PADUCAH, Ky. (BP) — The funeral of a youth pastor, his wife and two teenage sons was “the hardest thing I have ever done as the pastor of this church,” Justin Mason of Rosebower Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., said Oct. 8
Michael Cruce, the church’s youth pastor for more than 10 years, along with his wife Monica and teenage sons Joshua and Caleb were killed Oct. 3 in a six-car pileup near Nashville while traveling to Gatlinburg for a family getaway.
“The church and the youth group are standing on their faith,” Mason said prior to the funeral. “This is what Mike and Monica had taught them.”
Mason said Cruce now is “praising the Lord in heaven. Here he used to always use the word, ‘awesome.’ He would say, ‘We serve an awesome God.’ No doubt he is saying that now.”
Cruce also served as associate pastor, preaching as a substitute for Mason. Church spokesperson and deacon Chris Skates said Cruce often was one of the first at the hospital if a church member was ill or injured and, after an ice storm in 2009, for example, he and his sons cleared tree limbs from people’s yards. Cruce also was pursuing a master of divinity degree through Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
But it wasn’t just the youth pastor who was vital to the church. His wife led the girls in the youth group, and the whole family went on mission trips including one to Haiti.
“When you pull that away, four integral people,” Skates said, “there’s just going to be a huge hole in a church our size.”
Mason, in his funeral message to the grieving congregation, said Cruce “was one of those people that made you a better person.”
“This family served God with a passion — not just to be good before Him. They pointed you to Jesus,” Mason said. Rosebower Baptist’s former pastor, Kenneth Puckett, also officiated at the service.
The youth group has about 20 regular attendees at the church that draws about 250 Sunday worshipers in Paducah, a city in western Kentucky.
Raegan Archer, 15, said the group’s small size makes it feel like a family — one that is now mourning a huge loss. She said she was shocked when she first heard of the family’s passing, but the youth are coming together to mourn and heal.
Archer said Monica Cruce was especially helpful in her development as a Christian. She made girls in the youth ministry feel at home and “spent a lot of time listening to us talk about nonsense.”
“I might have been a Christian without knowing them,” Archer said, “but I don’t think I’d be as devoted and caring and as much of a servant as I am. They just really taught being a servant more than anything and caring about others before ourselves.”
Parker Wooley, one of the teens at the funeral, said of the Cruces, both 43: “He touched so many lives. Monica was like a second mother.” Wooley said her life “would have been very different without them.”
Shelby Webb, another youth group member, said Cruce “always messaged us [through social media]. He would send us notes nearly every day including TAWGs [Time Alone With God devotionals]. Monica largely ministered to us behind the scenes.”
Skates’ son Nathan, a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Missouri who was active in the youth group and close friends with Cruce and his sons, spoke of his memories of the two Cruce boys — Caleb climbing in his lap as a little boy, Joshua accidentally putting a hole in a church wall while playing ping pong.
“I always thought it was cool that out of my group of my friends, my youth pastor and his sons were some of my very best friends,” the younger Skates said, “and they really were like brothers. … It was just great to be around them as much as I got a chance to be.”
Skates added that Cruce “was so passionate about the Gospel and teaching youth about the Bible. If he doesn’t get to teach for a week or so it drives him crazy.”
Chris Skates said the church will have to heal before starting a search for a new youth pastor.
“We don’t know for sure how we’re going to handle it. We’re not in an emotional place that we can do a pastor search anytime soon,” Skates said. “So we’re probably going [to] do just something with interim folks temporarily until we have a chance to get our head around what our long-term plan is.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, said, “Our hearts go out to their extended family and to their church family where so many are grieving the loss of this beautiful family.”
In a seminary news release, Mohler also said, “[W]e thank God for the life and witness of Michael Cruce and his family. May his example and the testimony of this family now together with Jesus be an encouragement and a sober reminder of the fact that life is short and every day is precious. We also pray that the witness of this family will bring others to faith in Christ, even in death.”