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Pastoring While Positive


January 20, 2021

More than a dozen pastors in the Missouri Conference who are actively serving churches have contracted COVID-19 in the past year. Rev. Fred Luper of Onward and Elwood United Methodist churches lost his life to the disease on September 7. Rev. David Fitzmaurice of Belgrade UMC was diagnosed with the disease in August, has spent months in the hospital and still has a long road to recovery.
 
Many others were fortunate enough to have mild symptoms, but the disease was still disruptive to their ability to be a pastor and their personal lives. In the following story, a few of them share their firsthand experience with the disease.
 
Trinity UMC, Kansas City
Back in July, Rev. Dr. Tex Sample and his wife Peggy moved from their house into a condo, and right as they were getting moved, they were

Tex Sample
exhausted. They took themselves to a drive-through testing station at a pharmacy and later found they were positive. Although advanced in age, they weathered through their illness at home.
 
“We were sick as dogs,” Sample said. “It was a case where you would walk across the room and feel worn out. We couldn’t do a thing.”
 
They had a fraction of a degree of fever for a few days on and off, but the fatigue lasted for a few weeks.
 
He considers their experience to be extremely fortunate. They didn’t have any respiratory symptoms or lose their sense of taste or smell. He was out of the pulpit for a few weeks, but that wasn’t a problem either.
 
“Trinity is like a cat. It will just independently go do its own thing,” Sample said. “It’s wonderful that way.”
 
He also said about half a dozen retired clergy in the congregation are always willing to step up and preach a sermon.
 
Sample said people who think they don’t need to take the Coronavirus seriously need to think again.
 
“Even a mild case is a pistol,” he said.
 
Sample is currently looking into whether he will be allowed to donate blood at his age to share his antibodies. He’s 86.
 
First UMC, Excelsior Springs
Last August, Rev. Laura Blevins started experiencing what seemed like typical summer allergy symptoms, like itchy eyes. After a couple of days, she felt like she had a sinus infection. She called her doctor, who advised her to get tested.
 
“I thought she was crazy,” said Blevins, an avid mask-wearer who had taken every social distancing precaution.
Laura Blevins

 
Within a day, she didn’t question her physician’s sanity anymore. She got the call that her test was positive. She immediately called her husband’s doctor, her pediatrician and the county health department. None advised the other family members to get tested, but all advised them to quarantine.
 
Blevins has three children, ages three to eight, so she didn’t attempt to isolate from them, but the whole family quarantined together. Their 14-day quarantine started on Blevins’ day 10, for a total of 24 days. She contacted her outside contacts, and three additional people were quarantined. Blevins ended up being off work for three weeks.
 
She made it through the illness with mild symptoms, but since then, Blevins has had a difficult time doing funerals for people who have died from COVID-19. She has done four funerals for people who died from COVID-19 in Excelsior Springs as of press time. All of them were after she had survived it.
 
One of the ladies who passed away was a friend from church. She would have been 90 years old. She made a choice not to go on the ventilator.
 
“I was able to talk to her on the phone and pray with her. She died two hours later. That one was the hardest,” Blevins said.
 
“When I spoke to her on the phone, she was able to speak; she was coherent. She knew what decision she was making. It isn’t so much survivor’s guilt as just a great sadness that someone would die of something that I survived. My brain was trying to fix it but couldn’t. We don’t know why the virus affects some people and others it doesn’t. While I was amid these funerals, I felt the peace of God pass over me. I needed to officiate the services for these families. I understood what they were going through. God gave me the strength and the words to speak.”
 
Broadway UMC, Plattsburg
Rev. Cassie O’Brien Graham of Broadway had a sore throat. Since it was just a couple of weeks before Christmas, she decided to get tested to be safe. Her husband wasn’t feeling great the next day, so he got tested as well. When they received their results back that Saturday, they were both positive.
 
It wasn’t the first time in 2020 that she had to step away from the pulpit at Broadway UMC in Plattsburg for medical reasons, but the first time
Cassie O’Brien Graham
was expected. Six months earlier, she had been on maternity leave. Now O’Brien Graham had to quarantine with her husband and three daughters.
 
Upon getting the positive test result, O’Brien Graham wasn’t anxious about her health but certainly wanted to be sure she didn’t give the virus to someone else. Her four-year-old had been in the hospital three times, the latest about a year ago, with respiratory difficulty, so she was worried about her.
 
She doesn’t know how they got it. It may have been from friends they were in contact with or through her husband’s job, where he works as a respiratory therapy technician with equipment used by COVID-19 patients. The couple cycled through a list of mild symptoms. Her husband had a fever one day, but she never did.
 
“We were fortunate to have a mild version of the virus, but it did come with a lot of fatigue,” she said.
Like most churches, Broadway was on and off throughout the year. The church had gone back to in-person worship earlier in the year but went back to online when some of the worship team contracted COVID-19.
 
Mid-Advent wasn’t an opportune time for a pastor to be off, and quarantining with a house full of kids wasn’t ideal. The first week she video recorded her sermon in her living room when the house was quiet – at 2 a.m. A guest preacher filled in for December 20, and O’Brien Graham was back to preaching for the online Christmas Eve service.
 
Richland & Dixon United Methodist Churches
Rev. Mitch Henson labels himself as a germaphobe. He also takes COVID-19 very seriously and works hard to keep himself, his family and his churches safe. However, as a pastor, he often finds himself getting pushed outside of his comfort and safety zone.
 
“During the pandemic, I’ve conducted four funerals and a wedding. In each case, there are people wearing masks and some who are unmasked,” he said. “We can strongly encourage, but we do not want to turn someone away when we are called to walk them through their grief.”
 
Three times he got tested when he felt he had been exposed to the virus. Each test came back negative. Then recently, he started
Mitch Henson
experiencing sinus pressure and a mild headache. Again he was tested, and this time an hour later, he was confirmed positive.
 
“Even with my cautious nature, a part of me felt this was inevitable,” he said.
 
He posted his results on social media to make sure anyone he might have been in contact with was aware of his status. His wife and daughter were tested immediately after he found out he was positive. Both were negative but are still quarantining.
 
Henson isolated his wife and daughter in their home by staying on the lower level and leaving the upper level to them.
 
“So far, we are doing good at the isolation and quarantine, but it is challenging emotionally,” he said. “Air-hugging and air-kissing my 11-year-old from a distance stinks. I’m not sure how I can keep this up for two weeks.”
 
Henson recalls that his workload increased tremendously when the pandemic first hit as he became the worship leader, liturgist, A/V tech and custodian. When it became apparent that the virus was not going to be over soon, the churches began to make small changes to bring people back into their roles in a way that did not increase exposure risk. They enhanced their technology to prerecord portions of the worship service and weave them into the live worship.
 
“Because of the pandemic, we are prepared for this,” Henson said on January 6. “I’m only two days into quarantine but feel very good about our ability as a church to weather this storm.”