

”Larger churches will help smaller ones learn how to use digital methods to worship online and help members continue to connect through Bible study groups, giving, and checking in with each other,” explained Dr. Scott Morris, a physician, United Methodist minister and Church Health founder. “Technology is a tool many small congregations have never had to learn to use or have not had the expertise to implement.”

Morris organized and hosted Tuesday’s webinar.

He began the meeting with a brief medical explanation of the novel coronavirus and the disease COVID-19.

He hopes the Facebook group will begin a community conversation and provide ways for congregational leaders to share factual information about the virus and practical ideas about how to work together to continue to serve the community.

“We have never seen a coronavirus like this before,” Morris explained. “It is not the flu…. It’s twice as contagious as the flu and many times more lethal. A virus doesn’t care what you believe.

“The faith community has to work together to flatten the infection curve and mitigate the suffering of those who will be most vulnerable – the elderly, those who are food insecure, the homeless, those who will be losing their jobs or facing reduced income. This is a long list, and we know that the impact will be inequitable. Just because the building is closed, the faith community itself is not shuttered.”

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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