This article has been updated.
Churches in the Cambridge and Deerfield areas didn’t hold in-person worship the weekend of May 17, though they could have under updated COVID-19 rules — or the lack thereof.
Some said in-person services are possible Sunday May 24.
Two Cambridge-area churches, Grace Lutheran and St. James Lutheran, are in Jefferson County, where there are no longer any COVID-19 business or gathering restrictions after the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday May 13 struck down a statewide Safer-At-Home order.
Most Cambridge and Deerfield-area churches are in Dane County. Dane County quicklyu enacted its own public health order almost immediately, that replaced the invalidated statewide order.
The initial Dane County order, that was to expire on May 26, ended up only being in place for a few days. It was replaced on Monday May 18 with yet another county order, that went into effect at 8 a.m. on Tuesday May 19. The latest Dane County order has no listed sunset date, instead progressing toward a full re-opening in phases as public health benchmarks are met.
The latest Dane County order mostly parallels the former state order, with a few differences. It allows, for instance, religious entities, that had been locked down statewide since mid-March, to reopen as essential businesses.
In Dane County, in-person worship is now allowed in smaller buildings at no more than 25 percent of the building’s maximum occupancy, including staff. In larger buildings, where the total space is greater than 50,000 square feet, four people are allowed per 1,000 square feet.
The initial Dane County order that was to expire on May 26 said at places of worship, different households were to be kept six feet apart. Face masks were to be worn by those are who were able and choirs were “strongly” discouraged. None of that wording was included in the newest Dane County order.
Cambridge-area pastors said they normally work closely with each other and continue to meet weekly by videoconference, and are making reopening decisions as one faith community.
“The churches in Cambridge are all working collectively together,” said Pastor Scott Marrese-Wheeler at Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church that sits — literally — on the Dane-Jefferson County line on East Main Street in Cambridge.
So, which rules -- or lack thereof -- Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian must now follow is in fact unclear.
“The kitchen and part of the sanctuary is in Jefferson County, technically,” said Marrese-Wheeler, adding that his church does not plan to reopen this weekend for in-person worship, regardless of which of rules actually apply to it.
In Cambridge, “we are all pretty much in the same place as faith leaders. At this time, we are not intending to open our churches for in-person worship,” Marrese-Wheeler said.
Pastor Brenda Lovick of East Koshonong Lutheran Church near Cambridge and Pastor Holly Slater of St. Paul’s Liberty Lutheran Church in Deerfield both said they are following guidance sent to all Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations, and a letter signed by six ELCA bishops from Wisconsin.
Neither East Koshkonong nor St. Paul’s Liberty Lutheran plan to open right away for in-person worship.
“Counsel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a wide range of additional medical experts, the ELCA’s guidelines, and other government entities continue to stress the need for restricting all gatherings to under ten people and attendant safeguards such as distancing, masks, etc. In the midst of confusion after the court’s ruling, we ask that you remain steadfast in taking precautions to not contract or spread the virus,” said the Wisconsin ELCA bishops’ letter, dated May 14. “We in the Church need to continue to be guided by scripture, our theology, and the best scientific knowledge we can gather.”
Lovick said she still has questions, though, as she works with her Church Council “to figure out how to proceed” in a way that is “science-based.”
“East Koshkonong is in Dane County, so we will follow the Dane County Public Health recommendations,” she said.
However, “how does a church open to 25 percent capacity?” she questioned in an email. “If we worship 100, then turn people away after 25 have entered the building? How does that make any sense?”
Other area churches also said they will move slowly to reopen.
Jerry Brown, president of the Church Council at Deerfield Lutheran Church in Deerfield said it wouldn’t be open for in-person worship on Sunday May 17. In-person worship is possible on Sunday May 24 but he said the Church Council still needed to meet to make that call.
“We need to figure out if we can make it work,” Brown said, adding that, “We’re looking forward to getting back together, as opposed to gathering by Zoom.”
Pastor Richard Dowling of Rockdale Lutheran Church in Rockdale said in an email that it would not gather in person on May 17, and possibly not for the rest of May. The Church Council expects to make a decision soon on whether to hold in-person worship in June, he said.
St. James Lutheran
Jeffrey Schallert, pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in Cambridge, who also presides over a congregation in the Town of Cold Spring in Jefferson County, said it’s possible St. James would reopen for in-person worship on Sunday May 24. Its Church Council planned to meet on Sunday May 17 to begin to figure out how to move forward, given that it is in Jefferson County with no more restrictions on gatherings.
This would be the Church Council’s first in-person meeting in two months, a significant step its own right, he said.
“Jefferson County says ‘you can open any time you want,’ but we don’t want to do that without council approval,” he said.
Grace Lutheran Church in Cambridge is also in Jefferson County. Neither will it reopen right way, though it could.
Pastor Jennifer Jelinek said staff and Grace’s Church Council are continuing to follow guidance from the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the ELCA and its synod.
“We will not have in-person worship this weekend. We’ll be continuing cable and online worship this weekend and for the foreseeable future,” Jelinek said in an email on Saturday May 16.
Willerup United Methodist
Pastor Marvin Singh of Willerup United Methodist Church in Cambridge said its Administrative Board plans to meet May 25 to discuss its reopening plan.
“The local churches are also in communication, so the right decision is taken at the appropriate time,” Singh said in an email.
Mareese-Wheeler said he doesn’t expect Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian to reopen soon for in-person worship.
“We are uncertain when that will be,” he said.
The John Knox Presbytery, a governing body for the Presbyterian church that covers parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, released a statement urging churches “to use caution and practice care when making decisions about in-person worship.”
“An immediate and unlimited return to traditional worship may actually endanger those people we love so dearly,” the statement said.
“As clergy we want to take this carefully following the directive of the public health officials and scientists that understand this virus in a different way,” Marrese-Wheeler said.
Local faith leaders are worried about vulnerable members of the community, especially older populations, Marrese-Wheeler said.
It’s possible even after churches reopen that those at higher risk will continue to avoid in-person services, making online resources even more important, Marrese-Wheeler said.
Marrese-Wheeler said he’s trying to maintain contact with his congregation, by calling them and participating in a recent Pastor Parade through Cambridge.
“We miss our parishoners, we miss being with them and in-person, and yet we also care enough that we want to do that safely and efficiently for the health and well-being of each of our churches,” Marrese-Wheeler said.
Marrese-Wheeler compared it to the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, which asks the question “Who is my neighbor?”
“Our neighbors are also people who live in Milwaukee, who work the meat-packing plants in our state...It’s people in prison. It’s the healthcare workers on the front line,” He continued. “What’s my responsibility to my community, my neighbors?”
Once churches do reopen, Marrese-Wheeler said services may look different.
Around the country, church leaders are considering eliminating choirs and even singing by congregants. Many are planning to stop offering food and coffee before or after services. Some may add additional service times to accommodate social distancing, he said.
St. Pius X
In a social media post, Fr. David Timmerman of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Cambridge said neither would it open for in-person masses the weekend of May 16-17. That decision is based on guidance from its bishop, Timmerman said.
“On Monday and Tuesday (May 19-20) the Diocese will host a Zoom meeting with all the priests to come up with a future plan concerning the resumption of public masses along with required guidelines. Thank you for your patience and please hang in there for a little bit longer,” Timmerman wrote.
Pastor Paul Scharrer, of Immanuel Lutheran Church on County Road BB between Marshall and Deerfield, said in an email that he hoped “to begin worship once again in the near future.” However, he said, “there’s nothing definite at this point.”