How We Coped with the Lockdowns
How we coped with the lockdowns
Churches share how they struggled with and survived pandemic restrictions.
BY ALEX NEWMAN
A Covid-19 message on the Trans-Canada Highway near Surrey, B.C., during the pandemic. PHOTO: EB ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHY
Among the many strange news reports Canadians saw during the pandemic was a line of tow trucks hooking up to cars clogging the road in front of the Church of God in Steinbach, Man.
It happened in December 2020 after RCMP officers blocked the church parking lot to prevent a drive-in service conducted over loudspeakers, which at the time was contrary to local health guidelines.
Parishioners had responded by parking along the road, some in rows of two or three. Police officers handed out tickets – $5,000 to the church and $1,200 to six individuals.
The scene was just one of many manifestations of how churches struggled with changing health regulations since the lockdown first swept across the country in March 2020. Some churches were vocal in their objections and pursued them with legal actions. Amid all the frustration thousands met the shifting array of challenges with creative solutions.
For a while it seemed "almost like I read the guidelines more than the Bible," quipped Darrell Buchanan, pastor at Gravelbourg Church of Christ in Saskatchewan.
Such humour does nothing to hide clergy exhaustion though, as many ministry staff became bone weary of coping with vague or continuously changing health guidelines and the unique demands of ministry in the time of a pandemic.
Restrictions perceived as unfair
While most churches complied with guidelines, that doesn’t mean churchgoers were entirely in favour of them. According to a March 2021 survey, 47 per cent of evangelical regular attenders said gathering restrictions had been unfairly harsh on places of worship in their province compared with those imposed on other public venues www.AngusReid.org/Covid-Religion-Easter-2021).
Toronto International Celebration Church faced a particularly grating example – the film studio which rented from them was allowed to continue to operate at full capacity, but not the church that uses the same 1,100-seat space.
In an interview with CTV in December 2020, pastor Peter Youngren argued that policy violated religious freedoms. "We’re not Covid deniers. We comply with all the guidelines, but we expect equal treatment under the law."
Nathan Thurber, the congregation’s lead pastor, outlines how that compliance was followed – masks, social distancing and operating at 30 per cent capacity. And when the province reduced the numbers to ten at a time, they switched to virtual services only.
While it complied with guidelines, Celebration Church also filed an application in the Superior Court of Justice seeking to declare that the restrictions infringe on and violate their religious freedoms and rights.
"One of our arguments," Thurber says, "was that religious freedom is guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms whereas the same right is not afforded to business. We weren’t even asking for more rights, just equal rights with businesses, which was the basis of our litigation."
As soon as the restrictions became more equitable, the church dropped the litigation.
In B.C. and Alberta a number of churches challenged the government for similar reasons – they permitted businesses and restaurants to remain open while closing churches.
Marty Moore of Calgary, a lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, provided legal counsel for some of those churches. He points out that in B.C. it was possible for support groups of up to 50 to people meet, but not for churches.
"So how does the topic of conversation change the danger level?" he asks.
It was on constitutional grounds that the Justice Centre sued the government on behalf of their church clients. "Government attempts to dictate what happens in religious services violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," Moore says. "Government is required to justify their infringement of churches’ Charter rights. And they haven’t."
Police moved in to the Church of God (Restoration), in Aylmer, Ont., fining and locking the church on May 14, 2021. PHOTO: HENRY HILDEBRANDT / YOUTUBE
Theologies of presence
Such blanket guidelines can’t possibly accommodate all varieties of worship. For Mennonites and others who prioritize God’s call to social justice, "There is difficulty adhering to these restrictions when it cuts pastors off from reaching those in need," says Joseph Wiebe, professor of religion and ecology at the University of Alberta.
At the same time Wiebe wants to make it "perfectly clear that everyone, including religious organizations, needs to abide by the regulations (religious gatherings are not exceptions to or above the law), and that public health is a primary concern. Spiritual needs are certainly a component of health, but they’re neither more nor less important than other aspects of health."
For some Christian traditions, Moore adds, "If they don’t assemble in person, they cannot actually conduct worship. Catholics and others have expressed this understanding of their sacraments."
David Johnston, a Roman Catholic priest in Strathroy, Ont., agrees. "Yes, we’re very sacramental and to get the full experience you have to be present. But our bishops have led us well, saying this is what we can and can’t do."
It was difficult for many Christians to compromise these priorities for the sake of the common good, and yet at the same time "to see Walmart open and not church," says Johnston.
But, as with many Christians, he sought out whatever good God might be bringing during this awful time. "This can be a time that forces us to be creative and new, to branch out and see what works. Because we weren’t sure what would work, we had to try something from a pastoral perspective," he says.
"Initially we stumbled along like every church, wondering how to do this safely. I taught myself how to video edit in one night and noticed other parishes were putting masses online. The quality was a little lacking because everyone was new at this."
Johnston is pleased he and other religious leaders found ways to continue being present for baptisms, weddings and funerals while following regulations. "To celebrate funeral or graveside services without everyone being present, we adapted."
The restrictions weren’t always felt as sorely in small towns where typical attendance often fell below the allowance. Buchanan’s town of Gravelbourg, Sask., has 1,100 residents. Since prepandemic church attendance was only 40 or 50 people, his church didn’t feel the loss when their worship space was limited to 30 per cent capacity.
An outdoor preaching service in June 2021 at Trinity Bible Chapel, Waterloo, Ont. PHOTO: TRINITY BIBLE CHAPEL FACEBOOK
What did affect them, however, were changes in guidelines. Over the course of six months, from December 2020 to May 2021, services were restricted to 30 people, then expanded to 30 per cent, then contracted to 30 people and finally back to 30 per cent. The church started simulcasting services on Zoom throughout the pandemic.
Buchanan struggled with a mix of feelings. "I understand the need for guidelines, but at other times wonder if closing churches is low-hanging fruit. However, I don’t believe for a minute the government is targeting churches – nobody is stopping us from meeting on Zoom, or saying you can’t pray or read the Bible. What’s being restricted is our gathering in a building in one location."
That’s not how some others perceived it, however. A handful of churches, mostly in Western Canada, took the government to court, arguing that gathering for worship was as essential as in-person shopping at the liquor store. They also contested the fines they accrued while maintaining that stance.
"The fines have been stiff – upwards of $50,000," Moore says. "This isn’t something they can afford to walk away from."
After the tow-aways at the Church of God in Steinbach, the Justice Centre took on its case. However, it turned out the injunction application didn’t need to proceed because the government changed its stance on prohibiting drive-ins.
The outcome was different at another Church of God (Restoration), in Aylmer, Ont. The congregation was so irate over the restrictions against drive-in services, they started a Charter challenge which was taken on pro bono (at no charge) by the Justice Centre.
The Aylmer situation crossed the line in spring 2020 when the church first attempted drive-in services with "the blessing of the police," says Justice Centre lawyer Lisa Bildy.
Neighbours, noticing cars in the lot, made complaints and police cracked down. The Justice Centre acted quickly with a Charter challenge to protect churchgoers from threats of tickets, Bildy says.
The Ontario government, like the one in Manitoba, changed the regulations to permit drive-in services within days.
For several months the church was "mostly" compliant, Bildy notes. But in January 2021 when gathering capacity was reduced to ten people, the church started allowing people inside after a drive-in service. Police responded by laying charges, local residents started protesting, and the attorney general brought an emergency injunction to prohibit the church from breaking the regulations.
From January through the following months, the church continued to hold indoor services until it was found "in contempt of court, ordered to pay fines and costs of about $117,000, and had their church doors locked," Bildy says.
After the highly publicized lockup, the church held services on the lawn. "Church is absolutely essential to them. This is a group of mainly low-German speaking people from a Mennonite background," Bildy says.
Wiebe, the University of Alberta professor, agrees lockdowns have been hard on everyone, but he objects to the way some have reacted. "Some Christians are responding out of concern for others, especially those most vulnerable in their communities like the elderly and the compromised. But some Christians have responded out of a sense of privilege" that they have to give up important practices.
Limits to in-person gathering took a heavy toll on Christian communities, agrees Jason Byassee, a homiletics professor at Vancouver School of Theology. "Social justice [in-person activism] isn’t possible on the computer, but there’s so much else – worship through song, prayer, repentance, evangelism, even care of one another."
Take Nova Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Halifax, for example. Pastor Mike Miller, who planted the church with his wife Nancy in 2017, says they did everything they could think of to keep people connected while being "part of the solution to get the city back to normal."
The Nova Church community focused throughout the pandemic on being present and in person. During the restrictions they also discovered a vital role for virtual worship, particularly for people not used to church and a little hesitant.
Virtual worship has "lowered the tension," says Miller. "We wanted to remove barriers, not increase them, make it a way to worship for people who weren’t yet comfortable coming back – and I don’t see that letting up, which is why we invested heavily in it."
Mainline churches, such as Anglican, usually made pandemic safety decisions at the diocesan (regional) level. This was something of a relief, but also presented challenges. Tim Haughton, pastor at Toronto’s Little Trinity Anglican Church, says his diocese did "an incredible job figuring out how we could do church safely."
But he felt the decision to keep churches closed last summer when the province had allowed limited openings caused Little T to lose some momentum. "There were no cases in Anglican churches. It was working – why couldn’t we have carried on?
"There are some for whom that continuing worship at the 30 per cent capacity would have been beneficial. My sense is we could have continued that safely all the way through."
Minimizing the damage
And there’s the rub. Keeping the public physically safe must be done, but what about the hidden toll in isolation, depression, higher incidence of divorce, suicide and substance abuse?
In Buchanan’s close-knit Saskatchewan community, restrictions hit some sectors harder than others. The church used to hold a seniors’ lunch once a month for about 30 to 40. "For many it was the highlight of their month," he says. "The rest of the time they eat alone. And now [when interviewed this summer] that’s gone too."
The community also felt the loss of special programs like Vacation Bible School, which previously attracted up to a hundred kids. "We’ve been holding it the last 60 years," Buchanan says. "There are grandparents who attended whose grandkids are coming. For this congregation that’s been the biggest disappointment and heartache – not being able to do that."
Instead, what they did in summer 2020 was fill VBS boxes with Bibles, sidewalk chalk and ideas for activities for the kids to do with their families.
The various lockdowns have also caused pastors to worry about what’s happening behind closed doors while pastoral duties have been interrupted. "When couples don’t have outlets for meeting needs that the marriage wasn’t providing, they can’t avoid seeing the mess," says Haughton, the Toronto Anglican pastor.
The tighter the lockdown, the more fallout, he adds. "Part of it is things get hidden that would get seen like when you have regular contact with the school – spousal abuse, child abuse. Sometimes, knowing your child will be seen at school with bruises puts the brakes on behaviour – and that’s not happening now. I’ve seen, and heard and encountered stories where abuse has been pretty bad, and have reflected on how [remembering abuse and bringing healing to abusive situations needs to be part of how] we as Christians should respond to the pandemic."
As well, the loss of Sunday services adversely affected an informal network of caring that happens in every church, Haughton says. "We didn’t have the benefit of one person speaking to another on Sunday morning, and noticing there might be a problem and letting us know."
But there were silver linings, Haughton says – he was humbled by the ways his congregation cared for one another. "When I reached out to vulnerable people at church and heard that three or four people were checking in regularly with them, I was so reassured."
Worship too faced extra challenges. Many struggled with not knowing the depth of an online audience’s engagement and traded stories of people signing into online services and then wandering away. With Zoom fatigue and the ongoing long-term lack of connection, many churches saw individuals drift away from participation entirely.
As Wiebe says, "The virtual is a poor substitute for the physical. We’re not digital beings, we’re enfleshed souls, and we need to be touched, feel touched. That’s just part of the human condition."
Wiebe also says he has been impressed with pastors who have worked out how to deal with this. "Rather than stamping their feet, throwing a tantrum, going to court, they figured out ways to get their congregants to participate, either by contributing home videos, or coming in at different times in groups of five or ten to record part of the service," says Wiebe.
Others livestreamed, he says, so they could at least "share time, which is theologically sound. We couldn’t share space, but we could share time and in Christian tradition time is sacred."
Streaming services helped congregations worship together during the lockdowns. PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Coping with change after change has exacted a toll on pastoral staff.
Haughton found the first four or five months the hardest. "It was constant pivoting, having to rejig and learn new processes. We already had processes worked out that didn’t require my input, then all of a sudden I’m the locus on those processes."
Everyone is weary, Haughton confesses. "We’ve poured out a pool of energy without having the things that refresh and energize us like travel, socializing and relaxing with friends."
When Nova Church decided to stream their services, they were surprised at how much it involved, Miller says. "Our style of church takes a lot of people to set up and tear down – about a hundred volunteers. And since we share the space with other groups, we can’t leave our things in place week to week."
In the fall, when they were allowed 200 in the building, Miller says it was worth it. In January when the number dropped to a hundred, they pivoted to holding multiple services back to back. But when the allowance dropped to ten, they switched to livestream.
Prior to the pandemic, Nova had never held an online service. "We always wanted the in-person experience," Miller explains. "But when things changed we made a studio out of the office space. Since then we’ve invested heavily in online capability, upgraded to a larger office and a built-in stage and studio."
Toronto International Celebration Church has felt the strain as well, especially in the pastoring function, Thurber says. "A number of leaders have stepped up to care for people, often by phone. Like every church we’re adapting with livestreaming meetings, prayer and Bible studies. The phone ministry has been stepped up and we hear a lot of prayer requests that allow us to keep abreast of what’s going on. It’s a way of staying connected, and providing necessary spiritual community and care."
Throughout the crisis many tried to make the best of the situation. Thurber says, "Yes, a vital aspect of spiritual worship has been lost by not meeting in person, but we learned how to do things in new and hopefully fruitful ways."
Rights and opportunities
Christians have been faced with a challenge to think creatively during many periods of change in church history, says Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose University in Calgary. "Any time that happens there is always a sense of loss. But it’s always an opportunity to sit back, and rethink and consider what new opportunities will this present for us."
Lockdowns have made the role of government a point of reflection for many Christians during the pandemic, says Smith. Believers are quick – and right – to call government to protect religious freedom, he says, but we also need to remember the government’s primary responsibility – to its citizens.
"The government has both every right and responsibility for its citizens to implement everything from lockdowns to requirements to how space is used. In fact, they have a duty, by virtue of being government, and that has nothing to do with whether I’m Christian or not."
Smith proposes that demanding rights should be a lower priority for churches. "We should be able to stretch ourselves, to be an example of Jesus and show how we can work collaboratively in society. It grieves me that the church has developed the reputation for not committing to the well-being of society in this pandemic and has instead been obstinate.
"I wonder what the long-term cost will be to the Church and to our communities. This gets raised in the associations I have with people who aren’t Christian, and I try to explain these [churches putting their rights first] are a minority."
The major legacy of the pandemic, he predicts, may be provoking more churches "to be creative and innovative, to show love, and compassion and hospitality, and what it means to be a faith community. Thankfully, most churches have risen to meet the challenge."
He commends the pastors and church boards who have seized the opportunity, and asked themselves, "What new way can we be the church?"
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.