New York leaders face restrictions at every level

by Karen Willoughby

The train station in Jamaica, Queens, is eerily quiet at rush hour Nov. 12. "We're wondering what will be the fallout from this," says George Russ, executive director of the Metro New York Baptist Association.

NEW YORK, NY (BP) – New York Southern Baptist leaders don’t expect the COVID-19-induced limitations to change much before next spring, if then.

George Russ

George Russ, executive director of the Metro New York Baptist Association, spoke of walking a week ago in a commercial district in Manhattan where a number of stores were boarded up, and later that Thursday being on a train platform in Queens that was virtually empty – at rush hour.

“It was eerie to walk and not see what you used to see,” Russ said. “We’re wondering what will be the fallout from this. The biggest hesitation for us: We don’t know the economic impact of this.”

Russ and Terry Robertson, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New York, headquartered in upstate New York, talked with Baptist Press about the challenges leaders, churches, associations and the state convention are facing.

Relationship restrictions

Pastors are beset on every side with an unrelenting series of crises in the church family, their personal family, and the community family, the men said.

Terry Robertson

“Quick” pastoral phone calls to members struggling with COVID-related isolation, financial strain or family strife might take an hour or more each. Funerals – COVID-related or not – take time. Longsuffering wives and school-deprived children take time. Learning and using new technology to stream services, Bible studies and daily or weekly online devotions take time.

And too often “immediate” needs take precedence over the pastor’s essential need to spend time in personal prayer and Bible study, thus weakening him at a time he needs to be at his spiritual strongest, Russ and Robertson said.

The Barna Group’s State of the Church report recently projected one in five churches across the nation will close in the next 18 months, Robertson noted, and researcher and author Thom Rainer recently wrote that the majority of current pastors are considering resigning.

“If that was true three weeks ago it’s more true now with this added new wave of COVID,” Robertson said. “Pastors across the state are carrying such a heavy load I am concerned for their well-being and the well-being of their families and the well-being of every Southern Baptist in New York state.

“Our pastors have been strong throughout this pandemic but with the current resurgence of COVID cases and the restrictions by state and local governments, some of our pastors are beginning to feel they are fighting a losing battle. Pray for them. God certainly knew this was going to happen and He has equipped us to go through it. Our hope and trust is in Him alone.”

Nonetheless, with 515 churches in the multi-state convention, if 100 of them – one out of five – were to close, “It would set us back at least five years,” Robertson said.

Economic restrictions

Boarded-up businesses, restricted business hours and the loss of perhaps half a million Metro New York residents this spring and summer reflect the financial turmoil in the city that as of January included almost 9 million people (22 million-plus throughout the metro area,) Russ said, citing numerous news articles.

“This is Ground Zero,” Russ said. “It’s a mixed bag. Some churches are doing very well because they’re embedded in their community, serving food relief. They might not be open fully but they have increased exponentially their footprint in the neighborhood.

“Churches with rented space often are not able to come together; others with a small space say it’s not worth it because of the limited capacity allowed. Another reservation we have is the warning of another shutdown on restaurants, gyms, spas and again, schools. Plus a lot of retail space for rent.”

The economic turmoil means more unemployment, which results in a decrease in tithes and offerings. Metro New York Baptist Association (MNYBA) is careful to spend less than half of what they budgeted last year, and too much of that is from the association’s reserves, Russ said.

“We’re operating at less than 50 percent of budget; that’s a big concern,” Russ said. “We really can’t continue this forever.”

The multi-state convention, BCNY, which includes parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts as well as New York, was doing better financially, in part because churches outside the five boroughs of New York were not as severely impacted as was metro New York. But region-wide offerings that had balanced out last spring’s losses withered in the wake of a recent new spate of COVID-closures and other restrictions.

“October hit us hard and we’re not sure what to expect for November and December,” Robertson said. “That being said, giving 30 percent [to missions through the Cooperative Program] indicates we as a convention and our churches continue to be very committed to the Cooperative Program.”

A hiring freeze is one way the state convention conserves its funds. Two men retired in February, before COVID changed so much of ministry. This leaves Robertson as the only vocational staff for 515 churches.

Gospel restrictions

In a normal year, dozens of short-term mission teams descend on the state to help Southern Baptist churches reach the millions of non-Christian New Yorkers who speak one or more of 640 languages heard across the state. But this year, not one team since the first of March, and “we’re not sure what will happen next spring,” Russ said.

Travel restrictions require quarantining for 14 days after arrival in or traveling outside New York, curtailing the work of those who only have a week or two to serve.

“This tough and unprecedented season has brought sickness, displacement and sorrow to so many, while at the same time creating an openness to the Gospel and opportunities for ministry,” Russ said, citing several churches immersed in food ministry.

“Crisis and opportunity is how I would describe the season we are in. It’s a crisis of life and death and an opportunity for Gospel proclamation and ministry.”



Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent with Baptist Press.