COVID-19 poses challenges for church plants that gather in schools
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — As Tennessee Baptist churches begin to regather all across the state, it’s not that simple for every congregation, especially for church plants that meet in local schools.
“We’ve got quite a few of our church planters right now who are scrambling to find alternative spaces other than being an all online digital church,” observed Lewis McMullen, church planting specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
McMullen estimated that in the last three to four years, about 50 church plants have begun in schools and of those, about 30 are still meeting in a school. “As long as schools are closed, those churches cannot meet.”
In a podcast for Radio B&R (see Episode 42), McMullen said that most church plants meeting in schools will not be allowed back in those facilities until the fall, and even then, they are not sure they will have a spot on campus.
Many of the church planters have been told by the schools that the local school districts have not made a decision yet about outside groups, McMullen said.
While for the most part, in Tennessee, school systems have welcomed churches to use their facilities, COVID-19 has been a game-changer, the TBMB church planting specialist observed.
He noted that about 90 percent of the school systems have welcomed churches because it provides extra income and the churches normally provide ministry/services to the host school. “COVID-19 changed the whole landscape.”
McMullen said it is not a matter of the schools being cooperative. Instead, it has become a health and economic issue, he continued.
Now, schools are having to be concerned more about liability and if the schools are kept clean and sanitized, McMullen said. In addition, he continued, some church planters have been informed that school districts have had to reduce janitorial staff so there is no one to open the schools or clean after the church members have left.
Micah Creekmore, pastor of Living Water Church in Murfreesboro, affirmed that it is still unknown if they will be able to return to Blackman Elementary School where the church has met for the past three years.
“We are at a standstill, waiting to hear when and if we can get back in,” Creekmore said.
Though he is optimistic the church can return to the school, he does not anticipate it would happen before August when schools are scheduled to reopen. In the meantime, the church has been meeting at an outdoor pavilion about two miles from the school.
With hot weather approaching, the church is trusting that God will provide another alternative. “We are relying on the Lord,” he affirmed.
Phil Jones, administrative pastor for The Gathering at 840 in Franklin, reported a similar story. The church has been unable to meet at its regular location at Page Middle School since the pandemic began.
Jones said the church is waiting on the Williamson County School Board to make a decision on whether church groups can return to the schools. “We are expecting to go back but we don’t know,” Jones said.
In the meantime, the church held its first service on June 7 in the parking lot of Esperanza Church, a Hispanic congregation in nearby Spring Hill.
The church currently is exploring alternative meeting places, Jones said. “We are talking to everybody we can, but have not found anything yet,” he added.
Todd Humbert, pastor of The Greenhouse Church in Athens, also is looking for a meeting site as the church is unable to meet at McMinn County High School, where it has met for the past two years.
Humbert said he is not sure when outside groups can meet inside the school again. In the meantime, the church has had online services and a couple of “pop up” services in the back yards of members, the pastor noted.
The church hoped to regather on June 7. “We are looking for places to meet,” Humbert said.
Like many church plants, The Greenhouse Church has been in conversation with other churches about using their facilities at different times. They also have been exploring other options.
“We’re trusting God for a meeting place that will meet our needs and the needs of our community,” Humbert said, adding that the church also relies on God’s faithfulness.
“We have a whole book (the Bible) about the faithfulness of God. He’s going to keep being faithful,” the pastor maintained.
SoulQuest Church in Jackson appears to be one of the few exceptions to not being able to return to their previous place of worship. The church already has been back at Northside High School for four weeks, said pastor Ronnie Coleman.
“It wasn’t an issue for us,” he said.
McMullen encouraged Tennessee Baptist churches to pray for their sister churches who might not have a home after COVID-19 and to offer meeting space if that’s an option. He noted that as much of a challenge the pandemic has been for established churches, it has been more so for churches that have lost their meeting places in mid-year.
“Reach out to these planters any way you can and let them know you care,” McMullen said.