In Montana, a Lutheran church tries to stay together, despite spotty internet, long distances and fights over face masks

RONAN, Mont.When the
Rev. Seth Nelson
reopened Faith Lutheran Church in this rural highway town this spring, he put strict social distancing rules in place: every other pew roped off; no coffee and cookies after service; and, most controversially, masks required.The months since then have been the hardest of his six-year career in ministry.Every week, for months, somebody would be telling me I was wrong for taking this seriously, said Mr. Nelson, 35 years old. Its caused a lot of tension and friction for me, personally and professionally.
Ten months into the coronavirus pandemic, rural pastors are struggling to balance their flocks spiritual needs with their physical safety.
The internet is unreliable in many areas, rendering live-streamed services or Bible studies on Zoom impossible. As a result, many pastors feel a strong pressure to keep the doors open.
But congregations are deeply split over what gathering safely looks like in places like rural Montana. Residents are used to living with little government oversight, and despite a statewide mandate to wear face coverings in public, some police officers, baristas and line cooks go to work unmasked.
Its challenging, said the
Rev. Tonya Whaley,
pastor of three small Methodist churches in rural southwestern Montana. She has lost eight church members to Covid-19, she said, but some congregants remain in denial that the pandemic is real.
They just go about life as normal until somebody gets sick, she said. Others, meanwhile, have been advised by doctors not to come to church, and staying connected with them is tough. Many of our folks dont have computers, she added. Many dont have cellphones.
Masks, in particular, have led to conflicts in small towns, where residents often know most of their neighbors.
Candles are lighted before a Sunday service at Faith Lutheran Church.
Congregants sing during a Sunday service at Faith Lutheran Church.
Communion is distributed during a service at Faith Lutheran Church.
The
Rev. Emily Shipman,
co-pastor of four small churches in northwestern North Dakota, said her congregations have fought over whether to say masks were encouraged or optional.
In North Dakota, to say something is encouraged, people will take that as, youll be shamed if you dont do it, she said. Masks significantly reduce the spread of coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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In Ronan, a town of about 2,000 people between Missoula and Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, disagreements about masks are evident all over. On one side of Highway 93, Ace Hardware has signs warning patrons that masks are required inside. Across the street at True Value Hardware, there is hardly a mask in sight, and the cashiers dont wear them, even around their chins.
A larger evangelical congregation in town has stayed open, no masks required. A small mainline church has closed for good.
When Faith Lutheran first reopened in May, Mr. Nelson banned singing and didnt offer Communion. He has since relented on those fronts, allowing the congregation to sing hymns with masks on and to remove masks briefly, one at a time, to receive the Eucharist at the altar.
But he has held firm on the mask requirement, leaning on his wifea nurse, who runs testing and contact tracing at a local hospitalfor advice. That requirement has split the congregation.
Ive gotten all sorts of pushback, Mr. Nelson said. Frankly, Im a little depressed and gun-shy over it. Id call people to check in, and theyd just unload on me. In some cases, he has stopped calling.
Longtime members Gary and Norma Granley wear masks at church every week.
But Garys brother, Gordon Granley, and his wife, Audrey Granley, refuse to wear them almost ever. Audrey hasnt come to church since July, when coronavirus case numbers began rising and Mr. Nelson moved from encouraging masks to requiring them.
There are people who need to wear masks, there are people who need to stay home, said Audrey Granley, who described herself as in her early 70s. But Im not one of those. Im healthy.
Gordon Granley walks into church with a mask, but then sits in the choir loft, alone, and often removes it. He said asking him to wear a mask implied a lack of trust and decried the fear-based directives from the government that were leading people to lock themselves at home.
A member of the church council, Mr. Granley said he worries about whether the congregation can make it through the pandemic intact. In-person attendance, which averaged about 80 on Sundays last year, is now around 25 people a week.
You shrink something down to a certain point, and theres a dynamic that just collapses, he said. Im not saying thats happenedbut we could be close.
Mr. Nelson expressed a similar concern. At the start of this year, the church had been growing, with more families joining. Now he isnt sure how many will return once the pandemic is over. Im a little concerned if people just ease into having church piped into their homes, he said, although he is hopeful many will want to return when the snow melts and the vaccine has been more widely distributed.
For now, Mr. Nelson has taken on a series of new rolesvideographer, tech support and even mail carrieras he tries to hold his congregation together.
Montana ranks second to last among states in an analysis of internet coverage, pricing and average download speeds conducted by the data website BroadbandNow. When Mr. Nelson interviewed to become Faith Lutherans pastor several years ago, church leaders went to a nearby Ford dealership to call him on Skypeinternet at the church was unreliable.
The congregation skews older, and many members hardly use email. So, for those who cant watch services online, Mr. Nelson and a few volunteers send out copies of his sermons by mail. On occasion, they deliver worship materials by hand.
Last week, Mr. Nelson drove a half-hour out of town to bring a Christmas worship packet to Rosemary and Roger Detert, who had just had surgery on his ankle. A sign on the front door said, Please wear a mask in this house.
Fearful of the virus, the Deterts havent been to church since the pandemic began and had seen Mr. Nelson only once, when he helped them set up a YouTube account so they could watch sermons online.
We miss the companionshipthats the biggest thing, Ms. Detert said of going to church. They also hadnt seen their grandchildren this year, or many of their old friends in the area. We cant believe the people in our community, close friends, who are so stubborn and wont look at reality, she said.
Mr. Nelson prayed with them while wearing a black cloth mask, then got back in his SUV. On the way home, he wondered if visiting had been the right thing to do. I could have it without even knowing itthat would eat me up, he said. At the same time, it was great seeing them.
So far, Mr. Nelson has largely managed to maintain the trust of his flock, including some who object to the mask mandate. We may not agree with him on everything, but thats OK, Gordon Granley said.
On Christmas Eve, Mr. Nelson stood in front of the largest crowd he has assembled since March. He had scheduled three services in the hope that none would be too crowded, but the first had drawn about 50 people, the legal limit.
The evening, he said, was a capstone to a tough year. About a dozen members of the congregation had grown sick with Covid-19, but he didnt think any had contracted it in church, and none had died.
Its been personally challenging for me, to keep that hope myself, to keep the faith, he said. But people have latched onto words of hope in new ways. Im trying my best to trust in that.
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Write to Ian Lovett at ian.lovett@wsj.com
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