At a time when some congregants need their places of worship most, Galveston County churches are making difficult decisions about when and if to gather and how to safely minister to their flocks.

The Rev. Jerry Neff of Moody Memorial First United Methodist Church, 2803 53rd St. in Galveston, on Friday announced cancellation of all four worship services and all activities at the church on Sunday.

“I talked to the Galveston County Health District to consider scheduling, and I’ve got several physicians in my church who said it’s the wise thing to do,” Neff said. “The general recommended guideline is to keep large gatherings of 100 or more people to a minimum, and we have to do what we can to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

The church often receives out-of-town visitors at its Sunday worship services, and with 150,000 or more spring breakers on Galveston Island it seemed prudent to avoid having extra visitors in the sanctuary, Neff said.

“I didn’t like doing it,” he said.

Neff plans to livestream his Sunday sermon on social media and on the church’s website. He’ll make decisions about future Sunday worship services week by week, he said.

Deciding to cancel worship was the last in a string of decisions Neff’s church and others faced this week as coronavirus spread, including to Galveston County, and government and health officials urged precautionary measures.

The church decided to eliminate an aspect of worship called passing the peace, in which congregants share hugs and handshakes.

“We won’t be doing that,” he said. “When we gather we’ll be air-hugging, I guess you’d say.”

Neff also has increased custodial activity at the church building where numerous community activities, including day care, take place every day of the week, asking workers to be sure to wipe down and disinfect all door handles.

The church is encouraging congregants to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personal care guidelines, such as for hand-washing.

“We put signs in our bathrooms that say ‘Wash your hands and sing the doxology,’” Neff said.

The doxology, a sung prayer of thanks widely known in most Protestant churches, lasts about 20 seconds — the CDC’s recommended time to wash hands.

Much of a church’s work is ministering to the sick and shut-in, offering prayers and the gift of human contact, another aspect of church life that’s being reexamined by congregations everywhere, including in Galveston County.

Geraldine Carroll, a retired registered nurse, heads the Guardians of the Temple, a health-related ministry of McKinney Memorial United Methodist Church in La Marque. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Carroll and her group have formed a task force that is taking extra steps above and beyond its normal ministry.

“Last week, we handed out information on the virus, and we asked people to sign up for the task force in the event we have to quarantine some people,” Carroll said. Most of the church’s members are elderly and many live alone, she said.

“We’re trying to put together a response to the needs of those people.”

The guardians, a group of nurses, have been working with a public health nurse, receiving up-to-date information on the virus and guidelines about how to safely minister to the congregation’s health needs, Carroll said.

The health ministry will provide supplies for hand sanitation and will spread word about how to view and listen to worship online to those unable to attend church in person. It has committed to emailing or sharing through social media written messages of comfort and hope as well as to pray by phone often with elderly and ill congregants.

“As health care professionals, the safety of our congregation and our community is our primary focus,” Carroll said. “As Christians, we acknowledge that God is in control of all things, and we know that He is with us at all times.”

Decisions about whether to continue holding worship services are up to each individual church within the United Methodist denomination, but words of guidance came out on Thursday from Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Annual Conference.

“In our United Methodist Church, it is clear that each local church should look at its circumstances and make its own decision,” Jones said. “However, I am convinced that gatherings of large groups of people sitting closely together will lead to an increased spread of the disease.”

Jones urged responsible decision-making by all churches and acknowledged that in the midst of crisis the demand for pastoral care and charitable ministries will only become more acute. He encouraged Christians to “continue and even increase their financial support to their congregations.”

Kathryn Eastburn: 409-683-5257; kathryn.eastburn@galvnews.com.

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