ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – Once a bustling congregation of nearly 1,500 members, Pollard Baptist Church is closing its doors.
Decades of decline had taken their toll at Pollard, leaving five faithful members to make the heart-wrenching decision to pull the plug.
The final worship service will be May 1.
“We grieve over what has come to pass,” said Wes Smith, Pollard’s pastor for the last six years. “We understand every living organism does die eventually. As great as the churches listed in the New Testament were, none of those are around today.”
For the tiny remnant of believers, the closing creates a deafening silence from the pulpit where God’s Word had been proclaimed for the past 126 years.
“It’s heartbreaking; it really is,” said 70-year-old Linda Cornwell, who has known no other church. She was enrolled in the "cradle roll" as a baby and committed her life to Christ at age 15. “It was August 1962,” she said. “Twenty-five people were saved on the same night.”
Churches close every single day in America and even though some have been around for more than a century, like Pollard, they fade from existence due to irrelevance, population shifts, societal changes and poor church leadership.
Churches, like human beings, are born and they live and they die.
“During the past 75 years we’ve been in a gradual decline,” Smith said of Pollard.
The pastor had a sobering message thought for pastors and other church leaders.
“If you’re not careful, it can happen to you,” he said. “If there are seeds of death, they must be replaced with seeds of life.”
The 71-year-old Smith said the remaining members are at peace with the decision to disband.
“You need to understand, disbanding or the reasons for it don’t occur overnight,” he said. “As God was glorified during those times, we will also give Him glory in these times. As the last pastor, my major concern is that God receives the glory.”
Pollard had its heyday in the first half of the 20th Century, experiencing rapid growth that brought two new buildings. The structure where the church stands today was built in 1925. By 1929, membership reached 512 and during the next 30 years the membership soared to nearly 1,500.
Rev. William K. “W.K.” Wood was a powerhouse minister and state evangelist for 70 years. He came from western Kentucky to Ashland to be the pastor of Pollard Baptist Church in 1923 and spent 21 years preaching powerfully to a full sanctuary. He was one of the first pastors in northeastern Kentucky to have his own radio show that aired every Sunday night.
Fred Boggs, 87, was a young boy who heard the news blaring over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was also a member of Pollard Baptist Church, having been going there since he was 5 at the invitation of a neighbor who lived behind his family’s home.
“I remember that day,” he said. “I was going from the church to the grocery story and they announced over the radio that war broke out. Men were leaving for war and people were scared. That’s when people flocked back to the church.”
Boggs said the church was so crowded from 1942 to 1944 that on Sunday night those who couldn’t get into the main auditorium went into the basement to listen to Wood preach on the radio.
Wood was popular and wielded great influence in the community. But that didn’t prevent his deacons from asking him to resign, a pivotal moment in the church’s history, one that may have triggered the decline that led to the decision close all these years later.
“The theory is that God was doing some great things and there were some deacons there who decided he had more influence and control than they thought he needed to have,” said Rose Hill Pastor Matt Shamblin, whose church was planted by Pollard. “Six deacons asked him to resign. Legend goes, within the year, all six of them were dead.”
Wood left Pollard in 1944 to begin training as a city missionary in northern Kentucky. He was named state evangelist for Kentucky, working for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Mission Board.
“He was so popular,” said Kentucky Baptist Convention consultant Paul Badgett, who has walked Pollard through the process of closing its doors. “Everywhere I go, I find people who knew about W.K. Wood.”
There was no compromise with Wood, who preached God’s word with fire and fury, and never minded stepping on toes if necessary. He preached with conviction against cigarettes, alcohol, mixed bathing and other social issues of the time. Among church keepsakes is an exchange of letters between Wood and the late Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Badgett, the son of a barber in Ashland, said men would come to father’s shop and ask for a “haircut like W.K. Wood. Dad would tell them few people had a head of hair like W.K. Wood!”
Pollard’s power struggle continued even after Wood left the church. A disagreement in 1955 led to a church split. Many of the members left to start Thirteenth Street Baptist Church a few blocks away. Over the next few decades the community around Pollard shifted from one of largely middle-class residents to lower income. Housing projects were built nearby.
While the problems from the mid-1940s to 1955 may have been the beginning of the end, it wasn’t that Pollard was an ineffective church for the next 50 years. Church attendance wasn’t as steady and several pastors came and went. They always preached the Bible, but it also fell more out of touch with the community it served.
“Communities are going to constantly change,” Shamblin said. “If you have the mentality this is who we are and who you are is not who the community needs you to be, you will lose the community. If you have a drive-in congregation in the middle of a neighborhood, you’re in trouble.”
Shamblin said Pollard resisted making changes that would have been necessary to reach the people living around the church.
“The community changed around them,” he said. “If they were going to be the church for the community of Pollard, that required them to change. If there’s a mentality that the community exists for the church and not the church for the community, that’s certain death. The community around them changed and unfortunately the church never did. Even when they made overtures of trying to change, that was resisted as well.”
Jamie Lester’s grandfather, A.N. Lester, preached five years at Pollard from 1985 to 1990 before retiring. Jamie was going to college in Ashland and lived with his grandparents in the Pollard parsonage for several years. He said the church was mostly full in the lower level with about 200 regularly in attendance, many of them well into their 80s.
Lester said he became involved in church life through Pollard’s influence and credits the church with having a huge part in leading him to salvation. He was married at Pollard in 1989. He also was involved with the youth program, called Pollard Pals, during some of his time there.
John Black was the youth pastor who had the attention of that segment of the church. He tried out to be the pastor after Lester’s grandfather retired but was voted down.
“People who had not been there in years showed up just to vote against John Black,” Lester said. “He didn’t fit the mold of that generation of people, so they rejected him. I don’t know what might have happened there if John had been chosen pastor. It might have been different.”
Lester said Black went on to success at churches in Ohio and Pollard stayed on a downward trend. Black tried to explain to the older generation that the world is changing and wasn’t like in the 1940s and 1950s when everybody had a job and life was much simpler, Lester said.
“He told them kids have different problems now than they did then,” Lester said. “Nobody honors the ‘Greatest Generation’ any more than I do, but that generation of people was not open to following that type of leadership at that time. You can’t help but think that might have had a real negative impact on the next 30 years.”
Studies have documented the life cycles of churches. Some that have been on the verge of closing have been revived to find a whole new life. Others disband and dissolve. Some limp along for decades until their stalwart generation is gone, leaving no option other than to close the doors.
“Pollard Baptist was no longer the church that community needed and instead of changing, they chose death,” Shamblin said. “I’ve done a lot of church consultation. Churches are making that decision all across America. ‘I will not change, even for my grandchildren.’ They won’t say it that way, but their actions will say that.”
Cornwell, who said she always appreciated going to a church where everybody knew her name, where people were concerned about her, and where the Word was preached, has grieved over the death of Pollard.
“It’s like taking care of your mother with dementia, but you can’t put a church in a nursing home,” she said. “It’s like losing a family member. We did everything we could.”