On April 20 the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil plummeted to negative territory—a historic low. The drop to negative $37 a barrel came as oil production outpaced storage capacity. By Thursday the per-barrel-price opened at $14.20. While the industry’s volatility, brought on by global political and pandemic conditions, has observers anxious, two pastors in oil industry-dependent regions hold out hope for their communities.
For Texans living and working along the Gulf Coast and in West Texas the oil market fluctuations only exacerbate existing economic woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial uncertainty is disconcerting for many in their communities said Byron McWilliams, pastor of First Baptist Church Odessa, and Jim Turnbo, executive director of the Golden Triangle Baptist Network in Beaumont.
“They’re hanging on. There’s still a positive atmosphere,” Turnbo told the TEXAN.
He has held the executive director post only a year but Turnbo, born and raised in Houston, is no stranger to the vacillating nature of the oil industry.
Because oil refineries, not wells, fuel the Beaumont region’s economy, the tanking oil price has not yet impacted his communities he said. Pastors who have lived and worked in the area for decades told him their congregations have learned to live with the oil industry’s cyclical nature.
They told him there is no talk of lay-offs from the refineries that are operating with scaled back crews. Engineers who can work from home do. Those whose jobs require they be on-site, go to work each day ever conscience of the need to keep the coronavirus at bay.
“What has changed is all the plants were planning expansions and that has slowed down,” he said. That means some employees have gone from working overtime to normal shifts.
More than the oil price fluctuations, the government stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic have taken their toll on local economies, personal income and tithing Turnbo said. Church offerings have recovered, on average, to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic giving—some churches are on budget and some are struggling he said.
In his 16 years at FBC Odessa, McWilliams has experienced the ebbs and flows of the oil market. But he thinks there are some Odessa churches that might not make it through the current iteration. He said the global pandemic with its weeks-long economic impact and the tanking oil prices “conspire together in the perfect storm.”
“I know there are smaller churches in the area who are getting nailed,” he said. “There are churches in the area who might not make it through this.”
As of April 22, when McWilliams spoke with the TEXAN, there had been no reports of widespread lay-offs due to Monday’s historic low oil price. But his congregation and community have been buffeted by them.
Employees and employers, both experiencing the economic pangs, looked to McWilliams and the church for solace.
One of his members works for an oilfield service company. Dipping oil prices in recent weeks lead to decreased drilling and lower demand for his services. Monday’s plummet was the last straw. He called McWilliams and said, “We’re laying off today. So, pray for me.”
Two weeks earlier a member, a single mom of two, lost her job.
“From a pastor’s perspective we’re asking what can we do for people like that,” McWilliams said.
FBC Odessa has a fund to assist those who need help paying bills, but it does not have the resources to provide aid for a large number of church members or Odessa residents should mass lay-offs begin.
McWilliams explained that while an oil boom is preferable to a bust, the former is not without its drawbacks. A booming oil industry raises the cost of living for all Odessa residents. When he and his family moved to Odessa in 2004 the price of oil was about $35-$38 a barrel and the housing market was depressed. Since then he’s seen oil prices as high as $150 a barrel and rent for a one-bedroom apartment reach $1500 to $1700 a month.
So, compared to what people would need to make ends meet if lay-offs expanded to include oil field workers, what FBC Odessa has to offer is “small potatoes” McWilliams said. The church partners with the Permian Basin Mission Center, which can also provide aid.
McWilliams and Turnbo will keep a watchful eye on the oil market and its impact on their communities. But, for now, they both said what they hear from church members and pastors is frustration.
Churches along the Gulf Coast have not all recovered from damage caused last year by another storm—Tropical Storm Imelda. Churches and homes took on water only a year after enduring Hurricane Harvey.
“These crises, in our minds, have really run together,” said Turnbo. “We’re tired. But we’re persevering. The Lord who has been with us in the past is with us now.”
Being able to meet in person for church will make a world of difference for both communities they said.
But in the meantime, McWilliams encourages his congregation to maintain a different attitude from people whose trust in not in Christ. He said, “What we are experiencing is unprecedented for us. It is not unprecedented in human history … or to God.”