His church’s shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic was hard on Pastor Autry Watkins. “I love everything that has to do with gathering as a church body,” said the pastor of Transformation Church in South Chicago Heights.
But like nearly every other pastor in the U.S. and across the world, Watkins halted in-person gatherings to help stop the spread of Coronavirus. He missed his church, he said, but the time away served as a valuable training ground for the pastor, aided by resources and connections provided by IBSA.
The state association pivoted early on to help churches navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Watkins called it “leg work.” During the shutdown, IBSA missionaries worked behind the scenes to guide his church and others toward new ministry opportunities and to prepare for the future—whenever and whatever that future is.
The 2020 Mission Illinois Offering & Week of Prayer is focused on the vital partnership between IBSA and Baptist churches in the state—a collaboration that has been key in navigating this uncharted territory. These challenging times have reinforced the need for consultation, advocacy, and connection in a state where more than 8 million people do not know Christ.
The shifts required by the global pandemic have demonstrated the importance of the training and equipping work IBSA does every day—in “normal” times. The Mission Illinois Offering supports developing church leaders for evangelism, discipleship, and worship. And the offering makes possible additional mis-sions and church planting, beyond the regular Cooperative Program channel.
Illinois Baptists give about $350,000 through MIO most years. As all churches and ministries face financial challenges right now because of COVID-19 limitations, IBSA needs more generous support to sustain missions and advance kingdom work.
The pandemic has tested our ability to adapt ministry to take on a crisis. MIO gives all our churches an opportunity to prove our continued commitment to the salvation and transformation of Illinois.
Pastors seek input for crisis ministry
As the global pandemic began to affect churches in Illinois, reliable information was hard to come by, said Pastor Don Hannel. With so many unknowns and the news changing daily, or hourly, First Baptist Church in Pleasant Hill needed re-sources they could trust.
IBSA’s Church Helps webinars, which launched as most churches stopped meeting in-person, were a valuable resource for his church, Hannel said. “We were just grabbing hold of those, be-cause we needed something with some stability.”
Even as IBSA staff pivoted to working remotely, Hannel said the Association found its niche with online resources. “One of the things I appreciate about IBSA is they were coming alongside us, and they transitioned so quickly into helping churches with this new crisis that we were facing.”
A Church Helps webpage became an online repository for resources on virtual worship, online giving, pastoring from a distance, and outreach opportunities. As the pandemic’s early weeks stretched into months, webinars and resources helped churches know how to make their own pivots, from regular summer programming to socially distanced or virtual options.
Along with the webinars, IBSA also hosted online prayer gatherings and two virtual town hall meetings to help churches with challenges relating to reopening and relaunching ministries. Denver Ayres, pastor of Logan Street Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, said the pandemic-related resources helped his church navigate competing priorities in the reopening process.
As his church has tried to balance what is practical and what is right, Ayres said, resources from IBSA have helped settle his heart.
“We’ve been trying to find the right time to come back and the right way to come back,”he said. “That’s where IBSA has been such a blessing.”
IBSA missionaries deliver information and care
Hannel’s church relocated five years ago to a new facility they built on the edge of town. IBSA has been with his church through the process of leaving their century-old downtown building, and discovering new ways to reach their community.
“They have always been there for us, to encourage us and equip us, and help us to meet the challenges of growing in a transitioning and a relocating church.”
Watkins, too, said he benefited from partnership with IBSA even before COVID-19. The state association has provided him with resources to grow as a pastor, he said. Sometimes, those re-sources came in the form of conferences like the state and regional leadership summits hosted by the state association. Watkins said he can also rely on guidance from John Yi, an IBSA church planting catalyst in Chicagoland.
The long-time ministry leader has a knack for identifying issues or areas of challenge, and following up with help and support. “He’s just someone who is always open and always available to help with resources,” Watkins said.
Yi and other church planting strategists serve across the state, as do IBSA zone consultants who stand ready to resource churches and local associations. In the COVID era, zone consultants have kept in touch with churches, relaying needs, challenges, and best practices.
At Watkins’s church, the congregation is in transition mode as normal operations continue to be affected by the pandemic. They’ve always strived to be a Monday through Saturday church that gathers on Sunday for worship, the pastor said. The pandemic has pushed the church to evaluate its reliance on the Sunday morning gathering, and make adjustments for the future.
IBSA has been there, and will keep on being there—ready to provide resources to help church-es pivot toward more effective ministry. “They are an organization that seeks to help pastors,” Watkins said.