Pastors overcome challenges during pandemic

WESTFIELD – For Rev. Kathleen O’Goley and Pastor Merle Beal, one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been ensuring church members stay connected with each other.

“I started my pastoral position in the midst of this pandemic in April,” said O’Goley of Central Baptist Church at 115 Elm St.

The sanctuary at Central Baptist Church in Westfield was decorated with flowers when members first went back to in-person worship on June 14. Rows were also roped off to keep people from sitting too close. (REV. KATHLEEN O’GOLEY PHOTO)

O’Goley said the most difficult aspect in her new role has been the inability to move forward with plans she has with church leaders.

A recent Sunday School event at Central Baptist Church on Elm Street included making a scarecrow display for the City Scarecrow Trail. (REV. KATHLEEN O’GOLEY PHOTO)

“Thankfully, God made us creative beings,” she said. “We are trying new things and reaching out in different ways, such as participating in city initiatives like the Chamber of Commerce and the Halloween Scarecrow Trail.”

O’Goley said transitioning from teaching to preaching during a pandemic has also had its challenges.

“I was unable to have a proper goodbye with my students and colleagues and did not have the characteristic induction into being a pastor,” she said. “It was strangely lonesome. Yet God is so good! It has made myself and the church staff here at Central fully reliant on Him during this time.”

Less than a minute’s walking distance from the Central Baptist Church is the Community Church of Westfield at 170  Elm St., led by Beal.

“One of the biggest challenges was keeping the church family connected,” said Beal, adding the church is “community and family oriented.”

“We do outreach projects and supplying food and clothes to those in need,” said Beal. “With the pandemic, all of this stopped. Isolation was hard for us as a church to handle.”

For Beal, he soon found his focus moving from Sunday worship to ministering to people throughout the week.

Pastor Merle Beal of the Community Church of Westfield, in background, is seen with David Prats and Annabeth Lemberg. Prats and Lemberg recently completed a Baptism class. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

“Sunday was no longer the main focus,” he said. “Checking in on our people, seeing how they were doing with the isolation, helping them get supplies, and giving them hope became my main ministry.”

O’Goley shared a similar sentiment.

“Weekly messages began virtually by posting them on our YouTube site for Central Baptist Church in Westfield with the interim pastor and continued when I came aboard,” she said. “When the state approved the opening of places of worship, our leadership met and outlined a safety protocol for our opening.”

O’Goley said the church is “blessed” with a spacious sanctuary with room to social distance.

“We now meet in-person for our weekly service at 10:30 a.m. and have also continued to post the recorded messages on YouTube for those who do not feel comfortable to meet in-person.”

O’Goley added that adult Bible study meets on Monday mornings and has continued via the Zoom platform during the pandemic and with recorded study messages for those who could not access it through Zoom. In addition, a new in-person Bible study is available with limited attendees.

“We follow all our guidelines for people to be able to meet in limited numbers in our large fellowship hall, including six feet distancing and wearing of masks,” said O’Goley.

Beal noted their classes have also continued through the pandemic.

“At first, all classes were held completely through Zoom,” said Beal. “We now have Bible study in-person and on Zoom. Last week, we started having a small group meeting in homes.”

Beal added that messages are presented in church with limited attendance and online via Facebook Live.

“This is not a new practice for us as we started streaming on Facebook a year ago,” said Beal. “The transition to all-streaming was a smooth transition for us.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Beal said it was “strange” transitioning from people sitting in the seats to seeing an empty church and giving the message to a camera.

“We nicknamed the church ‘CCW Studio 1A,’” he said.

Beal is also thankful the church has maintained its core group of members during the pandemic.

“When we were allowed to reopen, our attendance was 50% in-person and 50% online,” said Beal. “Currently, we are mostly in-person with approximately 10 people participating in the service online.”

O’Goley was also thankful for the support she has received from church members.

“We have good attendance both in-person and with viewers on YouTube,” she said. “Our Monday morning adult Bible study has also been posted throughout this time and some special videos with music.”

O’Goley noted that a Sunday school program will re-start on Nov. 8, following classroom guidelines used by the Westfield Public Schools and protocols by the state as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We recently held a Sunday school event where our kids painted pumpkins and made the scarecrows for the City Scarecrow Trail,” said O’Goley. “It was wonderful. The kids are willing to follow all safety precautions without complaint just to be back in church. They just want to learn and enjoy their time.”

As Beal and O’Goley look to the future, they are both encouraged by the faith of their church members.

“We are financially stable,” said Beal. “Our members have continued to support the church and its programs through the pandemic.”

O’Goley concurred.

“Not only were we open during this time, but we have been busy with new members, the Westfield Public Schools transition program, and our community missions,” she said. “Our church continues to serve our community by cooking for the Westfield Soup Kitchen and our free community breakfasts on the third Saturday of the month in a safe to-go format.”

Central Baptist Church members also donated masks and school supplies to the Franklin Avenue Elementary School for its opening, and continue to collect nonperishable food stuffs for the local and college food pantries.

“Our goal is to let people know we are open, and we are here for you,” said O’Goley. “More importantly, we want people to know that God has not abandoned them during this time of COVID-19, racial tensions and economic insecurity. He is in control and loves us.”

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories on how local religious leaders are adapting to church life during the coronavirus pandemic. For church leaders who would like to share their story, email Westfield News Editor Hope Tremblay at [email protected]

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