As Illinois moves into Phase 4 of the state's COVID-19 recovery plan on Friday, churches in Chester are preparing to open their doors to congregants for the first time since mid-March.
While Phase 4 limits gatherings to 50 people or fewer, churches have been told they can do what they want without fear of reprisals, as long as they take precautions to protect congregants against the coronavirus.
One local church, First United Methodist, will return to holding in-person services at 10 a.m. this coming Sunday, June 28, in the church sanctuary.
Bishop Frank Beard, of the United Methodist Church Great Rivers Conference, asked Methodist congregations to follow recommended guidelines and develop plans to return to their sanctuaries using steps to protect the health and safety of parishioners.
Under the leadership of Pastor James Oppedal of the First United Methodist Church in Chester, a COVID-19 Committee was established and met twice during the past month to establish safety protocols to insure the safety of the FUMC congregation.
Pastor Oppedal shared the suggested safety protocol with District Superintendent Allyn Walker, who responded that it appeared that the committee was "right on track" with their recommendations.
• Everyone must wear masks. The church has bought some masks, the Methodist Women have made numerous masks and some have been provided by the Randolph County Health Department. Parishioners can also bring their own masks.
• Members of church families can sit together. Seats will be assigned, and will be six feet apart and in alternating rows.
• Entry into the sanctuary will be limited to just two doorways -- the front doors of the church and the door by the pastor's office. Those doors will be propped open, so members will not have to touch the handles.
• Ushers, wearing gloves, will ask members to use disinfectant gel as they enter the sanctuary. Bulletins will be placed on the designated seats prior to services so that no one will have to touch them besides the church secretary who will wear gloves while creating and distributing the bulletins.
• Church member Roy Wunderlich has made beautiful, lockable offering boxes which will be placed at the two entrances. As members enter the sanctuary, they are asked to place their offerings into the locked boxes so the offering plates will not have to be passed through the pews. Financial officers will remove the offerings wearing gloves.
• All hymnals and Bibles have been removed from the pews. The words to songs, prayers and responsive readings will be published in the bulletins to avoid possible contamination from handling the books. Members will be asked to take their bulletins home and dispose of them so that the janitor does not have to handle those bulletins following services.
• Bishop Beard has asked churches in the Great Rivers Conference to not hold communion for the time being until safe measures can be established.
• At the end of service the ushers will dismiss members one row at a time. Members are asked NOT to congregate in the sanctuary following service and to maintain social distancing in the parking lot and on church grounds.
For the time being there will be no children's sermon because the children are used to coming to the altar in a closed group. To avoid confusion for the children, there merely be no children's sermon.
• The congregation will not sing as a group during the service to reduce the spread germs. There will be one volunteer vocalist during hymns and other singing, who will stand in the choir loft.
• Until further notice there will be no nursery or Sunday school and there will be no acolytes. The pastor will light the candles from the altar.
• Restrooms will be furnished with disinfectant, hand sanitizer and paper towels. Those who use them are asked to disinfect the room after use.
Since mid-March, Pastor Oppedal has posted FUMC church services on the FUMC Facebook page each week. He plans to continue that practice and would like to even have the services "live-steamed" on Facebook each week.