Classmates called them M&M after their first date to the Phil Campbell (Ala.) High School prom. The Baptist Health Medical Center ICU in Little Rock, Ark., was the setting for their last moments together as COVID-19 completed Pastor Michael Stancil’s 29-year marriage to Michelle.
Fulton Bridge Baptist Church members are comforting Michelle Stancil while themselves mourning their pastor’s Dec. 26 death and keeping the church alive, all while hindered by the limitations of a coronavirus pandemic.
“The church has been there for us through all of this. And I could not imagine going through this without for one, my own family and two, the church family,” Michelle said Jan. 15. “I’m not talking about monetary or anything like that. I’m just talking about just being there to listen, or to pray.
“When I’m having a particularly bad day, like I had one this week where it was just, I couldn’t do nothing but cry. That night I had several people who texted me,” she said, pausing to hold back tears, “and it just means a lot.”
The church, while meeting virtually, has continued since Stancil began suffering Nov. 11 from COVID-19, was hospitalized a week later at North Alabama Medical Center in Florence, Ala., and was transferred to Little Rock Dec. 12 for additional treatment. There, he developed sepsis and other complications before dying on a ventilator. He and Michelle have two children, 21-year-old Joshua and 16-year-old Lexi.
“One night up in the (Alabama) hospital before my husband got put in the ICU, it was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving,” Michelle said. “A bunch of the congregation came to the hospital parking lot to pray and sing some songs, and I had the phone on so that my husband could hear. And that meant a lot, not only to me, but it meant a lot to him, knowing that his people loved him.
“But just being there and just praying, it seems so small of an act on the one who’s actually doing, but like on my end, a simple prayer means a lot. It means more than people realize that they’re giving.”
Fulton Bridge returned to onsite worship Jan. 17 after transitioning in March to service online and sometimes on the church lawn with safety protocols, said 78-year-old Sonny Nix, Fulton Bridge’s deacon vice chairman who has served the church 51 years. The church will hold Sunday morning and Wednesday night services while adhering to CDC guidelines including masks, social distancing and sanitizing. A return to the sanctuary last November was cut short, Nix said.
“There was one time, about the time that he contracted this disease,” Nix said. “Just about then, we were thinking about starting back on a limited scale, just having church and not having Sunday School and a few things like that, making sure that we stuck to the CDC guidelines. And I believe we maybe met one Sunday before he was struck with it.
“History has it that he just continued to seemingly get worse, and get worse. And he passed on Dec. 26,” Nix said. “In the almost 110-year history of this church, we’ve never lost or had an untimely death of a pastor while he was serving at our church. … It’s been a new experience for everybody, and it’s not been a good experience. But the Lord has been sufficient.”
The church has maintained its online presence, continues to care for the immediate Stancil family financially, is utilizing church member and former youth director Jeff Brantley for bivocational pulpit supply, and is attempting to assemble a pastoral search team.
“We’re probably going to try to secure an interim pastor,” Nix said. “We have names that have been given to us that the church will consider for an interim pastor. And he will hold us then, until the search committee has time to secure us a permanent pastor to lead us. … I guess the plan is pray, pray, pray.”
The church, with a Sunday attendance of about 100 before the pandemic, has held regular online prayer meetings since Stancil became ill. Many members attended the Dec. 30 graveside service for Stancil at Franklin Memory Gardens in Russellville, but Nix said many remained in their cars or stopped short of the gravesite to maintain social distancing.
Grieving has been difficult during the pandemic that doesn’t allow for close fellowship.
Michelle was not allowed in her husband’s hospital room after he was transferred to Little Rock, she said, until the last 45 minutes of his life when he wasn’t able to respond.
“He was on life support. I don’t know if he knew I was there or not, but I did get to be there and talk to him. I couldn’t talk with him, but I talked to him,” she said. “This virus, it just changes. You do good, and then the next hour you’re hitting rock bottom. … It’s just a rollercoaster.”
The Stancil family plans to hold a memorial service at the church when the pandemic subsides.
Nix describes Stancil as a pastor who remembered names and took the time to respond to people’s needs, even if they needed to talk for two hours. Members who joined during Stancil’s tenure, which began in 2011, felt added pain at his death because he led them to the Lord, Nix said.
“The church has really struggled,” Nix said. “He was our pastor, but you could also say he was pastor of the community, whatever church you belonged to. … We’re all struggling with it, because we loved Brother Mike.
“He made me feel like I was his number one confidant, that he really trusted me more than anybody else,” Nix said. “But the thing about it, that’s the way he made everybody feel.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)