Oral History with a Rural Church Pastor


Title (Dublin Core)

Oral History with a Rural Church Pastor
Josh R. Colson Oral History 3/9/2021

Description (Dublin Core)

Josh Colson grew up in Southern Illinois. He attended Welch College, earning a BS in Christian Ministry and an MA in Theology. Additionally, he is currently a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, pursuing an MTS. Mr. Colson is currently the pastor of Brandon’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church in Bumpus Mills, TN. The church is part of a small rural community, being in one of the smallest counties in middle Tennessee. In addition, Mr. Colson is the Faith Representative for the community health board. In this interview, Mr. Colson recounts the effects COVID-19 has had on his duty as a member of the clergy, his congregation, and his community.

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Audio Interview

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Contributor's Tags (a true folksonomy) (Friend of a Friend)

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Interviewer (Bibliographic Ontology)

Brandon Presley

Interviewee (Bibliographic Ontology)

Josh R. Colson

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Bumpus Mills
United States.

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Transcription (Omeka Classic)

BP 0:00
My name is Brandon Presley. I'm a graduate intern student with the COVID-19 archive at Arizona State University. Today is March 9 2021. The time is 8:25pm. And I'm speaking with Josh Colson. So I wanted to ask, you have a question about your pandemic experience, and about what you do with what you've been doing during the pandemic. But before I do, I'd like to ask for your consent to record this response for the COVID-19 archive COVID-19 archive is a digital archive at Arizona State that is collecting pandemic experiences. Do I have your consent to record your response and add it to the archive.

JC 0:38

BP 0:41
As we begin, would you mind telling your name, your religious background? And where you pastor?

JC 0:49
Yeah. My name is Josh Colson. I'm affiliated with the Free Will Baptist denomination, the National Association for Baptists and I pastor Brandon's chapel church in Stewart County, Tennessee, kind of on the northwest edge of Middle Tennessee.

BP 1:06
Is that a small or big county for Tennessee?

JC 1:09
Yeah, it's a it's one of the smallest counties in the state. So about 13,000 people in the whole county and about 300 people in the actual town. Where I pastor.

BP 1:20
Very, very rural area?

JC 1:22
Yeah, absolutely.

BP 1:23
All right. So going back to when the pandemic first began in 2020. How did you think the pandemic would impact your work as a pastor, if at all?

JC 1:34
Yeah, I didn't think that it would have much of an impact, or at least not a lasting impact. Even from my initial notification of the congregation that we were going to be suspending, in person gatherings for a time, I thought that it would just be two weeks, you know, 15 days to slow the spread was the the going phrase at the beginning of the pandemic. And so I guess, maybe in my naivete, I thought that 15 days we would back to normal but that just didn't, obviously, it's not what transpired. And so there's been a lot more changes than I anticipated. I didn't think there'd be many changes, but there have been, obviously a long the way, so.

BP 2:18
Yeah, I think that's just been part of everyone's pandemic experience, to be quite honest. So as a precursor to the next question, what percentage of your congregation would you say, are either over 65? Or have pre existing conditions?

JC 2:32
Yeah. If I was to ballpark it, I'd say probably about 25 to 30% of congregation are over the age of 65. And then probably another five to 10%. Have pre existing conditions, either cancer survivors, or diabetics, etc. So

BP 2:58
So, yes, all third of the congregation at least.

JC 3:03
A solid third.

BP 3:05
So as it became clear that COVID-19 was indeed a very serious and contagious virus, what steps did you and your church take to protect the vulnerable in the congregation? I know, you mentioned you suspended services for a time, but what what all did you all do during that time? And then where are you continuing to do?

JC 3:25
Yeah, so like I said, you know, initially, we planned to close down for two weeks, and that turned into a longer period of time than that. So we closed in person gatherings totally for, for 10 weeks, I believe. And, and during that time, we moved to recording services online, and posting them to YouTube and Facebook, social media, you know, forat least the vast, vast majority of people affiliate with a congregation to view. And I would try and visit the people kind of socially distanced outside of their houses, and just try to encourage them that way. But yeah, so just moving totally virtual, or through telecommunications. For those initial 10 weeks.

BP 4:21
Gotcha. I assume you are still wearing masks and trying to social distance and things like that, for the most part, at least.

JC 4:28
Yeah, absolutely.

BP 4:30
Okay. So what impact if any, do you think closing the doors have on your congregation and on your parishioners more broadly?

JC 4:42
Yeah, so I don't really like to speak to their internal state for all of them. But just broadly speaking about, you know, this the structure of your, of the church and makeup of the church. We, as I assume a lot of other churches lost kind of attendees. So there's always this dynamic at church between the committed members and then on the one hand, and the kind of people who show up, and they're there, and we love to have them there, but they're not as consistent. And we lost a lot of the ones that weren't consistent since we've opened up. So I think that affected us negatively, in that time. And it's just, it's through a lot of our, like, catechesis, classes or small groups, out of whack, not able to meet. So it's just been a difficult time, I think.

BP 5:38
Absolutely. What impact did closing your church even for a temporary time have on you as the pastor?

JC 5:48
So in some ways, if you're, if somebody is looking at it, from the outside, they might think it's easier because you're not meeting congregation, you know, three or four times a week. But from my perspective, in a lot of ways that made it more difficult, especially because I am not very tech savvy. So having to navigate all this video and internet media outlets was difficult learning curve for me, and then you know, not being able to have close, more intimate communications with people. Is, it was a very, it's been a very trying year.

BP 6:35
Okay. So you kind of touched on this a minute ago with some of the less less committed members, or less committed attendees coming to church. But what long term impact do you believe online worship services will have on your church? And like I said, you've already kind of touched on that. But more broadly, do you think this is going to be something felt by all churches, and religious, various religious groups that they're going to see a lot of members kind of not come back? Or a lot of your semi faithful attendees not come back?

JC 7:13
Yeah, I think that it's likely the case, among all sorts of churches and faith communities across the spectrum. The thing about online services, you know, I see the good in them, and I'm thankful that we were able to have some means to, to share a religious experience among the congregation, on the one hand, and I'm thankful for the means social media, you know, as a Christian, I believe the gospel was good news and needs to be given to the world. And so I know that, you know, just through mass means people were able to hear the good message. But I also, you know, recognize this necessity of the church is a body of people gathered together. So I personally have made the decision not to do live recorded services, once we reopened our congregation. Some people might disagree with that decision. Obviously, many other churches would. But I have decided for my congregation and where I'm at that I'm not, I don't want to give people the option to stay away from the church. I understand, you know, uncertain times, or we need to do that. But But on the whole, I think it could have a really negative impact and really hurt the, the corporate dimension of the church.

BP 8:49
So we did touch on this as well, a little bit earlier but I think this question is a little more specific. So how did the pandemic specifically affect your ability to actually go visit with and minister to your parishioners? Because, so a lot of for pastors a big part of the job is getting to talk with getting to visit with and getting to sit in the homes of those people who you would say, you know, you're kind of their spiritual leader, in one sense. So how did the pandemic affect your ability to actually do your job in that sense?

JC 9:23
Yeah. In the initial shutdown phase, first two, or three weeks when you know, so much of the Coronavirus was news and we didn't know a lot about it. I just shut down visitation completely for a time and just using the phone or video chat or whatever to keep in touch with people. Then as it progressed I got more comfortable once we learned about social distancing and masks. I got more comfortable in like going to people's houses. And would visit with them outside, you know, the beginning of the pandemic kind of fell at a good time to be able to visit people outside. Now that's kind of that trailed off once we get into the cold months of the year, and you're still not really comfortable going into people's houses right now. So as far as parishioners are concerned and their houses and stuff, in some ways that didn't change a whole lot. The biggest thing for me, that change was not being able to go into hospitals and nursing homes, which is such a big part of the ministry and one the things that I love to do. And so not being able to be there with the parishioners, for instance, just this past year had three parishioners or exceeded two parishioners, undergoing cancer treatments at the same time and not being able to be there with them. So difficult for me and for them. And so yeah, it's tough time as far as the station on that end of things is concerned. Absolutely.

BP 11:07
So in the everyday lives of your parishioners and this kind of this this semi being able to semi visit people and semi you know, kind of go over there and socially distance. And in your conversations, how do you think the pandemic has affected the people that you come in contact with? most specifically your parishioners like, in their day life? Have you had pushers lose jobs, lose family members, things like that?

JC 11:37
Yeah. I have been fortunate myself to not have any deaths within my congregation from Coronavirus, but I have had people who've lost loved ones, you know, as so many people all across the globe have lost love ones during this time, so I've definitely had to help provide some pastoral care in those circumstances, which is doubly hard right now. Yes, they didn't lose a loved one for the Coronavirus. If they lost a loved one from something else. They couldn't grieve in a way that's that's normal, the funeral and stuff during the Coronavirus. So, trying to be there. And minister to them, in that time, in their time of need has been interesting, coming up with creative ways to just to just be there and visit with them, you know, in a way that it's not culturally normal. And and then I think that the biggest group affected are the group affected, the most I should say, would be the elderly people who just couldn't, you know, get out didn't feel comfortable getting out. And, you know, we have several widows and widowers in the church, they are so depressed when they're alone. So I also was trying to visit them, especially from a distance of course, and, and to just encourage them along the way. And, and yeah, so I hope that answer.

BP 13:13
Yeah, yeah, that's, I think that's really good. What I was getting at, and I think you answered it, like I said, was just kind of seeing the everyday life of the people that you come in contact with and seeing how it's actually affected people. Individually speaking, and on a personal level. So how has COVID-19 impacted your church's ability to participate in various religious or religious ceremonies, like singing traditional Christian things like protecting the Eucharist, baptism, things like that?

JC 13:46
Yeah, um, so in a lot of ways, our services have remained relatively the same. But a couple areas that are that are different we, we do still have congregational singing, but we suspended our choir during this time because they want people singing in such close contact and things like that. And also, when we observe the Lord's Supper, we moved to kind of prepackaged communion cups with the juice and the wafer, which is kind of unfortunate from a theological and just ecclesial standpoint. But you know, it was necessary during this time. And everything we've done is something really common in Baptist churches is to have a time of fellowship kind of before the service of handshaking and hugging and and such and we had to obviously to do away with that during this time, you know.

BP 15:04
Okay. Before the pandemic, how did your church celebrate major, you know, Christian holidays, like Christmas and Easter, these are typically services that you would bring a lot of people in, or you'd have a special event for. So how did you all handle that? And how did you all deal with that before the pandemic?

JC 15:24
Yeah. Before. I guess, you know, in some respects, as a low church Baptist, you know, a lot of like ins and outs of services necessarily wouldn't be changed, but, but around the time of those kind of High Holidays, we would have, you know, kind of just throw out all the stuff. So, Easter, holy week leading up Have a Good Friday service with several of the churches here in the community, our sunrise service, and, of course, our Easter service, you'd have a large number of people out, and then for Christmas, we'd have Christmas Pageant. And all sorts of Christmas parties and Christmas charity events going on in the church. And then of course, the week before Christmas is always a big service as well, as far as having visitors and in the likes. So I don't know if that's

BP 16:34
Yeah, I mean, yeah, that's a good picture, I guess of what you have what your church was doing, you know, pre COVID-19. So what what have you all have you all adapted? So the past year, we've had, I guess, Easter and Christmas, both with, in a COVID-19 era. So how have you all adapted to doing those things within the pandemic parameters? So to say?

JC 16:57
Yeah, well, Easter, you know, kind of fell last last year kind of fell right towards the beginning of Coronavirus stuff so, we didn't do a whole lot for Easter and everything we normally do. It slipped my mind a moment go was an easter egg. You'd have big community wide Easter egg and we just weren't able to have that at the time and we couldn't have in person gathering at the time. So we just did a recorded service. And I think that was nice, given the circumstances but you know, obviously not seen this meeting in person and then Christmas to was pretty cool. And we we had cancel pageants, cantatas, and just couldn't do it because of the time it fell. It was kind of surging, you know the midst Coronavirus, was surging in the midst of winter. So a lot of that was scaled back we did have a service was in did have some some visitors and stuff but it definitely scaled back.

BP 18:00
Yeah, that's understandable. So in what ways before the pandemic again, was your church active in your community? And how has the pandemic changed or shifted or affected your ability to actually continue to be active and continue to serve your community?

JC 18:19
That's a good question. I think that, aside from just helping people, you know, kind of affiliated with the church, we actively partner with a number of agencies, ministerial Alliance, for instance in Stewart county or the Good Samaritan, which is kind of a food pantries slash clothes closet for underprivileged persons in the in the county, and we partner with them financially or on a volunteer basis to provide assistance to those in need. And as far as the pandemic affecting that I think in some ways, the pandemic actually gave my congregation an even greater opportunity to serve the community. Like for instance, we had a Thanksgiving meal where we took food to shut ins or underprivileged families, which is great. We had developed this card writing ministry for people who are shut in you know, that we know can't get out or just elderly gentleman is really shut in for health reasons, but elderly and don't want to be out during this time. And we know they get lonely. So we've kind of developed a lot of different ministries to help with that and, and still being active in those other ministries that listed before so in some ways, it's actually caused us to be even more involved in the community, which I think has been if there's any positive come out of all this, that might be it for us.

BP 20:03
That's great. So most people don't fully understand the financial burdens that churches and other religious and faith institutions do carry. But churches, you know, like everyone else, still have bills to pay regarding maintenance, utilities, loans, salaries to employees, among, you know, a host of other expenses that could come up. So how has your church's financial situation been affected by the pandemic? It's nice to hear that you were still able to financially partner with these other groups, but how is it also just affected where your churches?

JC 20:36
Yeah, surprisingly, our giving, if you had told me this, at the beginning of the pandemic, I would have thought you were crazy, but our giving is actually up last year 2020 over over the previous year, so is up in 2020, over 2019, even in the midst of everything that happened even I was losing parishioners So I don't know if that is people in my congregation were spurred to give more by the by everything that is going on in the world. I don't know, maybe some of my parishioners financial situations just changed, and they could afford to give more. I don't know what happened. But for us, we actually saw an increase, which, which was good as well.

BP 21:23
I know you can really only speak to your church, but have you heard about other churches and how they've, or not just churches, but faith institutions, how they've been impacted? Have other ones in your area gone down? Or how's that been affected? You know?

JC 21:36
Yeah. So um, you know, aside from being pastor at local church, I'm also assistant moderator of our association, denominational Association, here locally, and and serve on the presbytery. So I have a lot of contact with other churches. And I think that, you know, sadly, we at Brandon's Chapel are the exception and not a rule. I know that many churches lost members. I did mention, you know, we lost people, but we didn't lose any of our actual, like, members of the church, just kind of the people who were not not as committed, but, but but other churches have lost actual members, they lost those attendees who would come You know, maybe just when they felt like it, but but who regularly contributed when they did. And so I know that other churches have experienced a loss in income and being affiliated with denomination, I know that a lot of our denominational agencies, missions agencies or kind of social welfare agencies and colleges and stuff have suffered, because churches had to make cuts and understandably so outside giving has to be cut before you cut the inside expenses. So yeah, I think that it's negatively affected a lot of churches to be here.

BP 23:05
Yeah. So, how has leadership within your specific denomination reacted to the pandemic, with some churches really, like you said, struggling, have they kind of stepped in and helped or they just kind of sat back and observed?

JC 23:24
Yeah. Well I've been blessed, I'm sure this case for a lot of denominations, but for the National Association of Free Will Baptist in particular, our denominational leadership has just been tremendous providing moral support as fought on the ground, to pastors during this time, our executive secretary of our denomination kind of the CEO, if you will, has been very good about sending out weekly encouragements to pastors and churches. And also, towards the beginning of pandemic he would send out weekly guidelines, trying to recommend to churches, what they can do, you know, in accordance with CDC guidelines, but trying to, you know, to dumb it down for people like me, so that we can understand that. And same with the state. With the leaders of Free Will Baptists in the state of Tennessee, have just been on top of everything and trying to assist churches as much as they can, and I can't thank them enough.

BP 24:27
So as we kind of conclude and wrap this thing up. How quickly do you anticipate or do you really hope that you're able to open back up to regular worship habits and I know that the vaccine is part of that as well. So do you have a lot of people receiving the vaccine and are you anticipating that that's going to really speed going back to normal soon?

JC 24:51
Yeah, I think that we are getting ready to turn the corner for the good. So I don't know for fact, but just judging off of who I do know, I'd say that over about 50% of those who attend our morning worship services have, have received at least half a vaccine right now, or at least half the dosage. Myself included. I work part time in the school system. And so I was able to, to get under the, I forget the term necessary worker.

BP 25:32
Yeah, essential.

JC 25:34
Essential employee. Essential depends on who you're asking, I guess, but, but thankfully was able to get it. And I know many others have what the elderly have, I think, all the church received it, we got a lot of people to work at school system and nurses and things like that. So I don't know that we're going to like just bounce back and things are going to get back to normal like they were before. But I do have hopes that we will be able to build back and regain some sense of normalcy was, by by the summer, I hope.

BP 26:15
So then I guess you would also say that you think your church will be able to effectively come back from this without having, hopefully at least with without having to close its doors or anything like that.

JC 26:25
Yeah, yeah, I do.

BP 26:27
As you said, you're you're giving you may be the anomaly, but you're giving up things like that. So you're not going to have to, like I said, Shut down or anything like that.

JC 26:36
Sure, yeah.

BP 26:38
Well, I appreciate your time. Thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions.

JC 26:43
Yeah. My pleasure. Thank you.

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