'Traditions can't die' as churches change approach to socials in age of COVID-19

Group gatherings undergo changes in 2020

Andy Tipton, with Pirogues Catering, adds broth to a pan of turkey while getting ready for Mitchell Wesleyan Church's Thanksgiving Day meal on Tuesday at the Highland Conference Center in Mitchell. Tipton said they're anticipating serving approximately 2,000 meals on Thursday. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell Wesleyan Church has been serving a community meal for the last eight Thanksgivings, drawing hundreds of people annually to gather in the main hall and share a meal, fellowship and the general spirit of the season.

But like the organizers of similar church events around the region, Breaking Bread Ministries, which coordinates the holiday meal at Mitchell Wesleyan, is making changes to the gathering that will see many safety measures employed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re taking some precautionary measures” said Aimee Nebelsick, one of the organizers of the event.

The Thanksgiving meal at Mitchell Wesleyan Church, located on Sanborn Boulevard, is usually a crowded affair. People line up through areas of the church and kitchen, chatting with each other and the volunteers serving the food before they head out into the main seating area, where tables of people sit and share a meal of Thanksgiving staples.

Nebelsick said there will be some procedural changes to how the meal is served this year. First, she said they are taking reservations instead of the open-door policy that has been featured for years. That will cut down on the line and get people to their table directly. Instead of a serving line, the meal will be conducted with servers bringing the food. Eating areas will be sanitized regularly in between guests and other sanitizing stations will be available. Face masks will be required.


It was not an easy choice to make the changes, Nebelsick said, but it was a necessary one if the group wanted to continue with the successful event.

“It was a difficult decision. We prayed about it and had meetings. God was telling us that we were isolated and locked down, and there will be so many more people not traveling this year,” Nebelsick said. “We felt like we had to do it more than any other year. Even if that’s one little small 45 minutes of conversation with someone spaced out six feet and across the table.”

Adjusting to the times

The questions faced by Breaking Bread Ministries and Mitchell Wesleyan are also challenging other churches around the region. Some churches continue to hold virtual services in light of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, while others have managed to return to live services with limited attendance and other precautions put in place.

Church socials have also had to adjust in order to remain viable in the pandemic age. The events, sometimes an annual congregational or community meal or entertainment, is often a highlight of the church calendar and can also serve as a major fundraiser for the church.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Chamberlain is one such congregation that had to change its plans when COVID-19 threatened to derail its annual lefse and lutefisk supper. Jeff Tveit, one of the organizers of the supper, said it became clear in the planning phase that the supper would need to take on a new shape this year.

“We met in September, and we felt just because of the safety of the community there was no way we could hold the traditional supper, but we didn’t want to let the tradition die,” Tveit said.

They went about setting up a system of making the traditional foods with a stripped-down crew of volunteers, and then selling them to buyers from the church as well as friends and family throughout the region.

“Well, this is something we can do and have the tradition,” Tveit said.


The alternative method turned out to be a relative success. The annual supper is an event that feeds around 1,000 annually in a normal year and draws people from as far away as Pierre and Sioux Falls. Tveit was still busy making food deliveries early this week to places as far away as Kennebec.

He said the church served about 400 carry-out meals this year, which is a far cry from the numbers they usually draw. The cost of the meals were unchanged from a typical year, and while they did well under unusual circumstances, the decrease in traffic does cut into the bottom line for the church fundraiser.

“It’s about the only event we do as a fundraiser. Typically, I would say it brings in $2,000 or $3,000 after expenses. This year it won’t even be close, probably $1,000, but that’s an estimate,” Tveit said.

And while the influx of funds is always helpful, it’s the social aspect - both at the meal and in the preparation itself - that Tveit said congregation members miss the most.

“The whole social aspect of our congregation is very important and vital. We always have members from five-year-olds up to 80-year-olds working on this. It is the one time the whole church pitches in to work on a project that includes such a wide range of people. It really does hurt to not have that,” Tveit said.

At St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Salem, another church social also fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual church bazaar, a large group event that usually takes place in the Salem Armory, was essentially changed to a virtual format with only a few of the usual staples held this year.

Troy Schwans, chairman of the 2020 bazaar, said not gathering as a group for the event was a sensible choice based on a congregational vote.

“This year we scrapped the whole thing altogether in the name of COVID-19,” Schwans said. “We had taken a vote prior to one of our weekend masses, and the majority decided it wouldn’t be a good idea.”


Schwans said the event has been a tradition at the church for decades, and features a variety of festive entertainments, much like a fair or carnival. Raffles are held, and a traditional fall meal is enjoyed. This year, only the raffle was held, as it could still be held while organizers maintained a level of safety for participants. Tickets could be distributed through the mail as well as dropped off at the church to help avoid large crowds.

The bazaar is an event that church members look forward to and a wide-range of people take part in its preparation. Schwans agreed that the social aspect of the gathering is what is missed most by the church.

“The downfall is the bazaar is a parish social event, and that holds a lot of value. We missed that,” Schwans said.

Having approved the changes by vote, members of the congregation were understanding of the measures taken, Schwans said, and responded with generosity. Members used the opportunity buying raffle tickets to up their donations for the event, even though there was no live event held.

“This year we had people give above and beyond what the tickets cost. In lieu of having the bazaar, they donated generously. We did as well as we would have done if we held the bazaar,” Schwans said.

But he agrees something is lost when a church family cannot gather for fellowship in the way it has enjoyed in the past. Like other church members around South Dakota, he is looking to the future and hoping the world gets to a place where members can enjoy each other’s company in large groups without fear of illness.

When that time arrives again, he said they would be ready to move back to old traditions.

“That’s the plan,” Schwans said. “Of course, that’s tentative.”


Continuing the tradition

Back at Mitchell Wesleyan, volunteers were earlier this week unpacking supplies and cooking food in preparation of the Thursday Thanksgiving Day event at the church. While they won’t be able to serve nearly as many people this year as they have in the past, Nebelsick said those who still want to come to the church for the meal are responding to the opportunity.

Delivery requests are up, and it may be a challenge to find enough volunteers to help the day of the event. But it’s a challenge she and her fellow church members are ready to take on with an eye firmly set toward volunteer and guest safety.

“I’ve been on the phone most of the day (taking reservations). We have seen a leap in our deliveries, so we are upping our delivery drivers. It might be a struggle to find enough people who want to come and help volunteer. But I think God always provides, and he will. Everyone will have full bellies and it will be good,” Nebelsick said.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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