“Advent season?” mused the Rev. Tim Schenck in response to a question about how his parish is preparing for holiday services against the backdrop of the pandemic. “At some level, it feels like we’ve been in a nine-month season of Advent.”
Advent, according to Schenck, rector of The Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, refers to the four weeks preceding Christmas and marks a period of preparation before the arrival of the Messiah. “Advent is about waiting and anticipation and expectation and hope. This is what we’ve been doing since March. And it’s what we will continue doing.”
Schenck may be putting the most positive spin possible on the dilemma that Christian clergy members throughout Massachusetts are facing this month: How to preserve the spirituality and wonder of Christmas observances in a year when many churches are holding services remotely.
“It’s been tough,” conceded the Rev. Kenneth Young, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill. His congregation is missing out on in-person Sunday services as well as the prayer meetings, Bible study, and other spiritual gatherings that typically sustain them throughout the week. Instead, Sunday services are held via Zoom and Facebook Live, and Young — along with other church leaders — hold conference calls throughout the week devoted to scripture and prayer.
“It’s an opportunity to stay in contact with each other,” Young said. “Our church is regional, not just Haverhill but the whole Merrimack Valley. We are trying very hard to keep people uplifted. But as much as we would love to gather in person, we can’t. Especially being a primarily African-American and Afro-Caribbean congregation, we are keenly aware of how this disease has disproportionately affected our community.”
And the limitations the pandemic is imposing upon church leaders go beyond worship services, Young said. “There are complications around pastoral care as well. I can’t visit church members in the hospital when they are sick.”
Back in March when COVID-19 first took hold in Massachusetts, clergy members learned to hold services online or perhaps to hold small outdoor gatherings when possible. Few of them imagined at the time that the pandemic would extend to Christmas. But with contagion rates spiking once again, many churches in Greater Boston aren’t holding indoor Christmas services.
Under specific state safety standards effective Dec. 13, places of worship are encouraged to hold services virtually or outdoors.
For indoor services, places of worship must monitor the number of people present and limit occupancy to no more than 40 percent of capacity. They also should ensure attendees who are not from the same household remain at least 6 feet apart. People must wear face coverings.
Most Catholic parishes in Greater Boston are planning some kind of in-person Mass for Christmas Eve or Christmas, all by pre-registration in order to limit numbers, according to Father Paul Soper, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston. Keeping households 6 feet apart means many churches are only at around 20 percent capacity, he said.
Soper estimates that 75 percent of churches are also livestreaming services.
Some parishes have become creative. Sacred Heart Church in Waltham offers drive-in Masses, at which congregants stay in their cars in the church parking lot. It also offers indoor Masses with very limited capacity.
Both options will be available at various times over Christmas, according to Youth Minister Laura Peterson, along with livestreamed services.
It’s not only traditional worship experiences that churches have had to change this year. The holiday season typically includes congregation-wide parties and pageants as well.
“Normally at this time we’d be hosting something big and celebratory, an open house to welcome people to our grounds,” said Will Barnett, co-pastor of Highrock Acton. His church, which is a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, opened a new facility in Acton earlier this year.
Barnett and his staff were eager to show off the new building and had envisioned a big Thanksgiving gathering, oriented primarily toward the many recent immigrants who attend the church’s English language learners’ program.
“Instead, we held a Christmas drive-through earlier this month,” Barnett said. “Families arrived in cars; we decorated our church property with lights and trees. One member of our congregation who owns a farm brought her horses, and we had a Nativity scene. It gave people a chance to see some familiar faces and feel some Christmas spirit while staying safe.”
Some congregations are finding creative ways to rethink the classic Christmas pageant. At St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, more than 70 children signed up to take on prerecorded roles for the pageant video that will be shown during the Christmas Eve service.
That’s a lot of angels and shepherds, said Schenck, “but there’s plenty of room at the inn. And the advantage this time is that everyone watching the pageant gets their own comfortable front-row seat. No fighting over the pews this year.”
Of course, the pandemic has made the outreach that many congregations consider critical to their mission more important than ever. “We’ll still do our Toys for Tots drive, though normally it’s much more of a communal event,” said Young, of Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill. “We’ll still be able to pass toys out to people in our community, though, and that’s more important than ever this year, when so many people have lost their income.”
Some of the outreach is more emotional than material. Along with the season’s celebratory aspects, “We also want to create space to acknowledge this has been a year of tremendous loss for many people,” said Barnett, of HighRock Acton. “Members of our church have lost parents and grandparents to COVID; they’ve lost jobs; they’ve experienced loneliness and disappointment. We recently held what many churches call a blue Christmas service, which acknowledges the increased sadness that many people feel at this time of year. We lit candles to symbolize light in the darkness and the act of wrapping our grief in God’s love.”
After the formal part of the service, said Barnett, congregants were assigned to virtual breakout rooms where they could share their sorrows in smaller groups and offer one another prayers.
Pastor Janine Dailey at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lowell was poised to launch a new outreach group for her congregation just as the pandemic struck. An offshoot of a program founded by the Rev. Liz Walker at Roxbury Presbyterian Church, Dailey and her staff completed training last winter to lead the “Can We Talk” program to support anyone experiencing trauma or post-traumatic stress.
“We were planning to launch in person. Instead, we’re doing it virtually,” Dailey said. Meanwhile, her congregation offers support to the Lowell community in material ways as well, including a sleeping bag ministry, through which they collect funds to buy sleeping bags for homeless people in their city.
Ultimately, Schenck pointed out, this mid-pandemic Christmas season has the potential to make its mark on church communities in positive ways.
“So many of the Christmas services over the years tend to run together,” he remarked. “People will remember this Christmas. Pandemic ministry has required all of us to be very creative. If that means people are learning the familiar stories in new ways, that’s a good thing.”
John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.