Local Pastors Speak On How The Coronavirus Has Changed Their Congregations And Worship
Darren Doyle, story and photos:
Churches all across Kentucky have been practically silent for almost two months, which include those in Edmonson County. There are not many places you can go within the boundaries of our county (besides the national park property) and not be within shouting distance of a church. Made up mostly of United and Missionary Baptist churches, our area would seem to be an anomaly for churches per capita.
A large number of families in Edmonson County base their lives around a simple routine that involves going to work, school, and church, and for many here at home, all three have been drastically changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We've heard plenty about daily numbers of those infected, those that have died, the millions of folks on unemployment, as well as restriction on top of restriction; however, outside of the churches and church families, not much has been discussed regarding the current situation that has kept hundreds, even thousands of worshipers in Edmonson County from assembling together with their congregations.
Governor Andy Beshear began shutting businesses and gatherings down weeks ago and recently released guidelines and projected dates for the reopening of everything currently closed, which includes houses of worship; however, a federal judge recently ruled that houses of worship were not considered the same as a mass gathering, which allowed churches to reconvene in-person effective immediately. Even so, the Governor has still issued an executive order with specific requirements for places of worship. The reality is, restrictions or not, things are not likely to return to normal in local churches for an extended period.
We've had many discussions with locals and have received tons of calls, emails, and messages with questions and comments about the pandemic, and the feelings and opinions cover a broad spectrum. Some are scared for their health, some applaud the Governor, others are disgusted with him, some think the virus risk has been dishonestly reported, and some don't know what to think. As far as church goes, most locals miss their own sanctuaries, many are ready to return, but even those that attend the same church are likely to have different views. Some view the restrictions as necessary safety, others see actions like the reporting of license plate numbers in church parking lots as tyrannical.
What was the ruling and what does that mean for local church restrictions?
On Friday, May 8th United States District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove granted a temporary restraining order against Governor Beshear's executive order, in favor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicolasville, that in-person services could be held immediately. Here is an excerpt from the ruling: In the present case, the Executive Order at issue does not just affect Tabernacle Baptist Church. The Executive Order applies to all churches. Therefore, as the Eighth Circuit has recently upheld, injunctive relief may extend statewide because the violation established impacts the entire state of Kentucky.
The actual ruling language stated the following: Defendants (Gov. Beshear's Office) are ENJOINED from enforcing the prohibition on mass gatherings with respect to any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines;
The following day, Governor Beshear amended an executive order that was first made on March 19, 2020, called the "Mass Gatherings Order," with the following language: Effective immediately, the Mass Gatherings Order shall not apply to in-person services of faith-based organizations. Faith-based organizations that have in-person must implement and follow the guidelines for places of worship, which are attached and incorporated by reference herein.
That means the only thing changed from what the Governor originally ordered is that the restriction from having in-person services was lifted immediately, which allowed churches to meet this past weekend and not on May 20th, as Beshear had first said. All local churches are still required to follow the state requirements, per his executive order, regardless of any additional current ruling. In a nutshell, the judge's ruling says the state can't stop a church from meeting in person, but circumstances still allow for some restrictions. Some of those requirements* include:
We reached out to some local pastors and asked them a number of questions about the state of their congregations and the effects that the virus and restrictions have had on their churches. While not all pastors we contacted decided to participate, five of them agreed to share some feedback. Some of the men spoke on behalf of their congregations, others spoke for themselves only or gave their own opinions. Those are noted in their comments.
"I'm 76 years old and this is the first time in my lifetime that our people have not been able to go to church," said Jerry Patton, pastor of Jock United Baptist Church. "The effect has been devastating to our community. It's really like we've had a right taken away."
John Chidester, pastor of Brownsville Missionary Baptist Church had similar thoughts with the effects of not being able to gather, even though his congregation has had online worship and other means of ministry.
"The biggest difference for us was not being together," Chidester said. "This is the longest span in my entire life that I have not gathered with the saints. I miss it terribly. I miss not seeing our people. I miss not interacting with our senior adults, our young families, our teenagers, and our kids. This time has renewed a sense of how important those interactions are. This is especially true during the times of pain. We have lost people in the last few weeks and due to the circumstances their funerals were private. I hate that for their families and for those in our church that have a great desire to minister to them in their time of need."
Richard Minton, pastor of Chalybeate United Baptist, said he personally wasn't in favor of alternative methods of worship outside of meeting together, and he described this period of Chalybeate's congregation being separated as difficult. Brother Minton is the father-in-law of Darren Dennison, who made a miraculous recovery from COVID-19 after being at the brink of death.
"As for me, it's not my personal choice to use some of the worshipping methods that others might use," he said. "I feel that the Holy Spirit is spontaneous with people, and without experiencing that with people together, that's difficult. Right now it hurts that we can't be with our people like we normally would."
Father Tony Bickett, a priest at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Sunfish and St. Joseph Catholic Church in Leitchfield, said that COVID-19 has prevented his fellow churchgoers from being "Church" in many ways during this time, which also includes loss of revenue.
"As a pastor, one of the first concerns is the loss of revenue. The church still has bills to pay and this is possible mainly through the generosity of its members giving by way of the Sunday collection/offerings. At the same time several members have lost their jobs and their source of revenue. As the saying goes, "we are all in this together". Another major impact this pandemic has caused is fear, loneliness and uncertainty. How we resume church services as well as many other activities will result in different behaviors, less physical contact, social distancing, washing hands, using hand sanitizer and wearing face masks. The effect of the coronavirus will be with us for several months."
Brother Jerry Patton said that in the beginning of the pandemic, no one knew how serious the virus could be at a local level or really anything else about it.
"No one knew anything about this, and we still don't know a lot about it going forward," he said. "But when the NCAA started cancelling sport events early on and then everything else began to shut down, we could see how important it was to take caution. Lots of folks are happy with the Governor, others not so much and I know everyone has their own opinion but we have to recognize the severity of this virus. I'd hate to make a decision that would put anyone in jeopardy or harm them."
Father Bickett said he has been in favor of the restrictions placed on churches because he feels like they are for the sole purpose of keeping everyone safe.
"I think our governor is looking out, showing concern and has the best interest of all Kentuckians in mind as he makes decisions for our state."
Pastor Chidester said he was receptive to restrictions as they first began to be ordered but that over time, he'd have like to have seen more local decision making power, rather than blanket decisions for all situations.
"As I survey the most recent release from the Governor, I can see that it appears he is trying to group every aspect of life together in how the reopening of the state will be done," said Chidester. "I personally think this is difficult due to the varying situations found within our state. How can something that works well for a church of 1,000 also work the same for a church of 20? I can not dwell on what his motives might be, because I do not know him personally, nor have I ever spoken to him. Regardless of his intentions or motives I think it is time to release most of the decisions to the leadership of the local church, while potentially offering helpful recommendations for any size crowds."
All pastors spoke of the negative effects the pandemic and the current restrictions have had on them personally, as well as their congregations; however, they also spoke of the positivity that it's brought and what it means moving forward. We've also heard reports of families holding their own services at home, some having regular family prayer for the first time, others have shared videos through social media featuring special songs, words of encouragement, and even sermons, something that's not been a common practice among local churches.
Brother Joe Logan, pastor of Otter Gap Missionary Baptist, also agreed to provide feedback for this article but chose to submit that information in the form of a letter to the editor, granting us permission to use excerpts in this article as we saw fit. He was also very clear: his thoughts and expressions represented his only, and he was not speaking on behalf any specific congregation.
"This pandemic has affected all of our churches and though our services stopped for a time, the good part is that our hope and faith in Jesus has never ceased," a portion of his letter stated. "I have been uplifted during this time by things that I might not have expected to bring so much joy, such as hearing the church bells ring. There has been times that my heart would have broken to see only one or two show up for service, but over the last couple of months, when just a few came together on Sunday morning, it has sent thrills of joy to my soul. God is still good. Let us take comfort in knowing that He is near all of us when we call upon Him in truth."
No matter the denomination, doctrine, practices, or methods, all churches locally have always had a message of positivity and hope. All the pastors that spoke with us were hopeful of what was to come, even in the midst of trouble.
"This event has caused us to look at every aspect of every ministry and opportunity," said Pastor Chidester. "First, I hope this leads people to not take for granted the times we are able to gather together as a church. Second, now that we have jumped in with both feet, we will continue to have an active and expanding online presence. We are still evaluating the aspects of ongoing ministry and missions to see how those can be continued and improved upon. Finally, it is my greatest hope that this will cause us to come together for the sake of the mission that Christ has called us to."
Brother Minton said there is not one correct way to move forward.
"We've never seen a situation like this before and no one is an expert on how to handle some of these things," he said. "Some people want to come back right now while there are others that are not ready, and that's okay. Some see it as risky or scary, and I certainly don't want to see more people sick, but we just have to trust the Lord with it all."
Father Tony said times are certainly difficult, but our ancestors had it much worse.
"Times are hard now but they could be a lot worse. Many of our elderly members are the most eager to return to church, however, they are also more at risk from COVID-19. In someways COVID-19 has brought the whole world together, seen neighbors helping neighbors, and giving the opportunity for people to pray more. At the same time, we are still a fallen world and sin, poverty, and selfishness will always remain with us. But in the end, God is good, all the time and all the time God is good, and God remains always close to us, is all powerful and nothing is impossible with God."
Brother Joe's letter had much of the same language as he concluded.
"God is still on the throne. He still has some people holding on and the lost still has a little more time to get ready. Church, let’s be of one mind and do all to stand and fight the good fight." He also referenced Matthew 18:20 at the end of his letter.
"As we move along, let’s hope for the day where we can see the house of God full but remember that, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Brother Patton said he's spoken to several members of his church and his congregation will likely look at a number of scenarios for worshipping in the near future.
"There are still a lot of unknowns, but I don't want to push rules aside or even stretch them," Bro. Jerry said. "This is still a serious situation. We've never been faced with this situation before, but one thing is still certain--God is still on the throne and He's reminding people of that."
*5/14/20: this article was edited to reflect that some of the referenced requirements by the Governor are listed as "should," not "must."