Pastors in southeastern Manitoba seem to unanimously agree that organizing Sunday school is the most significant challenge they have faced since COVID-19 first began.
Now more or less accustomed to the depleted congregations, masked worship, and online teaching closely linked to the pandemic, a big struggle for many is how to continue to engage children in the Christian faith.
Some churches, like Maranatha in Niverville, shut their Sunday school classroom doors the moment the coronavirus came knocking and have not approached the matter since. Others, like Steinbach CMC, have small enough populations of young people that their classes can continue almost as normal but dispersed throughout the church building to allow for physical distancing.
Many churches, though, have found their solutions to be less easy to come by.
For Emmanuel Evangelical Free Church, the fall is typically a time when the foyer is filled with laughter and conversation as program coordinators advertise new opportunities. Not only are the foyers much less crowded these days, but Children’s Pastor Rob Reimer says the transition into kids’ ministry is happening much later than normal. Having offered online programming for children since March, Reimer says his church has tentative plans to restart in-house operations by October 18.
“One big change that we’ve made is we will be offering it during both services now,” he states.
Ordinarily, the church would have a Sunday school period in between their first and second services but this year they have moved away from that.
"Given the issue at hand, we will be able to do better if we have smaller groups," states Reimer. "If we can divide the kids pretty much in half, that will make distancing a little bit easier.”
With only a limited number of people permitted indoors, the shift will empty out the sanctuary of children to allow more adults to attend weekly.
Christian Fellowship Church Pastor Mac Dumcum says his establishment has chosen a similar route.
“This does two things for us,” he details, “it gives kids ministry on their own level so they get something they can actually relate to, and it also provides extra room for our adults for our Sunday morning services.”
Dumcum says he and his fellow staff members have been doing their best to be compliant with the guidelines that have been set up by the Manitoba Government when it comes to religious gatherings.
“We’ve had to tweak it along the way, and we are still constantly having to revisit things, but I always say, nothing is ever a problem unless you let it be.”
Perhaps the most pressure right now is on the churches within the Winnipeg Metropolitan Region where the Pandemic Response Level was moved up to “Orange” just last week. Level orange mandates masks in public and limits gatherings to ten people. While religious gatherings of any kind technically are unaffected, Word Of Life Church Pastor Graham Beer says there is a palpable heaviness that came with the increased restrictions. His church is located in Niverville.
“Before we had hit Code Orange, our services were, for a lack of a better word ‘sold out’ every week. Now that they’ve announced Code Orange we still have room left in both services.”
Word Of Life’s reaction to Sunday school has been different than other institutions. For the time being, they have eliminated their usual classes in favour of short kids' features within the church services themselves. In recent weeks Beer says the second service has become the “family-oriented” service and offers this special kid-friendly teaching. He says the idea’s success has been meagre, at best, and they are hoping to return to actual classes once the stigma against doing so decreases.
“We have definitely felt they are missing it,” he says of his youngest congregants.
All three men sense that there are a lot of eyes on the Church during these uncertain times. Beer observes that making administrative decisions becomes tough when the world is watching and even your own congregation is divided into their respective pandemic perspectives.
“One of the hardest things in all of this is navigating all of the opinions. You’ve got everything from ‘this is stupid, we don’t need to pay attention to this’ to ‘we’re all gonna die!’”
Beer stresses a fact that all three pastors make a point of mentioning. The province, he says, is putting these regulations in place for safety’s sake, not for religious persecution.
“COVID-19 has given the Church a platform to show people that, while we don’t agree with everything that our government says, it is still an opportunity to respect them.”
Beer cites Philippians 2:3 as a guiding principle: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” reads the popular Bible verse, “but in humility count others more significant than yourselves."
Whether it is the topic of Sunday school operations or mandatory mask-wearing, Reimer says the Church should have a simplistic mindset as COVID-19 continues.
“We know it is not going to be the same, but we want to do what we can with what we have.”