ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – Most Kentucky Baptist pastors have had to deal with the pandemic for the past 18 months.
Michael York, who became the pastor at Fairview Baptist Church last August, knows nothing but his church and area being in a pandemic state. That means masks, social distancing and even postponed services. He even went through the interview process when COVID was shutting down his previous church in Missouri.
He remembered it as a difficult time for the church where he and his wife were serving.
“You don’t want to feel like you’re leaving a church in the lurch,” he said. “When Fairview called me, it was the day we (his previous church) announced we were suspending all activities at the church for two weeks. I told Fairview, in good conscious, I couldn’t leave or think about it until we were in a better situation. You’re fully committed where you are and you’re being asked to navigate something no pastor alive has ever had to do. It’s a challenging thing.”
Eventually, with COVID settling a little, the the move to Fairview Baptist was confirmed for York and his wife, Sarah.
“When I came here, Sarah and I couldn’t talk with people the same way we otherwise would have,” he said of the early days of their ministry at Fairview. “We’re Baptists. We would have had a big meal. I saw a lot of people but I only saw from the bridge of the nose up. The loss of a smile behind a mask was difficult. I couldn’t tell if they were smiling at my jokes. I have a weird sense of humor. I can’t tell when to back off or when to double-down.”
York’s first contact with Fairview’s search committee was over a video chat. He said it was helpful in a number of ways including potentially long travel either by the prospect, the search committee, or both.
“I do think more churches will do this. We were nine hours from Ashland. If I had left town to come and talk here that would have been noticeable. Those initial contacts through video are really helpful.”
There are drawbacks, especially when it comes to reading the room with the search committee. It's hard to read a Zoom screen, he said.
“Watching that non-verbal communication is important,” he said. “My philosophy is, you lay it all out on the table. If I’m not what the church wants, everybody needs to move on. They hear the things that are non-negotiables to me. In-person, you see that (how the committee responds even with body language) a lot better than over a screen. Doing the video chat stuff is hard. You have glitches and buffering issues. It’s hard to know sometimes if that was a technological issue.”
Of course, York said it was important that he make the in-person visit to see if Fairview was the best fit for him and his family. That's something that can't be done online although some exploring beforehand is somewhat possible.
“Sarah and I want to know if this is going to be the church for us, we want to see the community we’re going to be living in,” he said. “We came to Ashland seeing it operate at a lower speed than it normally does (because of COVID). We’ve never lived in Ashland outside of a pandemic.”
And the pandemic hasn’t exactly slowed down. On Friday, more than 5,000 new cases of the coronavirus were reported to health officials in Kentucky.
“I’m literally in the middle of posting a video on Facebook about suspending our night services for the next couple of weeks,” he said on Thursday. “We had a scare with some of our youth so we thought it would be best.”
York even had a mild case of COVID himself. He said the church has not been controversial over masking or pandemic issues and for that he’s thankful. He’s heard of other pastors who have been asked to leave over some of those same issues.
“To some people it’s a health thing, other people it’s political and some people have a problem with leadership,” he said. “We’ve had none of that here at Fairview. People have been great and flexible. But I’ve heard horror stories from other pastors.”
York said when a pastor comes to a church, he is immediately stepping into a shepherd’s role of trying to protect the flock.
“I’ve heard of pastors being fired after 40 years at a church because of people who were pro-mask or anti-mask,” he said. “Pastors are coming into the lion’s den because of a culture divide that has made a medical condition a political debate. Pastors are coming into churches having to use leadership collateral they don’t have right off the bat. It’s like the first thing after getting married telling your wife you dislike her mom.”
York is settling into well with his still new church and starting to see the smiles behind those masks even when the jokes aren't any better.
"It's more challening preaching to a congregation you don't know," he said. "That's not as much the case now even with masks."