By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BIRCHWOOD — While some bivocational pastors experienced reduced hours or off days because of COVID-19, it was just the opposite for Bob Schafer, pastor of Birchwood Baptist Church, Birchwood, northwest of Chattanooga.
Schafer, better known as Pastor Bob, serves as a chaplain for Signature Health Care which he services in the skilled nursing facilities in Cleveland, Spring City and Rockwood.
His workload has not decreased during the pandemic. He is the only chaplain for the three nursing homes and he ministers at each one on a rotating basis during the week, in addition to serving as pastor of Birchwood Baptist.
During COVID, Schafer was the only pastor who could go into the facilities so he was able to minister to the residents on a regular basis. “I’m just glad I was there,” he said.
COVID “put a damper” on not only his ministry at the nursing homes, but the church as well.
He acknowledged that the pandemic was hard on all ministers, but especially those who serve bivocationally. Bivocational pastors normally don’t have as many staff members as fully staffed churches, so “we had to fill the gaps,” Schafer said. ”We were blessed to have men work tirelessly in the audio and sound booth to adapt to the new needs.”
“It was an uncharted course.”
He noted he had to constantly juggle his ministry at the nursing home facilities depending on special needs and Birchwood Baptist. “You just do the best you can by God’s grace,” the pastor said.
“What kept me motivated was my calling to shepherd the flock,” Schafer said. “I couldn’t give up.”
Though the coronavirus has not gone away, the ministry at Birchwood is beginning to return to normal, the pastor said.
He estimated that the church is back to about 90 to 95 percent of its pre-COVID average attendance of 120-125 people weekly. When they met again in person for services last year, the church went to two morning services in order to social distance and help protect the members. They returned to one service about eight weeks ago, he said.
In addition, the church has begun meeting on Sunday nights again and is having about 60-70 percent of its Sunday morning attendance. “People are excited,” he said.
Schafer observed that it took a pandemic “to appreciate what some of the world has had to hide in order to experience” (public worship).
On a personal level, it was hard for Schafer because he faced sickness and the possibility of death almost on a daily basis at the nursing homes. Getting a firsthand look at the result of COVID made it tough to be a pastor and chaplain, he maintained.
“It was tough and it still hurts to see your people get sick,” said Schafer, who has also had COVID himself.
“2020 was the hardest year of ministry for me as a pastor,” he acknowledged.
But through it all, Schafer added, “God was faithful.”
His congregation at Birchwood Baptist stayed connected and continued to give through the pandemic and they shared Christ with their neighbors, Schafer said.
“We were still the church. We just were not able to worship together.” B&R