In Marietta, Ga., Johnson Ferry Baptist Church senior adult ministry leader Peggy Fulghum describes resilience in facing life’s ongoing challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 27, while recovering from multiple strokes in recent weeks, the 70-year-old was hosting a birthday party for a 76-year-old dementia sufferer who attends Johnson Ferry. It was Fulghum’s first day outside the home since the strokes began as a result of reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS), a diagnosis unrelated to the pandemic.
“When they told me I have a rare condition,” Fulghum said, “and that God made our brains to heal themselves – the first word is reversible, so that our brains can reverse the damage that’s done by the strokes – I looked at all these scientists and I said, ‘And that’s what God did.”
The RCVS strokes have proven only a short interruption in Fulghum’s ministry. Senior adults at the Marietta church transitioned to online and distanced events as the pandemic began, but are returning to church as dangers of the pandemic subside.
“I have one 90-year-old [who said], ‘I’m not going to let my last days be just locked inside by this pandemic. I’m not going to die living in fear.’ And they just embraced life by staying safe and doing what they had to do,” Fulghum said. “They held on tight to the Lord’s teachings and the Bible studies and everything else. … We have opened the doors, and they came right out. They’re just jumping into it.”
Other senior ministers tell a similar story of senior adults taking every opportunity to re-engage in onsite church activities. Some changes made during the pandemic are lingering, which ministers describe as an improvement.
The ministers said very few senior adults at their churches died from the COVID-19 virus, with many recovering from the illness.
Tommy Sanders, 60, began in July as senior adult minister to those 65 and older at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., serving a group he estimates to be about 1,000 adults. Most have returned to campus for worship and Bible study, Sanders said, and most others are expected to return by June.
“They have been so diligent, so committed and consistently committed, Sunday after Sunday, meeting on Zoom,” Sanders said. “And now that they’re coming back, we’re doing a combination. So we are in person and in each class for the most part, maybe with the exception of … three out of 16, all of them are doing a combination of Zooming and in person now.
“What I see is, the good that’s come out of this, is the opportunity to minister to people who cannot come, who are not able, the older adults who cannot come on a given Sunday, but still feel a part of their group.”
At Willowbrook Baptist Church in Huntsville, 82-year-old Douglas Merchant has served nearly 20 years as minister to senior adults, serving a group of 300-500 seniors age 55 and above who mostly fall in the 70s age range. He describes most of the members as “pretty active,” and some as “home-centered.”
“They didn’t come to church at all for a while,” Merchant said. “They’ve been on Zoom and that was definitely sporadic for those involved with a computer. Otherwise they were at home.”
Merchant continued to reach seniors by mailing a weekly devotional with puzzles and other outreaches including phone calls. The church holds eight services each weekend at two campuses and online, and many senior adults have returned to the 8 a.m. worship service.
“They know that church is now open and they are coming back, and just because I’m in touch with them with the newsletter once a week, I’m seeing a great response,” Merchant said. “I don’t think we’ve lost that many that have been faithful in coming. There’s another dozen out there that still are leery of coming, but I would say those that were active beforehand are now active again. … I don’t think we’ve had many deaths that I know of.”
Merchant is planning events for Willowbrook and other area senior adults in conjunction with the Madison Baptist Association in Huntsville, and is active in the Metro 55 Plus Southern Baptist network of senior adult ministers.
He describes himself as task-oriented, and plans to continue reaching out to senior adults even as the subsiding pandemic allows many of them to return to church.
“I think everybody’s counting on this thing going away. I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think it’s going to be here for years to come,” he said. “And we will just try and make certain that they feel that their church still loves them. … My goal is to let them see that the church comes to them. … I’m the church for them.”
At Johnson Ferry, associate pastor for adults Steven Bonham said the pandemic has led to positive changes that will likely linger. The church has 2,100 members aged 60 and over, he said, who comprise about 25 Sunday School classes.
“COVID has shown us two things. First, technology is a tool that can really help us stay connected. Many of our older adults were probably hesitant about using so much technology, but due to necessity many have really embraced some of the tools to stay connected,” Bonham said.
“But second, as more and more of our church comes back on campus, we are reminded that there is nothing like being in person with other believers, experiencing biblical community.”
Finding the perfect balance of onsite and online events will be a challenge, Bonham said.
“So what we, and churches across the country, are going to have to figure out is how can we continue to use technology to minister to those who need to be at home, while continuing to promote the importance of in-person worship and fellowship,” he said. “This will probably be an even bigger question for our older adults and their Bible study groups, as we seek to care for aging group members. In scripture we see how God truly values the older adult. We now get to figure out how technology can help the church reach and disciple [them].”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – May 2 is Senior Adult Sunday in the SBC. Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)