Tallmadge churches find ways to meet the needs of its members

Laura Freeman
Kent Weeklies
Tallmadge United Methodist Church Pastor Scott Low performs the baptism of Kevin and Rachel Keel’s son Matthew during a parking lot service in September.
Pastor Scott Low performs a baptism in the parking lot of the Tallmadge United Methodist Church.

TALLMADGE – Some churches never closed their doors while others developed new ways for their members to worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pastor Deborah Wissner of St. Mark Lutheran Church, 158 North Ave., said members are meeting in person and online. They have a live broadcast of the services.

“It’s beginning to balance out,” she said. “We never stopped meeting in person but started live streaming immediately.”

St. Mark Lutheran Church on North Avenue offers online and in person services.

Members did what was comfortable for them, Wissner said. In the first few months the in-person attendance was no more than 10 people. Now they have 20 to 25 in person and they have at least 20 online, which added an opportunity to have services.

Attendance last year during the peak season of fall with choir and activities was 70 to 80 members who attended two services, she said.

Pastor Scott Low conducts Sunday services to a parking lot full of cars at the Tallmadge United Methodist Church.
Ann Elliot sings to parishioners in their cars during the Sunday parking lot church services at the Tallmadge United Methodist Church.
Tallmadge United Methodist Church pastor Scott Low prepares for the baptism of Kevin and Rachel Keel’s son Matthew during a parking lot service.

Pastor Andy Alberts of Tallmadge Lutheran Church, 759 East Ave., said they have in-person services at 8 and 10:30 a.m. on Sundays and remained open during the pandemic.

One of the things Gov. Michael DeWine said was that churches are an essential business, he said.

Normally the sanctuary seats 240 but with social distancing it seats about 80 people and attendance has been as low as 15, Alberts said. Last year attendance was around 230 for two services and they average around 100 now.

“We have a great opportunity,” Alberts said. “We weren’t online before and now we are live streaming our services every Sunday. It enables those homebound or those living out of the area to connect who can’t be physically present in our building.”

First Congregational Church on Heritage Drive has experienced online, parking lot services and in person as well as a combination of all three.

The Rev. David Brumbaugh of First Congregational Church, 85 Heritage Dr., has experienced online, parking lot services, in-person and a combination of all three.

“Every pastor has had to become an unplanned televangelist,” Brumbaugh said. “We began with online worship services and put them on our website and streamed live.”

First Congregation Church joined with other Tallmadge church to participate in the Easter Sunday service in the parking lot at the Tallmadge High School, he said. About 400 cars were present.

“If it wouldn’t have been for the relationships with other churches prior to the event, it might not have happened," Brumbaugh said. “It was a big boost in morale and a way to share knowledge among the people doing the service.”

They learned how to do a parking lot service at their own churches, he said.

“We tried parking lot services which began in May and are continuing to this day,” Brumbaugh said. “We’ve had as many as 55 cars in our parking lot.”

They began indoor worship Aug. 2 and expect people to wear a mask and social distance in a large sanctuary, he said. The church has sanitizer and non-latex gloves available.

“We wanted visitors to know we did everything to ensure their safety,” Brumbaugh said. “If we don’t have a comprehensive protocol and get it out, people aren’t going to come back. They need to feel assured the church is doing the most to protect them.”

Last year the church averaged 166 in worship with two services, but numbers are at 40 to 55 on a Sunday with 30 in the parking lot and then any number who watch online.

“We are meeting the people’s needs,” Brumbaugh said.

Also since August, other groups are meeting in two large areas in the church, he said. The preschool began Sept. 15 with 30 to 35 children. They are limited to three or four in a classroom instead of 10 and abide by all the rules.

Contributions have been mailed in, but St. Mark Lutheran has lost other income and ministry opportunities with the loss of Absorbent Minds Montessori school which had a campus in the church, Wissner said. They combined with the Cuyahoga Falls campus.

“They have leased space from us and enlivened the place,” Wissner said.

Alberts said Tallmadge Lutheran has not seen a decrease in offerings and has seen a small increase.

“Our church has been very blessed,” Alberts said. “Members have appreciated what we’ve done, and some have gotten in the habit of online giving which is more consistent whether they are here or not. God has blessed us with gifts.”

Although preschool and before and after school programs shut down, they are open again with about half the enrollment, Alberts said. Student ministries are meeting with social distancing and wearing masks.

“This is a season where these ministries serve the community and meet a need and we want to keep providing it and hoping by next fall it will be back to normal,” Alberts said.

The closure has affected donations, Brumbaugh said.

“I don’t know a church who doesn’t have donations down,” Brumbaugh said. “Part of that is attendance. If I’m attending, I’m giving. If you’re not attending or participating in an organization ministry and missions, it’s easy to lag behind in giving.”

People have lost their jobs and are not working as many hours, he added. They don’t have the money to give.

“It will be up to members whether to come back in person,” Wissner said. “We changed the way we do things by taping off every other pew and we don’t encourage people to mingle. I don’t greet people at the door. We don’t pass an offering plate.”

Most people wear masks event though the church does not require it, Wissner said. People are being responsible.

“We don’t know the endgame,” Wissner said. “We expected a day soon when government officials would say ‘come out of your houses,’ and we don’t know if that will happen.”

People have to assess their risks, but that human connection has been a big loss, Wissner said.

Tallmadge Lutheran Church on East Avenue remained open during the pandemic with in person services.

“I talked with other pastors and the initial rush in March hit like a blizzard and a long winter where you settle in,” Alberts said. “A mini ice age is not really going away soon but this is our new reality and how do you adjust? We’re hoping and praying for a thaw.”

Tallmadge Lutheran Church is celebrating its 60th anniversary on Oct. 25 and the theme is “anchored in hope,” Alberts said.

“In the midst of all the changes and uncertainty, we have this anchor in Jesus Christ,” Alberts said. “As much as things change, as followers of Jesus, we have this anchor of hope.”

“We keep saying at our church, and other churches, it’s the same God we worship whether times are difficult, or times are plenty,” Brumbaugh said. “God’s faithfulness to the church and humanity is kindly, merciful and loving. This virus is like any other calamity that happens in the world, but at same time is it a test for our faith.”

One of the tests is the virus interrupting a culture of freedom and unlimited opportunities where people can go where they want when they want, Brumbaugh said. People are looking for a time when the pandemic is over, and they can go back to the way things were.

“I’m not sure what that will be, but you need to be the church in all situations and conditions,” Brumbaugh said. “Your faith doesn’t waver because your life isn’t normal. It’s more serious with more than 200,000 people who have died in our country and people getting infected and affected by this. We’re going to do ministry and worship through this.”

Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at lfreeman@recordpub.com