This interview is one part of a series written by our 2020 CBF Summer Ministry Intern, Emmaline Rogers.
Stephen and I met every Tuesday to discuss my internship. He sat with his legs crossed, leaning back in his chair, and always held a legal pad on one knee. We met outside most often, though towards the end of the internship we met in the conference room. That’s where I interviewed him. We sat diagonally from each other so that we could safely take our masks off. Stephen talks slowly when you ask him a deep question. He tells a story quickly, but when it comes to something close to his heart, his words slow as though to impress on the listener a stronger understanding of his intentionality. His vocabulary is that of a pastor’s, the vernacular of the pulpit, words and phrases lifted from the Bible due to the number of times he’s spoken them. He was unafraid of hard questions, of either asking or answering them, and I never once heard him give an answer that I could predict.
When Second Baptist stopped in-person worship, I was settling into a semester of online college courses. Since the start of my internship, I sat in on weekly discussions of how to run a church online, laughed at the joke about having become a televangelist, and became so familiar with the precautions the church needed to take for any and all in-person events that I could write a five-paragraph essay firmly outlining the implementation and implications of each. One thing I did not know, however, was what that initial decision looked like. “I was looking back just yesterday at some of the initial things we put out,” Stephen said. “On March the first, that Sunday, we put out a one page sheet of information and requests for people about how we would interact here in the church building. And then we put something out for our Parents’ Day Out families. It was based off of things that the CDC was saying, and it was also what our medical experts within our church were saying also…” A big consideration for the ministers and deacon officers who made the call to stop in person worship was that the average age of the congregation rests right around the high-risk category. “I think we also made that decision because we have to take seriously that our second greatest commandments is to love our neighbors,” he said, “and one of the best ways we could show love was to not put ourselves in a position where we could potentially be endangering people’s health and wellbeing, unintentionally so…It really was not a terribly hard decision about the stopping of in person worship. All of the other things that then started to follow about how will we do worship, how will we do Sunday school, how will we carry out our ongoing ministries and mission priorities and all of those sorts of things, that’s when we had to start getting really creative, and that’s where being part of the broader team of staff and lay leaders who serve together has been absolutely invaluable because just the sheer number of decisions that had to be made and the choices we faced, I can’t imagine having to do that in isolation. It was taxing but not overwhelming.”
I was curious to know how the changes to Stephen’s job were affecting him; we’d often discussed how his calling centers around being in person with people in order to listen to them and offer as much comfort as he could. The pandemic took his ability to do that. “The calling is to love God…My calling as a pastor is to serve the church through ministry to the people, with and among the people. And so there are a few different dimensions to it. On the one had, if you’re thinking about it from the institutional perspective, we had to quickly begin to adopt ways that we could continue to carry on the ministries of the church. We still worship every week. We’re still going to do those things, it’s just going to be different in how we do it. I said regularly in the spring, that I never set out to be a televangelist or a Christian homeschool parent, but by late March there I was. And so you just adapt and do what’s needed at the time in order to respond to what’s at hand. And I’ve worked really hard to be responsive and not reactive…The flip side of that is that so much of my personal pastoral identity is forged through relationships that are built with people, sharing time with people in one on one or in smaller gatherings and settings, particularly in care facilities, hospitals, nursing homes, people’s homes, things of that nature. And so to find myself in a place where I…couldn’t go [to hospitals] and be with people in their times of need, because the needs didn’t stop because of coronavirus, that has challenged me to be okay with a phone call instead of a visit. To be okay with the best gift I can give this person is to keep my distance. And that that would be a greater pastoral care gift on my part than showing up, where I could potentially expose someone to the virus, or be exposed to the virus. John Avis, our personnel committee chair, said to me early on, ‘I know you want to go and be with people in the hospitals, but the church as a whole needs you to be available to the church as a whole. So I’m asking you to not go to the hospitals.’ And I probably needed to hear that. Because that’s where I wanted to be. It wasn’t long after things had really begun to shut down throughout our community that one of our long-time, well-beloved saints of the church Bob Vowan went into the hospital and ended up being there for forty five plus days before he died. And I still have a hard time fathoming that here was a person from our church who was hospitalized for that long and I never got to see him in that setting. And of course his family was very understanding, didn’t want me to be there, but that’s a very rude awakening to the reality that is upon us right now, and where we can and can’t be, and where we should and shouldn’t be.”
I asked if he wanted a hard question; he acquiesced, and I asked him where God was in that, in his not being able to visit hospitals and be with people in that manner. “I think that we are shortsighted if we think that the challenges that we are experiencing right now within our culture, within our community, within our congregation, are somehow greater than what those who’ve gone before us have experienced and endured. I think about the meaning and the power of the incarnation. God shows up. I love Eugene Peterson’s rendering of John 1:14 in the message…[he] renders it as ‘Love moves into the neighborhood.’ I think that God is absolutely in the midst of this. Not for a minute do I think that God has somehow caused this. But I believe in the redemptive power of God. I believe that the God who can take even death and bring life out of that is the same God that comes among us in the middle of a global health pandemic and shows up in extraordinary ways where we would not be nearly so attuned if things were just going along ‘as normal.’ I have not found my faith, my belief in God’s commitment to life, shaken. And in fact, I find that it is only reaffirmed and I am all the more convicted of the truth of that the longer this goes on…There have been moments in some of our midweek noontime prayer gatherings when the power of Christ’s presence was palpable in those moments that we have shared together and prayed together. God is at work in this. And I can’t be persuaded otherwise. It would be too small of a God who can’t do something with this.”
The funeral services have been the most impactful ministry for Stephen this summer. He has loved seeing the number of people who are eager to volunteer to do the smallest, most menial tasks such as directing traffic in the midday summer sun. “It’s those kinds of things where the church has shown up, where we find ways to be church with and for one another. That’s been deeply meaningful for me.”
“I continue to have concern for how we can best communicate with those who are either not comfortable with technology or don’t have access to it,” he said. “I feel this persistent sort of back-of-my-mind awareness that we are missing somebody, we are missing some people, and trying to figure out how best to address those is something of a moving target.” One of the first things we spoke about at the beginning of my internship was the way the deacons function at Second. He was quick to tell me how grateful he was for their ministry. “Our deacons really really stepped up with making sure that every member of the congregation was getting contacted by a deacon at least once per month, and that has been a tremendous help in order to address some of those things.”
These past few months have been a process of experiments to see what works best for Second. “I think there’s something exhilarating and exhausting about trying so many new and different things. I think we’ve learned tremendous lessons about the ways we can be and do church. I’m really grateful for that. I said in last night’s business meeting as I was offering some closing thoughts that it has felt like…as church leadership we’ve not had much time to reflect on all that we’ve experienced and learned and sort of endured, but these weeks where it feels like we’re kind of in between all of the summer programming and ministry initiatives that we were adapting and whatever the fall is going to look like, it feels like we’re in a little window of time where we can do some of that reflective work, and so that’s been good, to be able to see that there’s really good stuff that’s come to be because of this, that I don’t think we would have discovered otherwise.”
“Personally…certainly the occasions to be together as a family have been by and large good. There’s no doubt that sort of the weight of all of the collective angst that’s in the air, it gets brought to bear I think on all of us in various and sundry forms and our family obviously has not been immune to that since we’re all still flesh and blood…But there’s something really comforting about knowing that my wife is in the next room doing her work, and then my boys are just up the stairs or in another part of the house, that kind of thing, getting to have lunch together on the days that I work from home…It’s been fun.” At the beginning of the summer, the Cook family had to put down their cat. Several months ago they got two kittens who became frequent visitors in Zoom meetings. Stephen has loved being able to watch them grow. “I don’t think that any of us should turn away from the realities of all that is out of sorts about our world right now. And at the same time I think we have to find places of respite in the midst of it, and with so much that seems as though it is coming undone, and is so out of sorts, it’s nice to have some kind of diversion that is just pure fun and pure joy, and to see new life that is growing.” The kittens have now tripled in size since the Cooks adopted them.
All things considered, Stephen believes his family has gotten along remarkably well. His wife, Amy, “is always finding ways to keep connected with people. Our associate pastor at the church we were in prior to coming here nicknamed her the Hospitality Hurricane. So she continues to find ways to help and serve and share with others.” His boys have read stacks of books and mastered numerous video games, he believes. Both of them expressed regret when their schools announced their plans for the fall, both involving some form of partial in-person and remote learning. “…I think that’s the hunger for something normal that’s being expressed.” The summer has not been easy. “I remember it was a Saturday and it felt like the walls were just closing in, and people were weary and frustrated in our household…I can’t remember what we had gotten, but we had this big box that was at our house that was going out on the curb for recycling on Monday, and so I got some markers and we went out in the back yard and we wrote our messages to coronavirus on that box, then we went and got tools from out of the storage room and worked out our feelings about coronavirus on that box, to do it in a way that was safe and responsible but also in a way that was cathartic for being able to get some of that physical energy that expresses our emotions, to get some of that out.”
“There are some things about the summer that I look forward to every year, and that I’ve really missed this year,” he told me. “I’ve missed the nightly drive to children’s camp and leading worship there. I missed being at the CBF General Assembly in person and being among my peers and my colleagues in that setting. Missed being able to take the vacation we had planned, we were going to get two more states marked off our list…again that’s coming from a place of acknowledged privilege…I try to hold that in humility.”
In regard to the future, Stephen views the pandemic as an opportunity for growth. “From a church perspective, I think if we are setting our sights towards when can we get back to what was, then we’ve set our sights on the wrong thing. So one of the takeaways is that American congregations are greying, numerically shrinking, and housed in buildings that were built for a different era of religious life. If we hold out hope that we can get back to what we were doing before March, then we’re holding out hope that we can get back to what we were doing that wasn’t really connecting. So I think, looking beyond this, it is an extraordinary opportunity for the church to reimagine and rediscover some of our calling, so that excites me. It’s also daunting, but I do think that THE Church, not just this church but THE Church, will not be given an opportunity like this for reevaluation and reassessment and reflection, we won’t get another opportunity like this for another who knows how long…We can’t waste this opportunity. All of the challenges, cumulatively, become an opportunity.”
During the pandemic, Stephen downloaded an app that picks three of his contacts on his phone daily for him to pray for. Most of those contacts are church people, but some are contacts that he never would have thought to pray for—such as Southwest Airlines. But every morning he prays for those three names. The pandemic has shifted around many things in Stephen’s life: his sermon-writing schedule was shifted, his kids are learning from home, hospital and other small in-person visits have become incredibly dangerous, and he is preaching to an empty room. But the practice of prayer has not changed. The mindfulness of it and the intentionality behind it were not affected by the pandemic; the content, absolutely, but not the action of praying itself. That is something that has remained steady for Stephen. Many beautiful things have revealed themselves to him, such as the way the deacons stepped up to take care of the congregation and how well the church has been able to take on the challenge of switching to online services. Difficult things have been revealed to him too, but all through our interview his first answers always were full of hope and thankfulness for how the church has responded to the pandemic. Prayer and the willing hearts of the congregation were not changed by this pandemic, and will not be changed, no matter what comes next.