By Lonnie Wilkey
FRANKLIN — As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, Christians can draw encouragement from Scripture and the history of the church, said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
In comments March 16 to a group of pastors across the state via a conference call and later to TBMB staff, Davis said the church has always faced “the most difficult moments with courage, hope and help. Both our character and Christ will be revealed by our response to this crisis.”
Davis challenged the pastors and TBMB staff to “look at this moment as the greatest opportunity in our lifetimes to do something great for God. We will not simply do the best we can and we will not simply survive. … Our goal is more than just surviving as a ministry, but to thrive on our mission.
“We will seize this God-given opportunity and excel in service for His glory,” Davis pledged.
Davis observed that in the days ahead churches will have “unparalleled opportunities to be the hands and feet of Christ and we’re going to have incredible ways to serve.”
At the same time, however, Davis offered a note of caution to churches about holding services.
“I am encouraging churches to suspend their in-person worship services for the next several weeks. This is a difficult perspective for me to come to but based on personal conversations with a number of medical experts, I believe it is the responsible contribution we can all make to limit the rapid spread of the virus,” he said.
“I believe this statement from one of the medical experts speaking into this sums up our reality: ‘Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate.’ ”
Davis stressed that this position “is not succumbing to pressure from the government or any other interest. This is temporary … and is a strong suggestion based on the volume of information we, as mission board leadership, have carefully considered for two weeks.”
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Conversation with pastors
Bruce Chesser, pastor of First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, and president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, co-hosted the conference call with pastors from across the state in an effort gain a better understanding of how churches are ministering during a pandemic the world has not seen since 1918 when the Spanish flu circulated around the world.
Chesser noted that First Baptist has a backpack ministry that provides food to needy children over weekends when they are not in school. He said the church has been in contact with local schools and they have indicated they will continue to get the backpacks distributed to children while they are out of school as well.
Tom McCoy, pastor of Thompson Station Church, Thompson’s Station, shared that his congregation has collected donations of food for a local food bank. In addition, the church “has upped” its ministry to widows, McCoy said.
Davis noted that Baptist centers in associations across the state also are trying to determine the best way to minister to families who need food and other items. One of the best ways to distribute food and supplies is delivery, he suggested. “Use a lot of hand sanitizer and deliver the meals or food to the front porch and ring the doorbell.”
Davis also added that Tennessee Baptist and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief officials have been approached by the Center for Disease Control about using volunteers to deliver meals. As of now, Davis said he does not know what the response will be. “There’s a lot of questions that haven’t been answered that we need to get answers to. Hypothetically, we would have churches that have great capacity to prepare meals in their kitchens and then those meals would be delivered in hot boxes to people who have been quarantined.”
With schools across the state announcing they will be closed until, in some cases, mid-April or later, child care is an issue some churches are seeking to address.
“We’re not really sure how long this will last, but we know for certain that there will people that might have to go to work over the next few weeks and that will leave their children unattended,” observed Cesar Arocha, senior associate pastor of Dallas Bay Baptist Church, Hixson.
Arocha noted that some ladies and college students in the church have come forward and said they would be willing to provide childcare in homes if needed. “That’s one of the things that we’re going to start brainstorming through today,” Arocha said.
The pastors also talked about the financial implications that churches, the associations, the state convention and the SBC may face if people are out of work for any length of time and offerings decrease.
“I think it’s going to put a strain on all of us … but I’m not in any kind of panic mode at all,” Davis said. “I think we’ve got a golden opportunity to reshape things and to respond in a manner that is healthy.”
He noted the TBMB has been and will continue to provide resources for churches on how to implement online giving for their members as well as how to provide online services if needed.
Meeting with TBMB staff
Davis shared similar thoughts with TBMB staff during an afternoon meeting on March 16.
He told staff that decisions have been made after listening to non-partisan influencers like the CDC as well as the governor and local leaders. “We are beginning to understand the worst that can happen. We also are beginning to understand our responsibility to run headlong at this crisis with a ‘God is able’ attitude.”
Davis said the TBMB response is “all about prudence, not panic” and “wisdom, not fear.” The TBMB leader observed that the organization’s mission, vision and values “will guide us in these uncharted waters.”
Noting that the core values are Relationships, Innovation, Stewardship and Excellence (RISE), Davis pledged that the TBMB “will energetically and intentionally connect like never before with those we serve and we will orchestrate, collaborate and cooperate to find answers to questions we have never had to ask before.”
Davis also pledged that the TBMB will respond with innovation to “discover needs and utilize our resources to meet those needs in our communities with and through churches and associations. We will be proactive as needs and opportunities are discovered without waiting to be called on by a third party,” he added. “We will communicate widely with each other and the people we serve.”
Davis also emphasized stewardship. “We will be very resourceful and will best use those resources which God has placed in our hands.” He added that a team from the TBMB will formulate “The Joseph Plan” that prepares the Board for a time of economic downturn.
“The Joseph Plan will focus on both effectiveness and efficiency,” Davis said. “We must take all our resources and do new and creative ministry opportunities while maintaining mission critical priorities.”
Davis stressed that everything that will be done with excellence. “We will shine as His light and we will RISE to the occasion.”
Davis outlined some immediate steps for the TBMB staff. Among them:
• All scheduled TBMB-related events beginning March 16 through April 30 will be suspended, including activities at TBMB camps and conference centers.
• The Church Support Center will remain open for limited staff. “The work of the TBMB is not bound to a building nor is it defined by a single geographic location,” Davis said. Services such as recording podcasts and video messaging from the CSC as well as mail services and accounting activities will be conducted from the CSC, he noted. Other staff members will work from their homes from March 17 through April 30 or further notice.
• The switchboard at the CSC will be open. Call 615-373-2255 if you need to speak to a TBMB staff member.
• TBMB-related travel will be suspended from March 17 until April 30 or until further notice. As needed, TBMB staff will conduct conferences or meetings through ZOOM or video messaging, Davis said.
The TBMB leader assured the staff he is praying for them and families, in addition to Tennessee Baptist ministers, churches, associations and ministry partners, that “we will indeed rise to this unparalleled moment in history. It is ripe with opportunity for Great Commandment actions and Great Commission advancement.”