COVID-19 illnesses and deaths felt in churches as pandemic passes one year

Senior Pastor Jimmy D. Pritchard had a new vision for the future of First Baptist Church of Forney.

“Brother Jim just came into my office and said, ‘I’m tired of this.’ He said, ‘I’m tired of being on the defensive. I’m tired of sitting back,’” Executive Pastor Ed Hancock recalls from that early January day. “He said, ‘We’re going on offense.’ I said ‘OK,’ so we met with the leadership team, and he laid out his vision.”

Weeks later on a Monday, as the church of about 1,200 worshipers prepared to implement Pritchard’s Reignite 2021 plan with a church-wide prayer meeting, Pritchard was in the hospital with COVID-19.

Two days later Pritchard was dead. He died at 5:25 p.m. Feb. 24 of COVID-related pneumonia. The church staff announced his death at the beginning of the prayer meeting already scheduled that very evening.

“Like a lot of congregations, we’re not unfamiliar with COVID,” Hancock said just days after the March 6 celebration of life service honoring Pritchard. His widow Jeannette was still hospitalized with COVID-19 at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and could not attend his memorial.

“We’ve had members get COVID and pass away from COVID,” Hancock said. “We’ve had staff members with COVID.”

Numerous churches are in similar predicaments as the pandemic nears the one-year mark. Many churches, like Neptune Baptist Church in Neptune Beach, Fla., have suffered illnesses and deaths.

Neptune Baptist Church Pastor Tom Bary died of COVID-19 in mid-December after a month-long battle with the virus.

Tanya McAvoy, Neptune Baptist’s minister of evangelism and education, said the church has dedicated all of 2021 to walking through the grief of Bary’s death with the congregation and his family, expressly noting milestones in church life without Bary’s presence.

“Pastor Tom was with us for 36 years,” she said, including his earlier 12 years as youth pastor and later 24 years as senior pastor after a leadership stint at another congregation. “We are grieving together, so we have been moving forward by grieving together in unity. We have decided that as a staff and as a church to dedicate this next year to walk through this grief together, to not ignore it.”

Other churches have similar journeys of pastors and members succumbing to COVID-19-related diagnoses. Baptist Press previously reported on the deaths of Pastor Michael Stancil of Fulton Bridge Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ala.; retired Alabama pastor and church planter Fred Wolfe; and Willard and Wilma Gail Bowen, members of Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Hiram, Ga.

More than 538,000 people had died of COVID-related illnesses in the U.S. at press time, among more than 2.8 million deaths globally. 

At First Baptist Forney, a kidney transplant Pritchard underwent at age 19, necessitating daily immunosuppressant drugs, made it difficult for the 65-year-old husband and father to survive.

“It was obviously a shock to us when Brother Jim died because he died so suddenly,” Hancock said. “He went into the hospital on Saturday, Feb. 20, and passed away on Wednesday, Feb. 24.”

Many in the congregation had sat under his ministry since he was called to First Baptist in 1994 and led the church through significant growth, welcoming over 6,000 new members, and baptizing over 2,600 new believers, with 38 people having answered a call to full-time Christian vocations. International, North American, and Texas missions has been a hallmark of his tenure, including work in Scotland, Hungary, Lebanon, Uruguay, Thailand, Czech Republic, India, Cuba and Ethiopia, various projects in the U.S., and birthing a new church in nearby Talty, Texas. 

In addition to serving as president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention from 2014-2015, he was elected second vice president for 2008-2009, and served on the SBTC Executive Board. Most recently, he was tasked with chairing the SBTC’s relocation committee. A trustee for the International Mission Board and Criswell College, he served on presidential search committees that selected Tom Elliff at IMB and Jerry Johnson at Criswell. He also offered leadership to the denomination as a trustee of Baptist World Alliance, IMB trustee chairman, Home Mission Board workshop leader, and Southwestern Seminary alumni association president, in addition to local associational duties everywhere he served in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. 

First Forney is grateful that Pritchard left a vision for the future.

“The elements of Reignite are to reignite your passion for prayer, reignite your passion for worship and to reignite your passion for personal evangelism,” Hancock said. “It was God’s plan for him to give us the vision and for us to carry it out.”

At Neptune Baptist, the church of about 350 worshipers maintains a Celebrating Tom Bary memorial Facebook page.

“Some people hide grief and we’ve decided to display it … so we can grieve together,” McAvoy said.

“The church has been so sweet to support our staff as we’ve walked through grief, recognizing that our grief is important also, and we have just loved each other through it. And the church is going to be stronger because of it.” 

We have been heartened to see the responses of our Southern Baptist churches as they seek to continue their ministries and worship activities in new ways. For weekly encouragement during these trying times visit sbtexas.com/covid.

—Diana Chandler of Baptist Press contributed to this article. 

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