ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – Ninety-year-old Fred Boggs stepped into the church sanctuary for the first time in almost a year Wednesday night.
There was no masking his excitement or hiding the pew-to-pew smile behind the mask he was wearing.
He was back and loving it.
“It’s just a wonderful feeling. I felt like I was floating,” he said. “It was good to get together to see the faces of people. I could identify most of them even though they wore masks.”
Senior adults just like him are starting to come back to Kentucky Baptist churches after receiving their second dose of vaccine for the coronavirus. Many have been waiting for nearly a full year.
“In my lifetime, since becoming a Christian as a boy at Pollard Baptist Church, this is the longest time I have ever gone without being in church,” said Boggs, a longtime member of Unity Baptist Church in Ashland.
With vaccines readily available and declining cases of coronavirus statewide, more senior adults and others are considering a return to their favorite pews. The virus will be around longer, but the vaccines have given senior adults – the most vulnerable to contract the virus – a shot of confidence. And most of them feel they’ve been sidelined long enough.
Kentucky Baptist pastors have led churches well through the pandemic, enacting extra precautions like blocking off every other pew and making sure social distancing and masks are a part of services. Few churches are back to pre-pandemic numbers, however, with the one-year anniversary approaching.
Pastors have walked gingerly in the past year, providing a safe environment for their flocks to return. Senior adults have been isolated and stayed away from attending for fear they would pick up the virus that has proven deadly for their age categories. They have learned to use Zoom and other online technology to watch the services, but it’s not the same.
“When all this started, I had a lot of pressure from a very small group of people who said, ‘We need to leave the senior adults behind and bring together those who can.’ I think that’s ridiculous because our church, the biblical model of the church, is of all ages,” said Rose Hill senior pastor Matt Shamblin. “And we want our church to be safe for everyone and not be segregated. Our goal and our motive have always been, let’s move together. We’re going to move together as a church and we’re going to make it safe for everyone.”
Shamblin and Rose Hill have been meeting inside for only about a month but successfully held parking lot services for several months. Safety was always paramount to church leadership at Rose Hill, the pastor said.
“It was pretty heart-wrenching to see senior adults who came back sitting in their cars crying because they finally got to see someone, that they’re finally around someone,” he said.
Senior adults are often the lifeblood of the Kentucky Baptist church. They are in many cases the church leaders, the first to volunteer for duties nobody else wants and often are the biggest and most consistent givers. Their absence has been felt in the church.
Fitzpatrick Baptist pastor Tommy Reed said senior adults “will lead the way” on the church comeback.
“I have great confidence that the older generations are going to lead the way,” he said. “It’s made up of the Greatest Generation of America. They are fearless and they are overcomers. They will lead the way.”
Reed said he is pushing his members to get the vaccine shots and “start living again.”
“Our church, as a whole, felt very vulnerable and took it seriously for the most part,” he said. “We started an 8 o’clock service for 55 and up and they felt comfortable coming back to that. They helped lead the way about returning to normal.”
Nick Sandefur, the senior pastor at Porter Memorial in Lexington, said churches should open as they can in conjunction with the communities and their spaces.
“I would encourage us to lead with love and patience and, as we encourage people to come back, to contextualize your approach to be part of your community,” he said.
Churches have mostly stayed in contact with senior adults throughout the pandemic with phone calls and even limited visits. They provided some extra love and care with gifts of fruit boxes and candy around Christmas.
Boggs said the fellowship with church family was what he and his wife, Alva, have missed the most.
“We have our own family but our church family, people who have been with us down through the years and done things with us, that’s who I missed,” he said. “They are an extended family. I think people, once they come back, they will continue. I felt like I was floating last night.”
Reed said each week he is beginning to see more of that age group get re-engaged in church.
“We’re seeing more of them coming,” he said. “They’re tired of being cooped up and I don’t think they believe a lot of what they heard. I think they are seeing a lot of manipulation of information. They’re saying, ‘We can’t stay cooped up forever and I need that in my life. I’m ready to wear a mask, social distance in church and be available to God.’’’
However, they may not all be ready to step back into busy church life, said David Stokes, the executive director of the Central Kentucky Network of Baptists. Thus, younger workers have to be recruited and trained.
“Many people who are in smaller, more single-cell congregations, who have worked for years because there’s no one else to take their place, have stepped aside because of COVID and they may not step back in,” he said. “In a smaller church, people said, ‘This is my time to retire, my time to give this up. I’ve been doing it for 20 years.’ I’ve been a pastor and I’d say you can never retire in God’s work. But let me tell you that, at the same time, there were people that really did need to retire but I couldn’t afford for them to do it because I didn’t have anybody to replace them.”
Shamblin said church leaders face difficult choices on when and how to meet because of the unknown.
“We have to make decisions on what we don’t know, and we have to be prepared because the masking is going to be around for a while,” he said. “The social distancing is going to be around for a while so we can be protected. How does all this relate to senior adults? It all relates to senior adults because we want to create an environment in which they feel safe. That’s what shepherding is all about isn’t it?”