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For Gary Martin, the church has always been a place for people to gather in times of crisis and “draw strength from one another,” and the pastor of Coal Mountain Baptist Church has been anxious to do that during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Coal Mountain’s like any other church,” Martin said. “It’s been painful to not meet in person.”
Gov. Brian Kemp gave churches the opportunity to do just that during a Tuesday press conference, signaling that places of worship can resume in-person services with restrictions.
Instead, Forsyth County church leaders say they are hesitant to re-gather so soon. They need more time to think through how to implement necessary safety measures.
“Ceasing to worship in person was easier than figuring out how to do it again,” Martin said.
Cumming First United Methodist and Midway United Methodist said they are following guidance from the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church for member churches to remain closed through May 13. The Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta also urged member churches to postpone in-person services.
Mountain Lake Church won’t meet in person this Sunday, said lead pastor Chris Emmitt, as staff continue “to figure out the best and safest way possible.”
Parkway Presbyterian formed a “task force” of members to think through what safety measures to take, according to pastor Jay Miller. They’ve started to reconsider some of their church’s practices like communion and offerings. He’s “cautiously optimistic” the church can start holding in-person services in mid-May.
After participating in a conference call with Kemp and other Georgia religious leaders on Wednesday, Dr. Jeff Jackson, senior pastor of First Redeemer Church, said in a letter to his congregation that “it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to responsibly reassemble for worship before late May or early June.”
There will be several changes when First Redeemer does reopen, Jackson said, including rearranged seating, additional services, deep cleans between services and limited child care. Staff and volunteers will also be screened for illness before coming into the facility.
Coal Mountain Baptist received similar guidelines from the Georgia Baptist Association on how to safely reopen, Martin said. The church’s board of deacons will meet next week to “digest all that’s involved.”
“We’re not going to rush,” Martin said. “We’re not going to throw the doors open.”
Foremost in Martin’s mind has been Coal Mountain Baptist’s congregation. About 300 to 350 people regularly attend the church’s Sunday service at 11 a.m., and many are older and at risk of the worst symptoms from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
“How do you decide who comes?” Martin said. “You would like to think that our seniors … would stay home, but they’re the ones that are so eager to get back.”
In the meantime, Coal Mountain Baptist, like other churches, will continue to offer Sunday services online.
“We’re thankful that God gives us sense and information and minds,” Martin said, “that we would use them and that we would be careful.”