The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 04, 2021 1:00 am

Tending to flock outweighs fear of falling ill

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Steve Johnson has spent the last year trying to shepherd his church during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And like many other pastors and religious leaders who have continued to minister to their flocks despite personal risk, last month, he fell victim to the virus.

My husband and I had just started regularly attending Waynedale Baptist Church several months before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last year. Since that time, I have watched as the church has taken several steps to help keep the congregation safe. Congregants have been asked to wear masks, social distancing was implemented, pews and other areas are regularly sanitized and service continues to be offered online for those who are worried about attending in-person.

But even all those precautions weren't enough to protect Johnson from the one thing that's vital to a pastor's profession: people.

“As far as finding the philosophy in the desire to minister and the desire to stay healthy, for me that has always been a non-event,” Johnson says. “I've never thought, 'Should I visit?' or 'Should I shepherd in this capacity because of the risk of being sick.' That has never been a contemplation for me. Maybe it's ignorance, I don't know.

“I have counted the cost for the congregation for a year, and daily.”

Johnson says he feels like the church for the most part has been spared from the virus. He is aware of 17 confirmed COVID-19 cases, but he also realizes there may be more that he doesn't know about.

So that's why it was a surprise and a concern when at first the church's deacons contracted COVID-19 last month, followed by Johnson and his wife.

The church had to cancel services and revert to only online services for two weeks.

It could be a possibility that I, along with my husband, was one of those 17. My husband caught the virus in March 2020 and I caught it in December. Unfortunately, my husband had just had breakfast with the pastor a few days prior to my testing positive for the virus. But he took it in stride when my husband let him know of my results. Once I recovered, I was able to apologize in-person for putting him at risk.

But Johnson knows the risks of pastoring, especially during a pandemic, and yet he still continues his work.

I often see Johnson stop and talk to congregants on Sunday mornings. He still makes altar calls. Communion is offered. Baptisms are held, and when possible, church events.

And today there is Easter service, which often records the largest attendance for churches among the Christian holidays. For the small church along Lower Huntington Road, I'm sure the increased attendance in the wake of social distancing will be a challenge.

While Johnson says the church has the responsibility to protect the physical health of those who attend services, and to “the people who don't attend our church,” the main mission, he says, is to make Christ known. “That hasn't changed,” Johnson says.

And to do that, he needs to be at church.

“It has been strange,” Johnson says. “The thing I hear overwhelmingly when I talk to other pastors is that they didn't teach us about this in seminary. They couldn't anticipate this that comes with the pandemic.

“(The) biggest thing is all the new experiences and new decisions that have had to be made when we have no expertise or experience in those particular matters.”

Johnson says it's been a weekly barrage of “what's next.” 

And the virus has had effects in other ways. The church normally offers two Sunday morning services, but leading up to Easter, it has only held one.

In addition, Johnson says Waynedale Baptist has seen a drop in the number of congregants in the last year. Pre-COVID, there were between 300 to 400 people who attended each month. Now, the average attendance is about half.

Johnson says he tries not to get too connected to ideas or predictions about what things will look like for the church moving forward. He believes that even when COVID-19 won't be a part of people's daily vernacular, churches will still feel the effects of the virus.

“I don't think things will ever quite be the same,” he says. “It's left a mark on all American congregations that won't go away. ... American culture will have a new expectation for churches.”

The church will continue to livestream services and look at other ways, including additional technology mediums, to spread its message, Johnson says.

However, he realizes that things are going to be different now, especially as COVID has changed “the way we think about human interaction and about getting out,” he says.

It is true that as a regular church attendee, the pandemic has changed how and when I go to church. Admittedly, since service at Waynedale recently has been reduced to one, I have stayed home and watched services online. I also stayed home early on in the pandemic even when the church opened back up after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

And while there has been discussion about how there is a need for people to attend church, Johnson says what's often not talked about is how pastors also need to be with their congregants.

“I miss the human touch and I need to be with my flock,” Johnson says. 

It's why he will continue ministering to others despite the risks.

“The determination to bless and nurture,” he says, “has never gone away despite the risks of COVID.”

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