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By Madeline White

The Rev. Bill John, Providence UMC, preaches on May 24, 2020.

A number of churches began Stage 1 of the conference’s plan to reopen conference churches to in-person worship on May 24. As part of this plan, approximately 17 churches in the conference became “Pioneer Churches” by reopening their building for Sunday worship with no more than 25 people in attendance. Approximately 82 churches hosted drive-in worship services on their church properties.

Pioneer Churches, according to the handbook created for the conference reopening following the pandemic, are a small number of churches representing different regions, facilities, and congregational sizes that have indicated their willingness and ability to test our ability to conduct in-person worship during a pandemic. These churches in re-opening will be observing the strict protocol requirements in doing so.

Bishop Lewis attended the “Pioneer Church” of Providence UMC in New Kent for the Sunday worship where the process of re-opening with specific requirements went very smoothly.

“The worship service was very inspiring in the face of this pandemic,” Lewis said. “They carried out the requirements correctly, and I felt very welcomed, comfortable and safe.”

The Rev. Bill John, Providence UMC pastor, shared that he and the church were excited to be a Pioneer Church and be together in person on May 24.  

“There was a joy of being in each other’s presence and to be physically present together even with masks on, with social distancing and with fewer numbers,” John said. “

Through the pandemic, Providence UMC has experienced both struggles and opportunities. The church has been using Zoom for Bible study and groups such as a weekly knitting and crocheting group. Prior to the pandemic, most of the congregation had little experience with Zoom.

The church also saw need for their food pantry increase during this time, Donations helped keep them going and the church was also able to send donations to other food pantries to increase the amount of aid to the community.

New Kent overall has a challenge of Internet as it is still a very rural area. The county asked that organizations that were able to share their Wi-Fi with the community. The church has been able to be one of these organizations which has allowed for local students to continue their education with schools still doing online learning.

John encouraged other churches to consider being a Pioneer Church.

“Everyone should try it. It caused us [Providence UMC} to evaluate what is important in worship, how we worship and has helped us to be more intentional.”

Lewis added that as this process of slowly re-opening Virginia Conference churches continues, churches are encouraged to become Pioneer Churches. If you would like to become one, churches should contact their district superintendent to share their interest and learn more about the requirements.

Learn more about the Virginia Conference’s return to in-person worship at

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