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Churches embrace change as pandemic subsides

RiverLakes Community Church on Calloway Drive didn't make a few minor adjustments during the pandemic. It made lots of substantial changes to help its congregation — and the church itself — pull through the crisis.

In-person gatherings moved online for months at a time. Evening services ended altogether and the meetings that remained were rescheduled and shortened. Church bulletins went exclusively digital, the welcome center was relocated and instead of passing around a container for tithings, a box was placed at the back of the room for people to contribute.

Now that the crisis appears to be subsiding, RiverLakes' senior pastor, the Rev. Matt Vorhees, sees no reason to go back to the way things were before.

"We're just embracing it, trusting the Lord and looking forward to what He's doing through all this," he said. "He doesn't waste pain or challenges."

As isolating and difficult as the pandemic has been for communities of faith, local spiritual leaders say enough good appears to have come out of it that they expect the most positive changes made since March 2020 will stay in place for the long term.

Online streaming of live services has proved surprisingly convenient, they say, as have things like outdoor worship and counseling sessions by teleconference. Not everyone prefers them to conventional in-person attendance, but many have grown accustomed to them and even experienced unexpected benefits.

DOWNSIDES

That's not to say places of worship have fully recovered from the profound disruptions brought on by pandemic operating restrictions. There are reports of families leaving churches they saw as reopening recklessly soon, and conversely, people switching to new congregations because their own took too long to resume in-person services.

Several congregations report significant drops in attendance as well as lower financial contributions. How soon the numbers recover remains a big question even as vaccination rates increase and California prepares to drop pandemic-related restrictions on June 15.

Despite the uncertainty, local spiritual leaders voice optimism that not only their places of worship will survive but that they will emerge better in some respects.

"It's pushed us to find other ways to stay connected (with members of the congregation) and communicate and encourage people," said the Rev. Richard Thompson, pastor at First United Methodist on Stockdale Highway.

He said members have been trickling back into the pews since the start of the year, more so since the vaccine rollout, but that in-person attendance is still down by a third or possibly half. He attributed part of the decline to deaths and part to people moving out of the state, in some cases because of the slowdown in local oil production.

The church's live-stream of services continues as it did even prior to the pandemic, now in high-definition thanks to the congregation's donation of more than $10,000 toward a new audio-visual system.

While older members of the church were anxious to return, Thompson said younger families have stayed away at a higher rate, forcing him to stay in contact with them by text. He also has begun sending weekly emails to the membership and recording a weekly video address.

SIDE BENEFITS

Pandemic-related changes have proved a benefit at Temple Beth El, where Rabbi Jonathan Klein introduced streaming services after being appointed in May of last year. Since then, far-flung members have reconnected with the congregation, raising the temple's participation totals.

As Temple Beth El gradually reopens — it still opens for gatherings no more than twice monthly — Klein said it limits entry to people who present immunization cards showing they've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, it plans to continue serving "satellite members" as far away as Alaska through online broadcasts. And Klein said that might end up being a good thing.

"All of these technologies are as good as they add to our interconnectedness to one another," he said.

Bakersfield Community Church of the Brethren on A Street took the pandemic as an opportunity to carry out renovations including a new paint job. In-person attendance numbers have actually increased as members of the congregation stayed in contact, in part through Zoom meetings, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Sandra Millard.

"With God all things are possible," she said, quoting from the 19th chapter of the biblical Book of Matthew.

WIDER REACH

The Rev. Dennis Asuncion, pastor of the Filipino Ministry at Valley Baptist Church, said about half his flock is back in person and that many of the rest, including people still nervous about possibly catching the virus, follow along on a live-stream on Facebook.

Online arrangements have worked out well in that people have been able to meet, confidentially as circumstances require, without leaving home, Asuncion said. He said Bible studies aren't quite the same online but that services broadcast over the internet have extended the ministry's geographical reach.

"You get to reach … other Filipino friends in other states," he said.

Rosedale Bible Church returned to in-person services in mid-October, and since then members have gradually returned such that attendance has risen to about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic total, said the congregation's lead pastor, the Rev. Dan Krause.

Although a patio space has been set up outside for people hesitant to worship indoors, he said some who went missing have since indicated they switched to a different church because they weren't comfortable with Rosedale Bible's relatively early return to in-person services.

Tithing is down about a quarter, he noted. While other churches accepted money from the Paycheck Protection Program federal recovery initiative, he said Rosedale Bible declined because it didn't want to feel beholden to the government.

Now, as the church gears up for vacation bible school to begin in the third week of June, plans are to keep children outside and socially distanced.

"We're learning as we go and we are definitely not perfect people," he said. "We're continuing to go forward, though."