The Rev. Vernell Horner, MBMA president and pastor of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church, stands with his wife, Barbara Horner. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

President Vernon Horner of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association will have led his group of spiritual leaders for two years in January 2022. 

Unlike former administrations, a global pandemic challenged the scope of his ability to lead.

“During the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were losing so many people,” said Horner. “There were some ministers who died, and many pastors in the Baptist Ministerial Association thought we should close the organization down.

“But I decided to stay open through it all. I took a lot of criticism, but we got through it.”

Horner was urged by members to cancel weekly meetings because of safety concerns. When Horner continued the meetings, attendance fell from 50-70 members to a handful.

“A lot of the pastors began dropping off membership dues, but they didn’t stay for the meeting,” said Horner. “Now attendance is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.

“I didn’t want to close the organization. Sometimes, when you close something down, it’s hard to reopen. I didn’t want the Baptist Ministerial Association to close on my watch.”

Horner kept the decades-old organization afloat while also guiding his church through the pandemic’s most difficult days. 

Greater New Bethel Baptist Church is at 316 George Rd. near Lakeview Gardens in Southwest Memphis. 

Keeping both the organization and the church operating took strength well beyond what Horner was humanly capable of possessing, he said. 

“I think through this pandemic, God was certainly speaking to us,” said Horner. “The Lord wants us to trust him, and I mean pastors as well as congregations. As pastors, we teach and preach having faith in God, when many times we, ourselves, fall short. He promised never to leave or forsake us. In times like we’ve been through we have to trust what the Lord is saying to us.”

Major events had to be cancelled and adjustments had to be made in both the organization’s schedule as well as that of the church. Even operating at a fraction of full administrative levels, the important thing, said Horner, is just to persevere.

 “We had to learn some hard lessons last year,” said Horner. “The pandemic numbers show that we are now in a resurgence because of variants. We have vaccines, and we know what measures to take to stay safe. We will ride this out, however long it takes. God is with our association, and He is with our church family.”

Horner founded Greater New Bethel after returning from California in 1989.