LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – COVID-19 has presented a problem for Ormsby Heights Baptist Church that other churches should want.
Pastor Chad Fugitt said the church can do only five baptisms a service to maintain social distancing within the church audience since families and friends should be able to witness the celebration.
Only five baptisms a service.
“Our in-person attendance is rising but we have to do strange things to keep our attendance right,” he said. “When we baptize people, we are limiting the number of baptisms to five per service, so we don’t get overrun with guests in that service. We want people to be able to invite friends and family and not feel pressured about being too close to anybody.”
Most churches would be overjoyed with five baptisms in a month, let alone each service, and especially so since the uninvited COVID-19 put a chokehold on everybody’s services and attendance.
“We just feel really blessed and encouraged about how the Lord is moving despite all the hardships we are walking through as a country right now,” said Fugitt, who was able to baptize five last Sunday who came forward after attending a Connect class for new members. Eleven more from a group of 75 in the Connect class also joined through letters.
Fugitt doesn’t wear a mask when he preaches but does slip one on for the invitation to let people know it’s OK to come forward if the Lord is urging them. “You can’t extend the right hand of fellowship, so I created this cadence. I say, ‘Repeat after me: All y’all, we’re happy that you joined the church.’ Then they repeat that, affirming their decision and welcoming them the only way we can right now through that cadence. I did it on the fly one time and, ever since then, more people are joining, so we do it over and over again.”
He said no complaints yet about how that pastor is doing something new because, with COVID, it’s a whole new ballgame.
“This COVID stuff is real. If you walk around like it’s not real, and don’t recognize the reality of this, you’re not being realistic,” he said. “It is real, but the gospel cannot be stopped. The gospel is not bound and the church is not bound.”
Ormsby Heights has bounced back strongly from the coronavirus after Fugitt, who had only become the church’s new pastor in mid-February, began reopening in calculated phases. He was just getting used to being behind the church pulpit when everything came crashing down because of COVID-19.
Fugitt said when they were able to start having in-person services again in June, he had to reintroduce himself. The church membership knew him more as their digital pastor, which was the Phase Zero approach instituted from March, April, and May with online services only, the pastor said.
In June, the church has had three services – Saturday night and two on Sunday mornings. They have Sunday School between the two morning services, Fugitt said.
“We have seen an increase in our attendance but still have people that are just watching online that don’t feel comfortable coming back, which is OK with us,” he said. “We understand and we’re grateful for them remaining with us despite the reality they’re walking in. They’re with us, deciding to walk with us through online rather than in person.”
Between the Sunday morning services and classes, there is time to sanitize the meeting rooms and the sanctuary.
“We clean them before everyone gets in and after everybody leaves,” he said of the Sunday School meeting rooms. “Same thing in our sanctuary. We’re doing social distance cleaning before and after both of those (morning) services.”
They have since started Wednesday night in-person services as well, he said. “By God’s grace, we’ve been able to do that without any hindrances.”
So far this month they have been celebrating memberships and Fugitt is doing a sermon series on the church covenant, which the church will be voting on in September. He said they are observing the Lord's Supper at the end of the month, too, with proper social guidelines.
“We’ve figured out ways to do it safely,” he said. “What we’re trying to encourage is, ‘Hey, this is not a great year for America. It’s not a great year for anybody. But we can celebrate the church, celebrate the gospel and celebrate one another.'”
The Connect class may have been his biggest surprise. They held that on Saturday night and 75 people showed up for a time of learning and fellowship. His wife, Jennifer, did the cooking – pork barbecue sandwiches, prepackaged chips, and desserts.
While it was essential for new members or those interested in becoming a new member, some of the older members wanted to come to get to know the pastor and his wife a little better too. “She’s awesome and a great cook, by the way,” he said.
The barbecue was prepared the night before and the large crowd surprised them a little. But there was enough to go around.
The next morning’s results were astounding when five came forward for baptism and 11 others for church membership.
Before COVID-19, the church had welcomed the Fugitts with open arms and packed out the church for each of his first two services.
“We were seeing a great response and then we had to come out with the video that we’re not going to meet in-person anymore (because of COVID),” he said. “It was tough on me and the church. In some ways, it’s extending my honeymoon at the church. They didn’t know me before; they just saw me online for several weeks. When we met in person, I said, ‘I’m Pastor Chad. I’m not virtual. I’m a real person.’ I’m still learning everyone’s names.”
However, in many ways, Fugitt’s leadership through a pandemic may have given the church an added boost of confidence in their new pastor who has also served this troubled year as president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
“Times like this, trying times in the life of a church, are times when a pastor can become the pastor,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for pastors to step up and be leaders and do so with a servant’s heart. The rule we’ve tried to use throughout the whole thing is ‘Let’s love our neighbors as we love ourselves.’”