LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Pastors of Kentucky Baptist Convention churches say they are eager to resume having in-person services, but the timetable for reopening will vary according to a variety of reasons and circumstances.
Stephen Cavness, pastor of First Baptist in Fulton, said his church will begin meeting May 24— but will do so in its gym rather than the sanctuary.
“Our deacon body and church council have met and we will begin Sunday morning (May 24) in the gym. We have sufficient seating capacity, using chairs, to seat the entire congregation and meet the 33 percent guideline,” he said, referring to the guideline established by the state.
The church averages 165 on Sunday morning, and is fairly balanced in its age and gender demographics. “I feel a pretty good percentage of older members may stay home,” Cavness said. “I made sure to communicate that clearly — if you don’t feel you can attend (because of safety), don’t feel compelled to. Nobody will look down their noses at anyone.”
First Baptist will not resume Sunday School or Sunday night services for the immediate future, but Cavness will continue having a drive-up Wednesday night routine.
When people arrive Sunday, they will find only two entrances to the gym, and there will be no children’s church or nursery. By having that limited access, it will “keep movement of people isolated to one part of the facility,” Cavness said. The church has a contract with a cleaning service, which has done its normal cleaning routine during the pandemic but also sanitized the entire facility.
Cavness has been diligent in various communications to the congregation to exemplify a Christlike spirit during the abnormal situation. ‘I have tried to communicate for people to not let their opinions (on the virus situation) to turn to divisiveness. We look to Ephesians 5 and Philippians 2, that we are to submit to one another and put others first,” he said.
“If someone feels that this is overblown and it’s all conspiracy and even if you don’t think the guidelines are necessary, then for the sake of conscience, don’t force your opinions on other people. I want to encourage people to be Christlike in attitudes and speech and online."
Cavness said they will be taking temperatures of people entering the building and he will take off his mask when preaching. He said they will encourage masks for those attending, but not force it.
He says Fulton County only having one confirmed case of coronavirus at this point factored into the church's planning.
Two pastors in counties that have been hit hard say their churches are not going to open right away.
Buddy Slaughter, pastor of Means Avenue Baptist Church in Hopkinsville, said he eagerly awaits reopening, but is not going to rush into it.
“We have to see our local (case) count go down,” Slaughter said. “We don’t want to rush into it and then have a resurgence that involves our congregation. We plan on waiting until there is a drastic number of reduction in cases.”
He added that reopening “needs to be a decision of wisdom, not of our rights being violated.
“We want our congregation to be safe,” he said, noting that Means Avenue was proactive in taking steps to address the virus situation. A week before the state mandate which called for in-person services to be discontinued, Means Avenue suspended its regular services when Christian County had its first reported coronavirus case.
The majority of people attending Means Avenue are in the 28-60 age category. And even though its senior membership is only about 10-15 percent, Slaughter said there are people with various health conditions to consider — people who are recovering from cancer, who have had open-heart surgery and are on dialysis.
“I don’t want to be a part of putting a loved one at risk,” he said, noting that he is the primary transportation person for his 75-year-old mother, his sister is a nurse working with COVID patients and he had a friend in Louisville die from coronavirus.
When Means Avenue does resume, in addition to its sanctuary, it will utilize its large basement that is equipped with sound and monitors. That will allow the church to meet the 6-foot distancing and 33 percent capacity guidelines. “We’ll have gloves and we’ll not have choir singing or congregational signing.”
The church will continue to offer opportunities to connect with people through Facebook, including Sunday School at 9:30, its worship service at noon, and then an hour and a half Bible study at 6 p.m.
Slaughter, while waiting for his church to resume in-person services as soon as it is feasible, said he would encourage people “to make sure you have a relationship with God that is predicated on time with Him and not just among other believers.”
Another county hit hard by the virus is Warren County, and Franklin Wood, pastor of Forest Park Baptist Church, doesn’t expect to reopen right away.
“We want to get back as soon as possible, but we’ve decided to take a wait and see attitude. We’ll probably not reopen until June 14 or 21,” Wood said.
The church has an average Sunday morning of attendance of around 100 people, including a number of refugees. And that population has been hard-hit by the virus.
The church has been recording its services and then posting them on Facebook, and will continue that practice.
When in-person services resume, Wood expects about half of his congregation may allow extra time before returning, mainly because of the number of senior adults in the church. “We’re hit with the two demographics of an older membership and a lot of refugees. We want to keep them safe,” he said, but noted that many of the refugees have voiced that they are eager to return.
To prepare for reopening, Forest Park had a Zoom leadership meeting where it was decided to purchase masks for all attendees. It has a good supply of hand sanitizer, which should be enough to meet that need. Its sanctuary seats about 300, so Wood thinks that the distancing requirement can easily be met.
There are no immediate plans to resume small groups when in-person services return. Also, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, both primarily Bible study times, will not resume right away.
“From what I see, people need to be flexible,” Wood said. “You have people with varied opinions — some think it’s a hoax and you need to meet, and on the other end, you have people who are afraid they will get it. We want to be as safe as possible. We want to be prudent — we want to get back, but there’s no sense in getting in a rush.”
Todd Gray, the executive director-treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said the leadership teams know their churches better than anyone else.
"As they pray together and seek wise counsel from a variety of sources, I have every confidence that Kentucky Baptist leaders will reopen their individual church buildings at the best time and in the safest way for the context and requirements of their unique congregation."