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Keeping the faith: Local churches again adjusting to virus restrictions

Church is all about gathering and coming together, which is difficult during a pandemic. Local churches around the Lake Tahoe Basin have been forced to alter the way services are held.

When the first round of shut downs happened in early April, places of worship had to quickly adjust. Many switched services and studies to online platforms like Zoom. In late May, when restrictions eased, places of worship opened with many new guidelines.

Corbett Robertson, pastor at Sierra Community Church in South Lake Tahoe, said that it has been really difficult not to see people in person and gathering together is the foundation of the church. During the closure, Robertson said they relied on online platforms for Sunday meetings. He said that the church honored the governor’s mandate and shifted their focus to finding a way to continue with services.

“One of the good things that came out from this is that it really forced us to take our online presence, our digital investment into the community as far as figuring out how to livestream a service, to make what we do online better,” said Robertson.

He explained that the closure gave the church time to enhance their online communication with members. Zoom meetings were busy in the beginning for the church, but numbers declined as virtual meetings had to continue and once the weather got warmer. The church adapted to the circumstances but Robertson said, “Zoom is no replacement for seeing people you love and care about in person.”

In late May the governor lifted the restrictions, Sierra Community Church members started meeting in-person again but with the health guidelines in place. The church limited the size of services by going down to 25% capacity as detailed in the reopening plan. The church also spread out chairs in the building for social-distancing and shortened the duration of services.

“It’s definitely not normal,” said Robertson. “We are trying to be respectful of the social-distancing aspect so there’s not a lot of hugging going on, not even handshaking. It is good to have the opportunity to pray with people in person on a Sunday morning but it is definitely not the same.”

Sierra Community Church usually would have about 400-500 people on a Sunday service. Currently, they will have around 60 members between two services which are still under their max capacity guideline of about 100. Fortunately, Robertson said they haven’t had to turn anyone away yet because of the restrictions.

“One of the things it [the pandemic] has done is reveal how impatient we are as people,” Robertson said. “That includes people of faith and people who don’t have faith alike. I think that there is an expectation we have and that has caused frustration in people wanting things to be normal or be a certain way.”

Robertson said right that the current situation is a good reminder the church is not defined by a building.

“We can be good neighbors and be people who are patient when the world is not and I think it is a good opportunity for the church to reflect what is really important to us,” he said. “Getting exactly what we want, when we want should not be the most important thing to us.”

He says that they will no doubt lose members over not regularly coming on Sundays because people get into routines and when that gets interrupted for long enough, some people might not continue coming. However, Robertson says that they are grateful to meet with people when they can even if they have to adhere to social-distancing,limited capacity and being respectful of the health guidelines that have been given to them.

“We know that if we are unable to meet in person, we will find another way,” he said.

El Dorado County is not one of the 30 counties in California that has been forced to shut down in-person places of worship, yet.

South Lake Tahoe resident Ally Bennion says she feels a bit sad that she hasn’t been able to attend church like normal, but is thankful that her church is still doing services online.

“It has been really strange not being able to go to church,” she said. “It is a place of fellowship with people and a community.”

Bennion says she finds herself not ‘going to church’ as often anymore but strives to participate in online podcasts. “I try to watch things online but it is a bit difficult getting motivated,” she said. “It is a very strange time for all of us and we have to get through it somehow.”

In Nevada County, Tahoe Forest Church unknowingly prepared to handle what the pandemic had in store for them. They had already been making a strong online presence for two years and had just finished their outdoor amphitheater last year set to fit 400-500 people.

Terrance Sutton, lead pastor, said that when schools first closed at the beginning of the pandemic, they took early precautions and went fully online. Tahoe Forest went to livestream, live chat and had private chats for prayers.

“This helped maintain community and normalcy,” said Sutton. Once places of worship were allowed to reopen, Tahoe Forest Church moved all services outdoors. “It has really been a blessing,” he said.

Sutton says they have been doing online registration and follow all the social distancing guidelines. While in-person services have reconvened, they still have a large portion of attendees through their social platforms, about half and half.

Sutton says that there are people on each end of the spectrum from saying they shouldn’t be doing in-person gatherings and then people who want to come and hug everyone.

“It has been a challenge of leadership,” he said.

Sutton says they are following the line of advice from medical workers, first responders and local health departments to ensure safe practices.

“We are doing what is safe, what is loving and what is beneficial for the community,” he said. “People are experiencing life in a new way.”

Incline Village’s St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church took advantage of their unique outdoor mountain amphitheater chapel as well. Church officials take precautionary measures such as moving the log-bench pews farther apart, capping attendance at 50 and requiring worshippers have their temperature taken, employ hand sanitizer and wear masks.

There is no Eucharist or passing of the peace, and the usual post-service coffee hour is held by video conference.


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