One year ago this month, COVID-19 altered the way we live, work and worship. Those ramifications are still being felt, even with the arrival of a vaccine and the number of cases trending downward. Yet God was still at work amid the pandemic and the challenges it brought.
March 3 marked the one-year anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in North Carolina, which led to subsequent event cancellations, transitions to remote work and school, limits on public gatherings, stay-at-home orders and more. Pastors and churches were not immune to the changes, resulting in new approaches to worship, missions and ministry in what was termed a “new normal.”
To reflect on the events of the past year, we asked several pastors and ministry leaders across the state about how they saw God work, the challenges they faced and what challenges remain from the continuing impact of COVID-19. Following are a sampling of their responses, which have been edited for length and clarity.
We also invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
“Like most, I have had to adapt to the changing landscape and deal with the barriers caused by COVID. Having begun a new ministry in April 2020, I have not been able to spend time with my new congregation in ways that I would have preferred. Visitation has largely been done over the phone, with very little personal contact outside of services. Thankfully, my congregation has been very understanding and supportive, not placing impossible expectations on me during these challenging times. The greatest challenges have been navigating how to handle services. Do we meet in person or not? Do we have small groups/youth activities? How to handle yearly ministry opportunities like VBS and AWANA? Do we have times of corporate fellowship outside of services? This pandemic has created an environment that is difficult to make long-range plans. It has taught us to rely on the Lord, evaluate our priorities and return to the fundamentals. While this has been a difficult season, I am convinced we have the greatest opportunity I have known to make an impact in our culture with the gospel.”
— Chris Benfield, Pastor, Shady Grove Baptist Church, Boonville
“God has exposed many ministry idols in our church culture that has forced us to grapple with what is necessary and what is not when it comes to being the body of Christ. It has been a struggle, but I would say the Lord has helped me to rely on Him on a level I never thought possible in this last year. My time with Him has become exponentially more sweet and precious.
I have shifted to an extremely heavy focus on equipping the church members as one-on-one as I can for depth of relationship and accountability.”
— Stephen Bradley, Church Planter, Harvest Church, Greenville
“My gospel relationship with three men in the church has grown. When most stopped attending service these faithful men wanted more of God. We started praying together in the sanctuary every Tuesday, outside of normal services, (and) we now are meeting on Thursdays for Bible reading and discipleship. Doing online ministry without any in-person contact with members not coming is a challenge. Keeping members engaged in gospel relationships with others is an ongoing challenge.”
— Jimmy Branton, Pastor, McDonald Baptist Church, Rockingham
“I have seen spiritual growth as more people are reading their Bible and spending time in prayer. I have (also) seen first-time professions of faith being made. Maintaining connection has definitely changed in the absence of seeing people regularly. The pandemic requires a more concerted effort to maintain relationships by phone, internet or with personal distance than ever before. (An ongoing challenge) is dealing with the constant reality that even with precautions in place, we are at risk when we gather. Emotionally, it is difficult to preach to 50% of the congregation while worrying about their safety, and wondering about the 50% who aren’t there.”
— Russel Fox, Pastor, Southgate Baptist Church, Thomasville
“In a year with so much change, pressure and turbulence layered with a full range of emotions from anger to grief, I have witnessed God’s people dig in and be more determined to remain faithful. We have retained 75-80% attendance with outdoor services over the past year. We are in a small community on the edge of Alexander County. I was born and raised here, and my heart is broken for these people. We had a great relationship with the local elementary school, but we have lost all that access and those relationships with the children and their families. Our senior ministry has also (been impacted.) This has affected the elderly more than most know. Our biggest challenge is the ability to minister to our lost community. We have made our services available through livestreaming, recording, FM transmitters and outdoor speakers, yet we don’t have the ability to knock on their doors.”
— Wesley Hammer, Pastor, Tabernacle Baptist Church of Stony Point
“While this has been a difficult season, I am convinced we have the greatest opportunity I have known to make an impact in our culture with the gospel.” — Chris Benfield
“We had just launched our church in a school six months before the shutdown. Since the schools were also closed and they were limiting who could be in the buildings, we were told that we would not be able to meet there. To this day, we haven’t been able to return to the school and as a result of this change in events, it put me on my knees to start praying. During this time, we had church on our front porch, online through our local association, at a local farm, with another church and on a church lawn. In July, God opened up a door for us to potentially lease a space to have worship in. After five months of work on the facility and help from so many people, we were blessed to be able to have our first service in the building the week before Thanksgiving. There is a lot of division around us, but God has shown me during the last year that we really are better together than we are apart. We have seen people trust in Christ in this new year, and we just baptized five new people into the body of Christ, including my youngest daughter.”
— Quintell Hill, Lead Pastor, Multiply Community Church, Monroe
“Hamilton Baptist Church is in a town of 400 people or less in rural Martin County. Since our church is small, we have been able to meet in person since Memorial Day. Most of the members have practiced wearing masks and social distancing, so we have had few problems and the congregation has remained healthy. I have had to use the phone more to contact members and other people in the community, but I have been able to make in-person visits to shut-ins. During the early part of the pandemic, I recorded two-minute devotional thoughts which I sent out over the church messaging system. I believe they were a blessing to the congregation. We have been able to minister to people in our community by building a wheel-chair ramp for a town resident, helping provide clothes for a newborn of a single mother, providing furniture items for a man and helping pay light bills of residents in the community. For me, the challenge has been not doing outreach activities and not being able to do home visits with new people.”
— Evan Johnson, Pastor, Hamilton Baptist Church, Hamilton
“One of the blessings of COVID is the clarity it has brought within the church. Challenging circumstances tend to reveal where we truly are spiritually. For more than a decade, attendance has been considered the greatest measure of the spiritual health of a church. If it was growing; it was good. But cancer grows too. And the cancer of consumeristic church had begun to metastasize in the church. COVID has proven to be an excellent surgeon to begin the process of removing this unhealthy culture from the church. COVID has proven that it’s shortsighted to look out across a full room and assume your church is making spiritually mature disciples well. Across the nation, statistics show church attendance dropping by 25-50%. We can’t lose heart, but we can humble ourselves before the Lord and return to the basics of disciple-making that Jesus teaches us in His Word, which is much more Bible, much more prayer, and many more authentic gospel-centered relationships.”
— Jason Miller, Pastor, Dutch Cove Baptist Church, Canton
“Like most churches, we’ve put greater emphasis on our online services and understood the importance that social media plays. We were able to institute online giving. We had a drive-thru trunk or treat which was a big hit. We had an outside community Christmas service that was well attended by people outside of the church. We’ve had three professions of faith.”
— Wesley McGarry, Associate Pastor, Westfield Baptist Church, Westfield
“We have seen students and kids saved because of the time they have spent around God’s Word and in conversations with their family during the quarantine. We have (had) to shepherd in different ways, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all ministry. People have different comfort levels because of COVID, and we have to meet them where they are. Shepherding people through the greatest racial turmoil we have experienced in a while as a country during a pandemic in an election year has presented all kinds of challenges. The good news is that it’s made people search for truth, and we are still seeing evangelistic fruit.”
— John Muller, Campus Pastor, The Summit Church Capital Hills Campus, Raleigh
“We have weathered things rather well, but the toll has been and is beginning to take shape. We must not overlook the long-term effects of what has happened and do all we can to keep things upbeat and slowly but surely moving forward. The mental health of our pastors and leaders greatly concerns me. Many have had to do things they never anticipated they would have to do, learn things not in their wheelhouse, experienced difficulty within their families and more. Ministry to our pastors is a greater need than it ever has been.”
— Terry Stockman, Associational Mission Strategist, West Chowan Baptist Association, Ahoskie
“I have seen God work in the lives of individual Christians to strengthen their faith as they have overcome the fear and uncertainty of COVID. I have also seen this as a time to reevaluate and revitalize the church. We have had time to reflect because so much of our busyness was suspended and so many events and programs put on hold. It has forced us and allowed us the opportunity to reflect on and return to the biblical purpose, mission and vision of the church. While we were very dependent on the Sunday morning gathering as our main measure of success, COVID has forced us to look at other measures of biblical faithfulness to Jesus and the gospel.”
— Christopher Turner, Neill’s Creek Baptist Church, Angier
“I have seen people willing to give up on hard and fast traditions in the church, even though they are hoping that they all come back. People are more open to trying something new to reach people or new ways to actually do church, but still anticipating we go back to the way things were. There has also been an increased knowledge of those hurting financially and a willingness to help, while acknowledging that we can’t minister like we used to. The greatest impact is not being able to visit people when you want or need to. The face-to-face contact that has always been there is now missing.”
— Larry Whichard, Associate Pastor, Kennebec Baptist Church, Angier
“Our staff is more cohesive and unified than ever. We’ve had to overcome spiritual, physical and ministry issues together, and it’s brought us much closer. We’ve had more online engagement and opportunities to pray for folks and meet physical needs this past year. Our online audience has grown around the country to places we never imagined, and we’re going to see the fruit of those gospel seeds being planted, I know it. Our challenges have come in cleaning up our communication, our online presence and making sure our facility is clean and ready for limited groups. We continue to think through our small groups and how to effectively connect some of our members and guests to small groups for discipleship.”
— Brad Wright, Lead Pastor, Glenn View Baptist Church, Winston-Salem
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