Based on recent numbers compiled by the TBMB, more than 800 pastors and staff members have battled COVID-19 since last spring. Some have recovered quickly. Others have endured extended struggles. Some have passed away.
Here are just a few of the stories — straight from pastors themselves — about how the virus affected their personal lives and their ministry.
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — In recent weeks, the Baptist and Reflector has contacted many pastors and church leaders who have battled COVID-19. Here is what they had to say about their experience with the virus in their own words.
West End Baptist Church, Columbia
I had the virus through the month of November into early December.
My symptoms were rough. I had a horrible cough, overwhelming fatigue, and fever for 10 days. I then developed pneumonia, which required me to stay in ICU stepdown for six days at Maury Regional Hospital in Columbia.
My wife also caught the virus, but not as severe.
The illness had a big impact on my ability to minister to my congregation. My lack of strength and fatigue essentially limited my ministry to a couple of phone calls. My assistant and worship leader, Randy Howell, kept the office going while also scheduling folks to help provide food, etc. for us.
In December, he (Howell, my worship leader) tested positive for the virus along with his wife, my ministry assistant and her family.
My worship leader ended up in the hospital with a severe case. It was frustrating not being able to see him. Unfortunately, his condition worsened, which led to being put on a ventilator. After a week, his organs began to fail, and he passed away. The family was allowed two people to see him before they removed the machine. I could not be with my brother and co-worker in the ministry nor could I be with his family. That has been hard during this time.
In general, the virus has increased the stress level. Knowing when to meet, when to cancel and how to keep members safe certainly weighs on my heart. The second issue — I am not sure this would be considered stress — relates to the inability to be at the hospitals and assisted living centers to be with my members.
While I was in the hospital, I was able to experience firsthand the feeling of being isolated, not just for me, but for my family and members who could not be with me in the hospital.
Hopefully, this pandemic has made me a better minister. I have been challenged to find new ways to encourage our members, even though I am unable to be with them personally. I have also been stretched to find new ways to reach people through technology.
Even after we get back to some semblance of normalcy (whatever that might be), we will continue to discover new ways to use technology to enhance our ministry and to share the gospel.
Sand Ridge Baptist Church, Lexington
My wife, two daughters, and my mother-in-law, who lives with us, all tested positive for the virus in July. (I’m convinced my dog had it, too — not kidding!)
My symptoms were mild compared to many. I recovered at home and did not require a hospital stay.
I was unable to preach but continued to stay in contact with our church family by phone, text, social media, etc. Our church closed for the entire month of July due to our entire staff being in quarantine for COVID.
My wife’s dad passed away from COVID in New Orleans on April 26. That is why her mom now lives with us. Her dad was the primary caregiver, and his passing was tragic and transformational for our family.
COVID has definitely increased the stress on pastors. Our church has experienced three shutdowns. We’ve had around 130 cases, five deaths to date, and have had multiple staff members retire/resign related to COVID.
Like many churches we’ve had to create online platforms and enhance our existing social media presence.
A significant source of stress is that even though a large percentage of church members are not attending in person services during the pandemic, they still crave, need and seek spiritual support. Before COVID they would get that spiritual encouragement and support from small groups, ministry teams, Sunday School, etc.
But now, with those avenues closed to them, they turn to the pastor. He becomes the contact person for prayer requests, counseling and burden-bearing for hundreds of people who aren’t getting the week by week support they have been blessed with for years during “normal times.”
Now, the majority of their church contact is directed to the pastor (or another staff member) who is taking many more calls, answering many more texts, responding to many more e-mails, etc., than normal. The crush of needs directed to the pastor, many of which were formerly directed to and addressed by the church program, is overwhelming. I anticipate many pastors who are near retirement age stepping away from pastoral ministry due to the avalanche of needs he is being forced to meet due to COVID. It is a spiritually unhealthy situation.
COVID has stretched me in ministry. I was forced to develop competence. I don’t know if the word “better” describes its impact on me, but it has definitely caused me to be more adaptive in my ministry.
Director of Missions
Carroll-Benton Baptist Association
I was diagnosed with COVID on November 20, 2020 and I am still suffering from Long COVID.
I have had symptoms for almost two months. This has included heart issues and liver issues.
The doctors believe all my symptoms are COVID-related.
I have been in the hospital twice in the past two months. COVID entered my chest area and caused muscular-skeletal inflammation of my chest wall.
This inflammation caused my heart to beat rapidly for two weeks while getting very little sleep.
These health problems — along with the little sleep — made me have a seizure. (The seizure happened) while I spoke with a GI doctor, concerning my liver. I was in his office speaking to him when (it happened). I have been able to do very little the last month and a half.
I have visited doctor after doctor, attempting to get answers concerning all the things that COVID has done to me.
My wife contracted COVID before I did. I believe I actually caught it from her.
COVID has placed a lot of stress upon both my wife and I. I am not able to drive because I am still so weak and shaky.
I want to get back to work ASAP, but COVID is keeping me away for now. I have many ministry goals I would like to see fulfilled, but I feel at a loss as to how to accomplish these things while sidelined by the virus. I have had to learn how to trust God despite all of the health problems I am experiencing.
I know that life and death are in His hands and I must trust the promise of Romans 8:28 that “in all things God works together for the good of those who love him.” All things means ALL things — both good things and bad things.
God is working for my good even in the bad things that come our way in life. I must remember this!
Minister of Music and Worship
First Baptist Church, Joelton
I had COVID-19 in late June /early July.
I have some preexisting conditions that make me high risk (asthma, heart). But thankfully my case was only mild to moderate in severity. I was able to recover at home.
The intense coughing and breathing difficulties caused me to completely lose my voice, which made it difficult to speak and impossible to sing for several weeks. Long term, the cough comes back from time to time, along with shortness of breath, and it has made my voice more susceptible to laryngitis. I had to heavily lean on some wonderful leaders in our Worship Arts Ministry, including the very capable members of our Worship Arts Staff.
My wife, Juliann, had the virus at the same time I had it. Not really sure who got it first.
It has greatly added to the stress level, not just from my personal health standpoint, but from the standpoint of ongoing ministry and worship leadership. We are blessed with a very strong Worship Arts ministry, including a very committed Worship Choir and outstanding Student Worship Arts groups, along with excellent instrumentalists and an extremely capable Media Team.
Since COVID-19 struck, many of our groups have not yet been able to return. Like most churches, we had to strongly rely on our livestream capabilities, and for some time, we were using only myself and two keyboards for worship services. Our media team had to work under very stressful conditions. And that’s just the start.
I believe it has helped (my ministry) in a variety of ways. I have always cared for the folks in our church and my ministry, but this has caused a more intense focus on their day to day concerns.
From a practical standpoint, it has caused me to work to refine and further develop my skills in certain areas such as media and technology, in order to better communicate and facilitate worship both in person and online.
First Baptist Church, Morristown
The period that I had the virus was the sickest that I have ever been in my life. It greatly affected my respiratory system and I made one trip to the emergency room. Thankfully, I did not have a stay in the hospital.
In 46 years of ministry, I had never before missed a Sunday preaching due to illness. I had to be out two straight Sundays while I had the virus.
Thankfully, I am back to almost 100 percent now.
(From a church leadership standpoint), one of the toughest things is that it’s been virtually impossible to do any kind of long-term planning.
We operate with a vision for the future and the virus has made it almost impossible to do short-term planning and very difficult to do long-term planning until we have a better grip on how the virus will end up. We have spent several hours in staff meetings putting together a plan, only to have the plan changed a week later due to extenuating circumstances.
There are two extreme views held by people concerning the virus. One group thinks this is no bigger than catching a cold or getting the flu. The other group is absolutely terrified of getting the virus. One group thinks masks are a joke. The other group thinks we should sleep in a mask. One group thinks church ministry should be wide open without any restrictions. The other extreme believes that we should be online only. The great political divisions in our nation have contributed to these two extreme views as well.
The cancelation and postponement of many traditional annual events (has been extremely hard). Easter, VBS and much of the Christmas season were all observed virtually. Our annual Living Christmas Tree had to be canceled as well as a number of other smaller church events.
One huge positive from this, though, is that our media views have been up 69 percent over the previous year and we have had a number of decisions for Christ.
Long Heights Baptist Church, McKenzie
I contracted COVID in August of last year. … (and) I was the sickest I have ever been.
I was in the hospital for 10 days with bilateral COVID pneumonia and spent one day (in) ICU and on the ventilator. God used remdesivir (antiviral medication) and convalescent plasma to turn the downslide around.
I have an incredible church family that I have served alongside of for almost 21 years now and they were very gracious during my recovery. For at least two months, I was very limited as to what I could do. The weakness that followed my round with COVID was far more extensive than I anticipated. It wasn’t a matter of pushing through — I simply could not do much at all. I was out of the pulpit for a month.
My wife, Jackie, also had the virus.
Throughout much of 2020, the virus completely changed (many things for pastors) — changing the way you deliver the sermons, etc.
(Our church was) virtual on Facebook, YouTube, as well as having drive-in services for a month. Making sure all is in place to deliver these venues with excellence was stressful. Plus being disconnected from your church family is hard.
God is so good and so faithful, He has been true to His promise James 1:2-4: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
I believe I may have taken for granted how great a privilege it is to actually gather and worship and study God’s Word in small groups. NOT ANYMORE!
Worship Team, Deacon, LifeGroup leader
Third Baptist Church, Murfreesboro
I tested positive for COVID-19 in early November. My wife also had it at the same time.
The virus was certainly hard for me. I have asthma, so my symptoms were pretty rough with coughing, labored breathing, sinus and dizziness. I was able to recover from home, thankfully.
I was unable to attend church for about six weeks. It would have been impossible for me to wear a mask with the labored breathing problems I was having. So, it pretty much shut down any involvement I had with Sunday worship and even online LifeGroup meetings.
I believe the pandemic has most definitely added to the stress levels for all our pastors and those of us that are involved as deacons, Life Group leaders, and worship leaders.
The “church” is not just the building we come to — it’s the people that we worship with. We were designed to live and worship in community and in personal connection with one another. So, it can feel very isolating not to be able to do that.
There were a couple really dark days there where it seemed like I was on the edge of needing to go to the hospital. It was a good reminder that God determines not only our steps but even our next breath. It was also a good reminder that time is short and that we are not promised another day. We need to be bold in sharing our faith and the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
Pleasant View Baptist Church, Clarksville
I had COVID in late September. I would consider my symptoms to have been moderate.
Many of my friends kept insisting I go to the hospital after describing to them what I was experiencing.
Some of them were even health workers, but I prayed about it and actually said to God in my prayer at one point, “If I don’t sense at least a little progress during the next hour, I’ll go to the hospital.” An hour later, I was breathing easier and never went to the hospital.
I missed the three biggest events of 2020. We have a ministry called F.A.I.T.H. Riders and our annual ride was at the end of September. We had a record number of people involved in the ride (close to 50 people, I’m told).
Later that evening, we had a “Night of Music” with the McNeills who are one of the best Christian music groups our church has ever hosted. Then, the next day was homecoming, where the McNeills again shared their music with us and a former member who is now a pastor came back to our church to preach. I missed all of that and because “the pastor was home with COVID,” word spread that I had the virus and people quit coming to church.
Our attendance has not rebounded completely since that time. At that time, we were running about 90 to 100 in worship, which was a rebound after dipping into the 30s in May. Now, we are only running in the 50s.
Both my wife and daughter caught the virus from me. My wife is a health worker, who works for a group of ophthalmologists. My daughter is a first grade teacher. Obviously, this impacted their ability to work as well.
(Having the virus) caused me to move past flexibility and enter the realm of fluidity.
It has helped me see God’s hand in all things, even some of the worst of circumstances. Even though some circumstances are bad, God is always good and is doing something good in the life of His people.
First Baptist Church, Ridgetop
I developed COVID symptoms Dec. 16 and tested positive on the 17th. I had symptoms for the next three weeks. I had the full range of symptoms from dry cough, fever, and chills when I first became symptomatic to pneumonia and difficulty breathing after a week or so. I did make two trips to the ER where they confirmed I had COVID in my lungs and pneumonia. The second trip ended in an overnight stay at the hospital for observation on my heart.
It’s just me and my wife at home — and I quarantined from everyone, including my wife, for twenty-eight days. She quarantined with me working from home the whole time. She tested negative in three different tests during that time and was able to return to work after the third test.
There was much initial stress when I tested positive. The day before, I had participated in making and delivering fruit baskets to our most vulnerable, who were staying home because of the virus.
I also work with our youth and that evening we had our youth Christmas party. I was afraid I had spread the virus to others in the church.
And, honestly, we had about four different families come down with the virus about the same time that I did, including our music minister and his wife.
We immediately stopped all in-person activities including worship. We have been livestreaming — only the preaching — since that time. This Sunday, we hope to add a musical component to the livestream and our current plans are to get back into the building for worship on Feb. 7.
COVID has added to the stress of pastoring. We are a revitalization church and in March when we first stopped in-person meetings, we were beginning our fourth year of turnaround and seeing growth, both numerically and spiritually.
We reopened in June with half the attendance we saw in March. However, God was good, and we saw new people coming and had more member additions after reopening than we did in the six months before we closed down. We had just reached the attendance levels we were seeing in March when this latest shutdown took place.
Right now, I am more cautious than I was before my personal experience with COVID. I understood before why some were so afraid of this virus. Now I feel their fear.
Not for myself but for the many in our church who would be very vulnerable.
I’m not sure (the virus) has helped me be a better minister — that is yet to be seen. But I am always hoping to improve through my circumstances.
Riverside Baptist Church, Harriman
I had COVID-19 in December 2020 and was hospitalized for three days!
It dramatically impacted my ministry and I was not able to preach for over three weeks.
I’m still not completely well. I’m continually having shortness of breath and intermittent memory issues due to the COVID fog. I have had to bury church members who have died with COVID-19.
It has been very stressful and detrimental to our church services and ministry!
Bartlett Hills Baptist Church, Bartlett
I had COVID in late October, and I am still dealing with the after effects.
My symptoms were very severe. I was in the hospital for 29 days. I have been home for six weeks and am still on oxygen and doing physical therapy. I (returned) to preaching on Sunday, Jan. 24.
My wife, Denise, and son, Barrett had COVID with more minor symptoms and my aunt had a fairly serious case.
My illness totally shut me down. All of my energy in the hospital was focused on getting off of the oxygen machines and returning home. Thank the Lord, I have a wonderful and capable staff.
I had to turn the vast majority (97 percent) of decision making over to them. They kept me in the loop, but I was in no condition to make decisions at that point.
Our student pastor preached for four Sundays and then Jeff Jones, campus pastor at Memphis BCM, has preached the last several weeks.
When I was in the hospital and then recovering from home, there was nothing that I could do — so the stress of decision making, sermon prep, outreach/inreach, and all the day-to-day stresses that pastors have were placed on others. But, at the same time, (there was an added level of stress) you are wondering how your church is doing, how your people — whom you love — are coping and dealing with COVID and the stresses of their lives.
Having the virus has made me a better pastor by giving me an even greater love for people, especially the elderly, who are isolated and need someone to reach out to them to let them know they are not forgotten. It reinforced the idea that life is, or could be, shorter than one expects.
Therefore, be intentional and don’t waste any ministry opportunities.
My hospital stay also reinforced the idea in my heart and mind that God is always giving us people to minister to and opportunities to share the gospel. I couldn’t get out of my hospital room for 29 days, so God sent doctors, nurses, cleaning personnel, physical therapists, etc., to my room.
They were very special to me, and I was in the hospital long enough to build relationships, have conversations and hopefully show the love of Christ to them. Being able to minister to these folks really gave me a sense of purpose in the hospital and helped my stay in the hospital bearable and in some ways, enjoyable.