MOORHEAD — This Sunday, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Moorhead plans to hold a parking lot worship service, a change from its recent practice of recording worship services for viewing on YouTube.
After Sunday, however, the church will have some decisions to make, as the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in Minnesota, which Our Redeemer is a part of, have issued protocols to guide congregations eager to return to in-church services.
Those protocols, effective Tuesday, May 26, limit in-church attendance to one-third the seating capacity of the building, which could put congregations at odds with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's peacetime emergency declaration and its 10-person cap on church attendance as a pandemic safety measure.
"Now that the state has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to open non-critical businesses, we believe that we can responsibly and safely allow our communities to open in accordance with the accepted public health guidelines," the Rev. Lucas Woodford, president of the Missouri Synod's southern Minnesota district, said Thursday.
Gary Euren, president of the church council at Our Redeemer, said the council has a meeting Tuesday during which they will likely talk about the synod's recently announced protocols.
He said if Sunday's parking lot service goes well, they may stick with that worship option for now. Or, he said, they may decide to start holding services inside the church and follow synod protocols.
A third option would be to go back to recording services and offering them over YouTube, Euren said, adding that when it comes to matters of faith the church puts divine authority ahead of earthly authority.
"Martin Luther was always very respectful of government ... but there is the basic mandate that you follow God rather than man, and when it comes to the point where the government is doing things that are contrary to God's will and God's word, we have to follow the Bible and God's word," Euren said.
Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Crookston Catholic Diocese, which includes Moorhead and East Grand Forks, said in a written statement Thursday that the decision to allow public Masses with certain protocols came after "considering carefully the worship we owe God and the rights of the faithful to the sacraments, as well as love of neighbor and concern for the common good."
Hoeppner said the Catholic bishops of Minnesota were united in the conviction "we can do this in accordance with both our religious duties and with accepted public health and safety standards."
While the protocols issued by Catholic and Missouri Synod leaders appear to challenge Minnesota's stay-at-home rules, the six bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minnesota issued a letter dated May 13 stating they continue to endorse limitations set by the state.
"We keep ever before us a commitment to the wellbeing of our neighbors, those in our congregations, communities and beyond," the letter said.
"We know there are multiple precautions to take as new challenges arise. The logistics of gathering when it is safe and wise to do so, the special concerns around singing and communion distribution, the reality that there will be those who desire to participate that cannot, these are only some of the myriad pieces we consider," the letter added.
Bill Tesch, bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, said Thursday he and the other bishops who signed the letter respect the decisions being made by others, including their "Catholic brothers and sisters."
According to Tesch, the letter to ELCA pastors, deacons, leaders and congregations was intended to give guidance. He said individual congregations will decide on their own what direction to take when it comes to in-church services.
Beautiful Savior, a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Fargo, plans to resume in-church worship on Sunday, May 24, according to pastor Chris Waldvogel.
He said they plan to limit attendance to 50 people in a sanctuary that can accommodate about 220.
"We're encouraging people to wear masks, if they're able," Waldvogel said, adding that while some at the church are eager to return to in-person services, others are not.
For the latter, Waldvogel said they will continue providing worship services via YouTube and other means, including DVDs.
In addition to continuing to offer worship services, the church has also been doing confirmation classes and Bible classes via Zoom.
Waldvogel said when it comes to things like the protocols issued by the Missouri Synod, the information is typically guidance, not mandate.
"Each congregation is kind of free to choose what they're going to do and when they're going to do it," he said.
Forum News Service reporter Matthew Guerry contributed to this report.