A Winterville church that held its first in-person services since March canceled them a few days later after its pastor fell ill with COVID-19.
Ben Tugwell of Integrity Church alerted his congregation on July 23 that he was sick and suspected he had COVID-19. The next day he confirmed he had tested positive for the virus.
No additional cases been reported among the membership, and Tugwell believes he contracted the virus outside of the church, but leaders have canceled live services for the immediate future.
“I know this is unfortunate news for all of you, but we care about your safety as this virus can greatly impact those with prior health conditions,” Tugwell wrote in a July 24 Facebook post.
In a video of the July 19 sermon Tugwell said he was grateful and nervous to be back before a live congregation.
“I am really looking forward to this morning. I will tell you out of the gate, I’m nervous this morning,” he said. “This is the longest I’ve gone without preaching in front of a crowd in 20 years.”
Tugwell remains at home, quarantined in a room separate from his family, said the Integrity’s executive director, Josh Myers. Tugwell reported earlier in the week he had lost his sense of taste and smell.
Many people have reached out to offer the family support, Myers said.
“There is not much they can do but hope that it passes quickly,” Myers said. “I’m thankful it isn’t worse for him right now because it hits people so differently. Thankfully he is healthy and seems to be fighting well.”
There was some concern immediately after Tugwell’s announcement about how he may have contracted the virus, Myers said.
“We think he may have gotten it being around town. We don’t think it originated here because of the precautions we had in place,” he said.
All members of the church staff have tested negative for COVID-19, Myers said. As of Tuesday no one from the congregation has reported testing positive for the virus.
“No one has come down with symptoms so hopefully it means the guidelines that have been given out by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services specifically for churches are effective,” Myers said.
“We did our best to follow those. We asked our people to wear masks, wash their hands and sanitize, social distance; every row was set up six feet apart and you had to wear your mask,” he said. “People who were coming agreed to those things. It was a good service and everything moved smoothly.”
Church volunteers escorted individuals and families to ensure the social distancing guidelines were followed.
Child care wasn’t offered, but the children’s wing was set up in case a parent had to feed or calm a child, Myers said. The rooms were emptied of all toys and snacks and were sanitized between services.
While there was music, there was no communion and no offering plate was passed among the congregation, Myers said.
Integrity Church, located at 569 Irish Lane, Winterville, in the former Pitt County Shrine Club building, has a maximum occupancy of 360 people and typically had 150-250 people attend each of its Sunday services, Myers said.
On July 19 there were a total of 120 people at each service, Myers said.
The leadership team is continuing discussions on when to hold another in-person service.
“It’s a tough climate to be making a decision when the lead pastor has the virus,” Myers said.
Tugwell urged the congregation to “continue to be the church,” in his statement.
“Safely and wisely gather with friends to watch our services online. Pray together. Serve others. Spread the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ in this difficult season,” Tugwell said.
“Worship in the church, we see that as one component of worship,” Myers said. “All of life is worship to us. We love gathering with people but we also want to be very careful about doing that so we can protect our members and the city, the entire nation, the entire world.
“Our team has been committed to leading our congregations in the precautions,” Myers said. “So we’re definitely glad for that because there could be a totally different story right now as has happened in many churches already. We are really, really grateful there hasn’t been a church outbreak.”