Doors of many churches will remain closed during pandemic

While some churches say they will defy state guidelines and will begin holding worship services, many churches will continue to follow the restrictions started during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Light from the stained glass windows is reflected onto empty pews in the St. Mary's Catholic Church sanctuary in Willmar. Easter celebrations will look different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Although some Minnesota churches say they intend to start holding worship services next week in spite of state COVID-19 guidelines, many churches will not be opening their doors yet.

The Rev. Jon Anderson, bishop of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said he was disappointed with this week’s announcement by Gov. Tim Walz that continued the restrictions on large church gatherings. Groups of 10 or fewer are allowed, as are drive-in services.

But Anderson said he understands the governor’s decision and said leaders from the national Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the largest Lutheran synod in the United States — are advising their churches to abide by state and Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Anderson is giving the same advice to ELCA churches in southwest Minnesota .

This week leaders in the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which includes local churches in the New Ulm Diocese, and leaders in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod said they will begin public gatherings starting on Tuesday with the first Sunday service on May 31.

Like all church leaders, Anderson said he “deeply longs” for congregations to resume in-person worship service and understands that people are “grieving” the loss of their regular worship life.


But given the danger of churches becoming “vectors” to spread the coronavirus, Anderson said he is trusting the epidemiologists and scientists regarding how churches should operate during the pandemic.

“We think faith and science need to be working together in this moment,” said Anderson, who has been involved with regular conference calls between state officials and church leaders from all over Minnesota during the pandemic.

The Assembly of God Church in Willmar is also abiding by the guidelines, even though Pastor Keith Kerstetter said he was “really hoping” the guidelines would be relaxed.

“I think disappointment is an understatement,” he said.

If big businesses can be trusted with being open, Kerstetter said he had hoped that churches could also be trusted to follow safety protocol.

But given the research about spreading COVID-19, Kerstetter said he would “hate for our church to be the source of another outbreak,” and therefore the church will not be changing its operations at this time.

Kerstetter said ever since the pandemic began, the Assembly of God church said it would take its lead from local authorities, including the Kandiyohi County COVID-19 emergency response team, and that has not changed.

“We are part of this community and they’ve been good with communicating with us,” Kerstetter said of the emergency team.


To decide to open the church doors now would not be defying the governor, he said. “We would be defying our local authorities,” Kerstetter said. “And they’re our neighbors.”

He said it’s normal during “uncertain times” for people to be anxious and be “me-centered rather than other-centered” but that “the virus will pass and how the church responds will be remembered.”

Kerstetter said a meeting between local church leaders and the emergency response team is scheduled for next week when there is expected to be discussions about a unified date and procedure for reopening churches.

When asked to comment about the churches that do intend to begin worship services, Anderson said he “wishes them well” as they “try to live out their faith lives as best they can.”

He said churches that continue to remain closed will learn from those that open now.

“We’re all trying to find our way forward as best we can,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Assembly of God Church and four other community churches — Refuge, Living Hope, First Covenant and Church of the Nazarene —are planning to hold a joint outdoor, drive-in service at 10 a.m. May 31 at the Willmar Civic Center that will include worship, prayer and recognition of graduating seniors.

“We want to bring hope,” said Kerstetter. “We’re still the church. We’re still here.”


A cross stands outside of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Willmar. Easter celebrations will look different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many churches will conduct services in an empty sanctuary for live or recorded broadcast on their websites and through social media. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
What To Read Next
Get Local