The University Church of Christ in Murray, Kentucky, held services last Sunday, despite warnings, and a few days later learned from the county health department that someone at the service afterward tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Murray Ledger & Times, and WKMS (NPR’s Murray State news station).
Per the Herald-Leader, around 150 people attended services there Sunday, March 15. On Thursday, March 19, the health department asked that all go into quarantine for the next 10 days (approximately 14-15 days after exposure) while they wait to see if they come down with symptoms of COVID-19 coronavirus.
The church has been accused online of putting the whole Murray-area community at risk by holding services despite a request not to do so by the Kentucky governor, and many other negative comments appeared on its Facebook page, which is now inaccessible, and the names and pictures of the church’s ministers and elders have now been removed from the church’s web-site.
The virus’s impact on the church’s members, their families, and the community, if any, remains to be seen.
Warnings / Requests / Differences
Four days before the service, on Wednesday, March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.
On that same day, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear urged churches to cancel services that weekend as part of a set of recommendations, explaining at least two of five confirmed cases in a Kentucky county attend church together, per the Louisville Courier-Journal, and explaining, “I don’t believe whether you go to church during this period of time is a test of faith. I believe God gives us wisdom to protect each other, and we should do that.”
The governor’s set of recommendations and decisions announced March 11 included various matters, including encouraging everyone in Kentucky, in particular those over 60, to avoid large gatherings; asking all community gatherings be cancelled or done virtually, including those of houses of worship; asking businesses to implement plans for working remotely; the state suspending all nonessential travel outside Kentucky; recommending businesses do the same; closing state prisons to visitors; and asking public schools to be prepared to close on short notice. (He recommended the next day, March 12, that schools close with the last day for students being March 13, which the Murray-area schools did.)
The Center for Disease Control had asked that “organizations that serve high-risk populations … cancel gatherings of more than 10 people” when area transmission is perceived as “minimal to moderate.” High-risk populations included older adults. By March 14, there were at least about 14 confirmed cases in Kentucky and 32 in Tennessee (Murray is about 11 minutes from the Tennessee border, about 2 hours from Nashville). There are estimated to be multiple transmissions for every confirmed case, generally.
Multiple other sources, theological and otherwise, also urged against larger gatherings, including church services, before March 15.
Others felt it acceptable to proceed with church services with some adjustments.
Some interpreted medical guidance as allowing for meetings if people kept apart and precautions were taken. Some felt meetings were acceptable if no confirmed cases were in their particular geographic area. Some urged that warnings were overblown and panicky. Still others asserted it was God’s will to proceed without any adjustment, as adjustments showed fear and a lack of faith.
Some had a view that combined some of these or had a different view.
Had Made Alterations to the March 15 Services
University Church of Christ proceeded with services on Sunday morning, March 15, with adjustments. Its Senior Minister, Charley Bazzell, told the Murray Ledger & Times that the church limited the service to about 30 minutes, “advised anyone who was not comfortable to come to stay at home and we especially urged our elderly to not get out. … [W]e had four individuals with latex gloves on so no one would touch the tray or anything associated with communion. It was handled individually, then people went back to their seat, so we took precautions that we felt were helpful ….”
The church’s normal Sunday attendance is around 300. About 150 attended the March 15 service.
On Thursday, March 19, Canceled Later In-Person Services, Told of a Visitor
The church announced it would cancel in-person meetings at the building through the end of March on Thursday, March 19, it appears around mid-day, before hearing from the health department.
Senior Minister Bazzell told the Murray Ledger & Times that “We’ve been told that a visitor was here that we did not know and we did not meet. None of us remember that individual being here. We only had about 150 people here and we were spaced out through the congregation per social distancing recommendations. … [W]e are trusting what local officials are telling us and we took action to communicate to our members who were here ….”
The WKMS, the Herald-Leader, and others provided a screen shot of a post the church posted to its Facebook page yesterday, March 19:
The post says a visitor at the service has since been diagnosed with the Covid-19 virus and the Health Department urges all attendees to self-quarantine for the next 10 days.
The post goes on to say, “[i]f you live with someone who was not here with you, the Health Department has advised us to urge you to isolate yourself from that individual/s, as much as possible, out of caution.”
Poorly Received By Swaths of the Community
Many people from Murray and elsewhere commented on the church’s Facebook page afterward. Comments included:
- “Put an entire community of people at risk …”
- “[W]hy did you have services on Sunday …, when you were told not to…., … Now you’ve infected God knows how many people…..”
- “In addition to reposting the warnings to the community, maybe your church needs to commit to supporting families that must now quarantine. They’re going to need your ministry and by ministry I mean, they’ve supported you financially and now it’s time to support them.”
- “Unbelievable levels of irresponsbility!!”
There were many other comments on the church’s Facebook page along these lines. There were similar comments elsewhere on social media, as well.
The church’s Facebook page, including the post about the health department, was not available publicly as of mid-day Friday, March 20, and its web-site’s “Our team” page, where the names and pictures of its ministers and elders resided, was substantially blank by late Friday.
A New Confirmed Case, Unknown if Related
The visitor to the church was reportedly not a resident.
Today, Friday, March 20, the Calloway County Health Department announced the county’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 for “a resident of Calloway County.”
The city of Murray and the University Church of Christ are in Calloway County. There was no indication in the health-department announcement whether or not the confirmed case of the county resident was connected to the church incident. It seems quick for testing to come back, but probably not impossible.
It is understandable why churchgoers want to attend church services.
It is also understandable why community members would be extremely upset that the congregation would proceed to meet despite the increased dangers to the community, despite the warnings, and despite the #FlattenTheCurve efforts.
It is odd that a visitor would be there that church members do not remember. Could there have been a miscommunication? Could the visitor not have been there after all? Perhaps there is a mix-up. One would not expect the health department to put 150+ people into quarantine — to have that many people self-quarantine — without confidence, however. The health department is bound by confidentiality, so that might be to blame for the confusion. One wonders if the health department and the church are using the term “visitor” in the same way, too.
What About the Church Members?
Being in quarantine might mean a lot of lost wages and hardship for people, particularly if it is a group that do not have jobs that can be done from home, employers that are understanding, child-care assistance, etc. (assuming the members in quarantine actually quarantine themselves). This is a dangerous virus, to all ages. Churchgoers are often older people, the people at highest risk for death from the virus. It is also worrisome for churchgoers, having potential exposure for their family members and friends. Will members fall ill?
What About Family Members?
The church’s Facebook post said “[i]f you live with someone who was not here with you, the Health Department has advised us to urge you to isolate yourself from that individual/s, as much as possible, out of caution.” If a wife attended and a husband did not, for example, and the wife was exposed to COVID-19 at church on Sunday, March 15, and then went home and lived with her husband for 5 days (Sunday – Thursday) before hearing from the health department, there seems to be a reasonably good chance that the husband has been exposed at that point, too. Shouldn’t the family member be addressed, too? Will family members fall ill?
What About The Community?
Why didn’t the health department also address the people to which those churchgoers had been exposed during those 5 days? Why weren’t they asked to quarantine, too?
Those 150 churchgoers had probably been about town during those 5 days, and if some of them had been exposed to COVID-19 at church, they might have infected others while out and about town. And the people to which the church members were directly exposed then in turn were exposed to others as they went about town themselves. And then the others …, etc.
Here’s how one person from a nearby town put it:
It takes up to 14 days or more for symptoms to show once infected. Sometimes 1 day. Sometimes 5. Sometimes 14.
I suppose once all those 150 people were there together meeting and some infected, it would be very difficult to contain and keep out of the community, essentially impossible to keep from infecting your neighbors, if any of the congregation was infected unknowingly at the service and kept interfacing with others as usual, not knowing about the exposure.
I suppose that is the point of not meeting in the first place.
What About Now For Other Churches and Church Members?
Things have been changing rapidly over the past few weeks and a lot of information has been coming at people. A lot has changed just since last Sunday.
President Trump has now asked that no gatherings of more than 10 people take place. And note that was for people in general. Everyone can be a carrier and transmit the virus. It can hospitalize and kill people of all ages. People over 60 are at much greater risk of death from the virus than people in general. They should take even greater care.
And that was almost a week ago and things appear to have gotten worse. This suggests that not even gatherings of 10 should take place. It suggests everyone should stay at home if possible.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said Friday morning, March 20, per Fox 17 Nashville, that churches should not meet in-person in the near term and that churches meeting in-person are “putting people’s lives at risk,” as “the only way we get through this is if it we do it together.”
“Quite frankly, they’re risking people’s lives,” Lee said during a Friday morning news conference. “There are ways to worship and there are ways to serve without congregating people. And I’m urging and challenging churches to do just that.”
Enormous Damage to Life and Health Otherwise: To Our Neighbors
A study by the UK COVID-19 task force, a study on which the President’s announcement is said to have relied, predicts 2.2 million deaths in the United States over the next several months from COVID-19 if drastic #FlattentheCurve efforts are not undertaken.
Some states have asked people not to leave their homes, and more states seem about to follow suit.
The need to take temporary measures to #FlattenTheCurve — to avoid risking being a carrier and avoid transmitting to anyone else if you are unknowingly a carrier — over the next several weeks appears key to save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.
This is for healthcare workers, our neighbors, our friends, our families.
Not having any in-person or outside-the-home-family church-services is an important part of the effort.
Let us pray everyone does their part and that this passes quickly.
All Doing Our Part to Save Lives and Loving Our Neighbor
Church leaders can do their part by cancelling all in-person meetings. They can hold them on-line, instead, or encourage members to attend other services online. They can pray. They can encourage, assure, and uplift others. They can check on elderly persons and ill persons. They can ask about needs.
Church members can do their part by not attending in-person church meetings, by staying home. They can check on others by phone, e-mail, text, social media, and otherwise. They can pray.
As strange as it sounds, loving others right now involves staying home if at all possible and going to great lengths to make it possible.
These are difficult times. Prayers for everyone involved.
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Sources & Notes
See generally Steve Gardner, “10 Reasons Churches Should Not Have In-Person Services for a Time: COVID-19 and Flattening the Curve,” AuthenticTheology.com (March 14, 2020) (see sources cited in text in links and in Sources & Notes therein).
The screen-shots of comments and the church’s post are ones I took the evening of March 19.
Lexington Herald-Leader (additional information)
Murray Ledger & Times (original reporting; quotes, etc.)
WKMS (original reporting)
YouTube (KY Governor’s March 11 coronavirus recommendations, including house of worship recommendations)
National Catholic Review (reporting on KY governor urging churches to cancel services)
NPR (re WHO declaring pandemic)
Normal attendance around 300: https://christianchronicle.org/kentucky-church-urged-to-self-quarantine-after-attendee-tests-positive-for-covid-19/ https://www.facebook.com/tammy.mcknightjohnston/posts/2710072425713050
ClarkesvilleNow (cases in KY)
WREG (32 cases in TN)
Church’s Facebook page
Church’s Web Site
Calloway County Health Department– announcement (“a resident of Calloway County”)
(Health Department announcement is screen shot I took March 20; Cancellation announcement is screen-shot I took March 19; March 19 afternoon posting included by news media sources)
Video of Governor cancelling the prayer breakfast and recommending churches cancel services on March 11: https://www.kentucky.com/news/health-and-medicine/article241090906.html (“I am going to recommend that our churches across Kentucky cancel their services for this weekend ….”)
The Calloway County Schools announced on March 12 that it would close temporarily effective March 16 (I assume that the last day of school was Friday, March 13, as there is a post by the school system stating “Next week, Monday, March 16th through Thursday, March 19th will be used as staff work days.” ). Its announcement said that “It is extremely important, as the governor emphasized, that all students are expected to be in attendance tomorrow, March 13th, so that they can receive instruction on how to complete school work in a non-traditional school setting.”
Image by Alexey_Hulsov on Pixabay
Updates: 3/23: Added about 300 and what else the governor’s recommendations included.
Also see (added):
https://www.adfontesmedia.com/static-mbc/?v=402f03a963ba (static media-bias chart by Ad Fontes, an independent, public-benefit corporation that rates news sources for reliability and bias)
Of the 13 churches listed for Murray, KY, in MyMurray.com —
Purpose Church: No in-person regular gathering 3/15
Elm Grove Baptist Church: No in-person regular gathering 3/15
First United Methodist Church: No in-person regular gathering 3/15
Westside Baptist Church: No in-person regular gathering 3/15
Murray Family Church: Appears to have had in-person worship service 3/15 (small church?)
University Church of Christ: Had in-person worship service 3/15
First Baptist Church: No regular in-person gathering 3/15
St. Leo Catholic Church: May have had in-person mass 3/15
Hardin Baptist Church: No in-person regular gathering 3/15
First Presbyterian Church: No in-person regular gathering 3/15
Glendale Road Church of Christ: Appears to have had in-person worship service 3/15
Journey Church: No in-person regular gathering 3/15