Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are forcing local pastors to come up with creative ways for congregation members to worship together while staying apart.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently extended for the second time the state’s stay-at-home order to May 18. The Diocese of Duluth followed suit by extending its suspension of public Masses.

“I think that they have been good protocols,” said the Rev. Tony Wroblewski, pastor at St. Francis Catholic Church in Brainerd, All Saints Catholic Church in Baxter and St. Thomas of the Pines in East Gull Lake.

From sermons via Facebook to outdoor parking lot worship services, area clergy have experimented with different ways of reaching worshippers.

“It’s been extremely difficult when what you’re trained to do is to be able to have times of worship with your people — minister to them directly, face to face — and we’re in a time where it could be dangerous to do so,” Wroblewski said.

Trinity Lutheran Church

A Brainerd church on South Sixth Street took a novel approach to social distancing and worship services with its first drive-up church service with Holy Communion on May 3.

“In this time of uncertainty, people need to feel the presence of God and their church family,” according to Trinity Lutheran Church’s Facebook page about the event, which will take place again at 9 a.m. May 17.

“It worked out very well,” Associate Pastor Hans Anderson said of the parking lot service. “There was a little bit of a traffic jam on South Sixth just for a little bit, but as people kind of came in — right around 9 o'clock is when it started — the sound (system) and everything went very well.”

Hans Anderson is an associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church on South Sixth Street in Brainerd. Submitted photo / Trinity Lutheran Church
Hans Anderson is an associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church on South Sixth Street in Brainerd. Submitted photo / Trinity Lutheran Church

The Facebook event listing encouraged people to “Come as you are, please stay in your car!” and “Don’t dress up! Drive up!” so attendees remained in their vehicles for the outdoor service. For Holy Communion, plastic bags containing grape juice and wafers were handed out.

“Every measure was taken to make sure things were safe,” Anderson said. “When you’d say, ‘Christ is risen. He’s risen, indeed,’ people would honk their horns, and it was a very joyous celebration. We had about 80 cars … and roughly 200 people there. ... There was a real sense of the spirit moving here in the parking lot, and it was awesome.”

Anderson said the church is postponing funeral services and no weddings at the church have been scheduled until the end of June.

“We have about three or four people who are waiting to have their funeral at a later date or their memorial service at a later date. We’re just not doing them at this time,” Anderson said. “And if a parishioner would like to come into our church just to have time in the sanctuary, that's fine.”

Connecting virtually is also part of the church’s outreach efforts.

“Right now, we’re doing Facebook daily. We do the Wednesday night service. We did the Sunday recording. We do all of that for YouTube. And we’ve come a long way with technologies that probably we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Anderson said.

Diocese of Duluth

In a May 1 letter to the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Duluth, the Rev. James B. Bissonette, diocesan administrator, announced the temporary measures the diocese adopted to protect against the spread of COVID-19 were extended through May 18.

The diocese covers northeastern Minnesota, including churches in Aitkin, Baxter, Brainerd, Crosby, Crosslake, Deerwood, Emily, Fort Ripley, Garrison, Hackensack, Longville, McGregor, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Pine River and Walker.

“Certainly, there are things that we’ve begun that we had to do pretty quickly, and learn pretty quickly, in terms of live streaming on Sunday and every day, finding ways to do Zoom meetings and all these other kinds of meetings that are virtual,” Wroblewski said.

The Rev. Tony Wroblewski is pastor of All Saints, St. Francis & St. Thomas of the Pines in the Brainerd lakes area.
The Rev. Tony Wroblewski is pastor of All Saints, St. Francis & St. Thomas of the Pines in the Brainerd lakes area.

The diocesan measures, which include suspension of public Mass and cancellation of gatherings of more than 10 people, had previously been extended through May 4.

“What we’ve done is we’ve taped off large segments of the pews at St. Francis. … It forces the social distancing. And secondly, it allows us every day to go in and to sanitize those areas where the people might come, knowing that they’re only in those places, so we don’t have to sanitize the whole church,” Wroblewski said.

Under these measures, priests continue to celebrate Masses without a congregation, confession and pastoral care of the sick continue to be provided in ways that accommodate social distancing and churches remain open for periods of time for individual prayer.

“Only the priest is doing the Mass during Mass. He consecrates the bread and wine. And then he, himself, receives it. And that’s the only person that’s receiving it, so there is no distribution because there are not congregations in our pews,” Wroblewski said.

The Rev. Daniel Weiske is pastor of St. Andrew’s and St. Mathias Catholic churches in Crow Wing County.

“We are certainly focused much more on online ministry or connections through platforms like Zoom, and we’re thankful that we can still connect in those ways to not only to present content but to have people connect with each other,” Weiske said.

Father Daniel Weiske
Father Daniel Weiske

The diocesan letter stated a “phased approach back into having public Masses,” but detailed protocols have not yet been published, and the letter noted the first public Masses on May 18 will be limited to smaller groups no more than a third of the capacity of a church building.

“The most painful thing for most Catholics has been not being able to receive the Eucharist — the body and blood of Christ as we believe — and being fed and united to Christ through the Eucharist ... and that’s the most pressing question that everyone’s waiting to see,” Weiske said.

Weiske continues to do confessions for his parishioners three times a week with a screen erected in the parking lot where motorists can pull up to one side and confess, and baptisms, weddings and funerals are still being conducted if there are 10 people or less in attendance.

“I have had more people that are delaying the funeral service with the hope that the measures will be stopped at some point but … we’ve done the burials,” Weiske said.

Park United Methodist Church

The last wedding that took place at Park United Methodist Church on North Sixth Street in Brainerd took place before the coronavirus pandemic worsened in the state, according to the Rev. Luke Nelson, co-pastor of the Brainerd church.

“The last wedding we had was just before everything happened. And we haven’t had to organize a funeral just yet,” Nelson said. “In terms of our Sunday morning experience, everything moved online.”

The Methodist church’s Sunday morning worship service can be viewed on its Facebook page, with music incorporated from other churches. Park United’s office is closed, but staff can be reached via email, and messages can be left by phone.

Luke Nelson is a co-pastor at Park United Methodist Church on North Sixth Street in Brainerd. Submitted photo / Park United Methodist Church
Luke Nelson is a co-pastor at Park United Methodist Church on North Sixth Street in Brainerd. Submitted photo / Park United Methodist Church

“We get permission — both our licensing rights and from other churches — to incorporate those into our Sunday morning experience, so we have a church in Florida ... leading one song that we are projecting both on Facebook and on YouTube,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he and his wife and co-pastor the Rev. Bethany Nelson attempted at first to livestream their Sunday worship services but their musical abilities were somewhat limited.

“We also decided to pre-record our services. This allows us to do all of this collaborative work with other churches and other pastors for that matter — edit all of these videos together ... rather than having a live worship experience,” he said.

And for those church members without internet access, the staff goes old school and puts out a paper-based newsletter.

“We were doing that before the coronavirus hit … writing a very thorough and testimonial (news)letter rather than just updates because we know that this is one of the ways that people who don’t have internet access might be able to hear inspired words,” he said.



FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.