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With everything affected, COVID forced churches and SBC to be flexible

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NASHVILLE (BP) – Everything, it seems, changed on Wednesday, March 11.

By then Southern Baptists were aware of the mysterious, flu-like illness – at that point simply referred to as “the coronavirus” – that had originated out of central China. Baptist Press’ first mention of it came Feb. 4 when Peter Yanes, executive director of Asian American Relations & Mobilization for the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, urged discernment as misinformation spread across social media that had led to racial stereotyping and xenophobia regarding Asian Americans.

It’s difficult to recall now as 2020 draws to a close, with COVID-19 having permeated virtually every aspect of life – and causing millions of deaths worldwide. But last winter, if most people were aware at all, news of a new coronavirus seemed to be a distant issue, of limited concern. Yanes first heard of the virus from his sisters, who live in Hong Kong.

“It was isolated cases,” Yanes said. “Very isolated, very local. I couldn’t even imagine that we would get to here (in Dec. 2020), and it became a global pandemic.”

The year 2020 brought many challenges. In the United States, what had already promised to be a tense election campaign was roiled by racial tension, protests and civil unrest. But the injection of a nasty, highly contagious virus undoubtedly exacerbated and heightened tensions. The economy was staggered by shutdowns. Jobs were lost. More important, lives were, too – and countless more were altered in a year like none other in recent memory. 

In the SBC, the pandemic led to at least a temporary pause of in-person worship by the vast majority of churches and to postponement or cancellation of countless other events, including the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting.

At year’s end, with deaths in the United States having climbed past 300,000, the overall impact of the global pandemic seemed immeasurable. And though the arrival of vaccines – after an unprecedentedly rapid process of trials and approval – had provided hope for a return to something approaching normalcy in 2021, its end remained uncertain.

But in the winter of 2020, the recognition that everything would change came slowly, both to the SBC and the world.

  • Feb. 13 – SBC Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd, alongside Yanes, hosted a teleconferenced prayer call with some 30 other ethnically diverse SBC leaders.
  • Feb. 28 – The International Mission Board organized a task force to address the impact of the coronavirus on missionaries as well as churches planning trips. The task force would later recommend postponing travel. The IMB pulled many missionaries home to the U.S.; at year’s end, many still remained stateside, though plans to return to the field were underway.
  • March 6 – An Alabama mission team in Israel became one of many groups of Southern Baptists held up from returning home due to COVID-19 concerns.
  • March 6 – The SBC Executive Committee issued a statement on the coronavirus and its potential impact on the annual meeting to be held in Orlando less than 100 days away. At that point, the EC resolved to continue with plans to meet while issuing a commitment “to creating a safe and responsible gathering [while keeping] the health and safety of messengers and attendees our top priority.”

The last normal Wednesday, finding new ways

Southern Baptist churches held mid-week services March 11 as they had other Wednesdays. However, it would be the last “normal” one for the foreseeable future. Since then, church suppers, prayer services, Bible study groups and children and youth ministries continue to be impacted.

Earlier that day many churches would have balked at postponing services due to the spread of COVID-19. Soon however, postponement of the NBA and NHL regular seasons as well as the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments demanded a reassessment. Add to that school systems shutting down temporarily and many churches followed, postponing in-person gatherings on Sunday, March 15. Many more followed suit the next Sunday.

First Baptist Church of Dallas drew 2,000 to on-site worship March 15, but Pastor Robert Jeffress told BP the next day that the historic congregation would meeting purely online the following Sunday.

“The situation is changing,” Jeffress said. “We felt like since the city allowed it, and given where we were last week, that we wanted to have our people together as much as possible for the encouragement they need, but also to send a message that we were not fearful.

“A.W. Tozer said, ‘A scared world needs a fearless church.’ But we also believe God wants us to exercise common sense. And with the new CDC guidelines that just came out … we made the decision that we will be totally online next week with our worship services.”

As the need to go online became crucial, many churches realized they were not prepared for such a move. In addition to joining physically for Bible study, prayer and preaching, churches – particularly rural ones – also relied on in-person meetings to receive donations and were not ready to move tithing and giving online. On March 20, LifeWay announced it would provide its online giving platform to churches for free, as well as price cuts on discipleship and discussion books.

As giving decreased – partly because churches weren’t meeting, but also because of the economic downturn – many churches, as well as several SBC entities, participated in the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the federal CARES Act stimulus package passed in spring 2020 that provided forgivable loans to cover employee payroll, utilies and rent or mortgage payments. By late July, many churches had reported a rebound in tithes through online giving.

Meanwhile, drive-in services grew in popularity for those churches wanting to have some form of gathering together. Congregations continued to grow in familiarity with online tools and strategies. Perhaps pastors’ biggest personal adjustment came through delivering a sermon to a camera, minus the faces they had grown accustomed to seeing each week.

Although many churches later resumed meeting – almost all following social distancing guidelines – virtual participation remained a fixture; many reported attendance lower than previous averages. In some locations, churches found themselves in conflict with governmental restrictions on in-person gatherings, raising constitutional issues of religious liberty that sometimes were resolved in court.

Seminaries quickly joined the online format, cancelling in-person classes to try and help stop the spread.

“Right now, love of neighbor means that we’re going to have to interrupt the way we do theological education and college education in order to be responsive to the needs that are now presented to us by the COVID-19 challenge,” R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in March.

In response to the economic downturn, seminaries tightened and cut budgets. Other financial measures included freezing salaries and staff reductions. But the seminaries reported optimistic projections for the future. The seminaries returned to in-person instruction for the fall semester, with modifications and enhanced safety protocols.

On March 19, Floyd published an open letter to Southern Baptists, commending them on their efforts to continue in ministry during trying times.

“God is using this global pandemic to bring us together, to communicate with one another regularly, and to sharpen our focus like never before,” he said. “We are doing all we can with all God has entrusted to us to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in every town, every city, every state and every nation.”

Annual meeting canceled

Not since World War II had Southern Baptists failed to meet annually. However, the Executive Committee announced March 24 that COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the annual gathering, which had been set for June in Orlando. The decision came through a unanimous vote of the group composed of SBC officers, the SBC Executive Committee and leaders of the SBC’s boards and institutions.

At the time of the announcement there were nearly 400,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and more than 17,000 deaths (in the U.S., more than 46,000 cases and almost 600 deaths). The Orlando meeting was anticipated to be the largest such gathering in recent memory, on par with the 12,000 who attended the 2010 annual meeting, also in Orlando.

The meeting’s cancellation led to North Carolina pastor and SBC president J.D. Greear serving a third term alongside other officers.

“In one sense, this was a difficult decision for us. Gathering regularly to hear about the great things God is doing in the present and to seek His face together for the future is an essential part of who we are as a Convention, and we will be saddened to forego this opportunity in June,” Greear wrote in a column posted the same day.

“But in another sense, this decision was easy. Our purpose in coming together is to support one another in Gospel mission and to better catalyze our collective mission efforts. This year, the best way to accomplish that purpose is by NOT meeting together.”

Entities cut budgets

COVID-19 brought an immediate economic downturn, as from February to May the number of unemployed Americans grew by more than 14 million. An unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in February had reached 14.4 percent by April and, as such, Southern Baptist entities had to make adjustments alongside everyone else.

In September, the SBC Executive Committee adopted a Cooperative Program Allocation Budget reflecting a 5 percent drop from the one projected at the group’s February gathering. Normally its approval would have been considered at the SBC annual meeting, but due to the meeting’s cancellation, the responsibility fell to the EC. Despite the downturn, giving to the Cooperative Program during the 2019-20 fiscal year totaled $192.9 million, 1.83 percent lower than the projected budget of $196.5 million.

An initial shortfall of $4 million as the economy shut down during the spring led to spending cuts and a hiring freeze at the International Mission Board. In September, IMB trustees ultimately approved a 2020-21 budget at 4.5 percent less than 2019-20. The North American Mission Board instituted a budget freeze on discretionary spending in March. At its fall meeting, trustees approved a budget reflecting a 20 percent cut from last year’s budget.

LifeWay Christian Resources, which had been facing economic headwinds before the pandemic, saw a steep decline in revenue during the downturn. Trustees unanimously approved a 2020-21 budget of $210 million, a reduction of 17 percent year over year. COVID’s impact brought an immediate punch to LifeWay, as cancellations of summer camps and women’s events led to missing the 2019-20 budget by $61 million, said President and CEO Ben Mandrell.

As 2020 drew near its close, the pandemic continued, with COVID-19 surging even as the first vaccines were being delivered. It was uncertain when a return to normalcy would be fully realized – or whether on the other side of the pandemic, normal would be something different. And yet, a weary world of Southern Baptists rejoiced in recognition of a simple truth: The advance of the Great Commission was not thwarted.

“This global pandemic,” Yanes said, “became an opportunity to learn new possibilities for doing ministry that we’d never even thought of in the past. People became very creative. They still focused on the Gospel message. We embraced the new ways of delivering the message of the Gospel, and took advantage of it.”