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Frisco church places photos of members in empty pews to remind congregation they're still a family

"It gives our folks an opportunity to feel like they're still here," Father Clayton Elder said.

FRISCO, Texas — Adaptability. 

It's a word staff at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Frisco adopted as a core value shortly before it moved all of its services online due to the spread of COVID-19.

It's a hard reality. Most of Texas is shut down right now with essential businesses like grocery stores owning the only doors that are allowed to remain open. 

But under a statewide order recently issued by Governor Greg Abbott, churches are deemed essential. 

RELATED: 'A church is hands on': Why these Texas churches aren't closing their doors

Yet, many congregations have selected to stay online and keep churches from becoming transmission areas. 

At St. Philip's, Father Clayton Elder is out to prove that a church is not just brick and mortar. 

Credit: Matt Howerton
A photo of the pews inside St. Philip's Episcopal Church.

Clayton is the vicar for the church and is now streaming services at 9 a.m. on Sundays via YouTube, something he calls a learning curve. 

"We're learning to do sermons in a new and different way," Elder said. "We're trying to find new ways to connect with people. We're all feeling a disconnection from our community." 

It's almost harder to deliver a sermon to just a camera and an empty sanctuary. 

There's no way to gauge how your message resonates, how it lands, or if it's serving those it needs to serve. 

"We as clergy are not used to looking at a screen," Clayton said with a laugh. 

"We're used to actually seeing our members in our spaces. Jesus said, 'I know my sheep and my sheep know me.' We as pastors know the sheep by their faces." 

Not seeing faces, whether you're a priest or a devout member of a church, is undoubtedly a test of faith right now.

"To be able to look out on the congregation and not see those faces has been really challenging for us," Father Clayton said. 

That's when Director of Community Life Brandi White had an idea. She saw on social media how a Catholic church placed the pictures of its parishioners in empty pews as it moves to online services.

The purpose: remind the congregation that they're still together worshipping in spirit. 

"We asked for our members to send us photos of them and their families, and the response has been overwhelming," Clayton said. 

Credit: MARTIN DOPORTO
Father Clayton Elder speaks with WFAA outside the church.

Pew by pew, tiny wooden sticks now hold up dozens of photos inside the sanctuary of the church. 

"I can look out and see in my mind's eye the people that nod, the people who say 'Amen', the ones who sit and ponder, and the ones who take notes," Father Clayton said smiling. 

"It's incredibly comforting to look out onto those pews and see those faces again." 

Photos of the church pews have circulated onto social media, making their way to members who now watch sermons from their couch. 

"It gives our folks an opportunity to feel like they're still here," Clayton said. "They're still here worshipping as a family."

Credit: MATT HOWERTON
A photo of the pews inside St. Philip's Episcopal Church.

Faith has been huge for so many as COVID-19 fuels fears, doubts, and takes what many of us love. 

For some, that's freedom. For others, it's loved ones. 

Clayton feels any small gesture of togetherness at this moment goes a long way. 

It's his job and the job of his staff to remind his church that they're more than just an address. 

"What we're doing is making an impact," he said. 

"We can get very tied to 'the building' or 'the place of worship'. Jesus said it's not about where you are, it's about worshipping in spirit and in truth."

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