BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (KT) – Kentucky’s church leaders are finding themselves in the difficult spot of picking who gets a seat in the sanctuary when in-person worship services are held.
Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Friday that churches will be limited to 33% of the building’s occupancy to make sure a six-foot radius between household units can be maintained. For churches like Eastwood Baptist Church in Bowling Green, adhering to the governor’s social distancing requirement is not as simple as the math suggests.
“It is quite challenging,” said Ed Jent, Eastwood’s education pastor. He calculated the buffer around each household unit—whether the unit is one person or five—would be at least 144 sq. ft. Staff used masking tape on pew cushions to block out seating areas. From above, open spaces and taped off areas resemble a checkerboard pattern. Odd rows allow a family on each end with a six-foot empty space in the middle. Even rows only allowing a single person or couple in the middle of the pew.
Jent said following the restrictions on in-person worship means Eastwood can have about 257 people at each of its two worship services. The primary worship attendance reported by the church in 2019 is closer to 800. So, how is the church deciding who gets to attend worship in the building?
“What we are doing is taking reservations,” Jent said. “When people call in, we will reserve them a particular spot like in a movie theater.”
Using a seating chart, Jent said church staff plan to make the best use of the available space and save a dozen or spots for guests or people who forget to reserve a seat.
Kentucky Baptist Convention Regional Consultant Rick Howerton said many pastors are going through the same process. Some even expressed concern that worship attendees will be disappointed.
“Due to the limited capacity, pastors are concerned the experience will be anti-climactic with so few worshipers and those few worshipers being spread so far apart. They are concerned it will create little to no spirit of celebration,” said Howerton.
He cautioned church members who plan to attend in-person worship that the experience will likely not be what they experienced prior to the pandemic. There can be singing, according to the governor’s orders, but while wearing masks and there will be no choirs. Catching up with church friends in the foyer or lobby will be discouraged and, of course, there will be no friendly hugs and handshakes.
Howerton said it's interesting that surveys conducted by churches suggest the number of people who plan to attend in-person worship services almost matches the governor’s limits.
“Pastors are saying that 30% of church members surveyed are gung-ho about coming back, while about 30% are willing, but hesitant because they may encounter those who don’t social distance. Then there is a percentage who aren’t coming back until this thing has passed,” Howerton said.
One of the recommendations Howerton has passed along to churches is to use an app, like Save-A-Seat, to take the guesswork out of deciding who will have a place to sit at church. The key to using the app or any form of reservation, he said, is making sure members and people in the community are aware of the procedure. Post instructions and links on Facebook and the church’s homepage. Talk about how to make reservations during live streams and online small group Zoom calls. Maybe even send a brief notice to a local newspaper or radio station.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure everyone has the chance to worship the way they want to,” Jent said.
Eastwood may need to add a third service if enough people RSVP, he said. If they would rather stay home and continue watching online, well that’s fine, too.
“We’re happy with what every people decide,” Jent said. “We want them to stay happy and safe” and worship Jesus together.