RISE FROM THE ASHES: How leaders at historic First Baptist Church Magee rebuilt — better than ever — after a $2-million fire

First Baptist Church Magee GC3

By Joyce Guzowski

For historic First Baptist Church Magee, of Magee, Miss. — founded nearly 120 years ago — the unthinkable happened on December 11, 2013.

As a police officer was driving by in the early morning hours, he noticed a flicker of light behind a frosted window — in an area that should not normally be lit. After driving closer to investigate, the police officer realized that a full-blown fire was occurring.

No alarms had sounded — the building was old, built in the mid-20th century.

After the fire was put out, and investigated, the source was identified: a battery backup CPU unit, or the battery itself. Robbie Barnes, treasurer and long-time member of First Baptist Church Magee, helped to assess the damage. The bulk occurred in the office suite, which housed the pastors and staff members. The origin of the fire, at the CPU unit, was in the secretarial office, just outside the church sanctuary. The door was closed at the time, and glass had melted in that area. Smoke damage was extensive. The fire had originated on the first floor, and the smoke climbed to the second and third stories, following the pipes, and creating a “chimney-like” effect.

When all was said and done, the dollar amount on the damage was in the $2-million range.

“You had structural damage, damage to furniture, fixtures, personal belongings, toys and all the things in the daycare, musical instruments, and sound system damage,” Barnes says. The magnitude of the damage was unparalleled in the church’s long history — save for some tornado and hail damage, a common occurrence in south Mississippi’s climate.

The first step forward

After the damage assessment, the church began the process of deciding how to move forward. A committee was formulated; it consisted of Barnes, the treasurer; Cole Bond, the properties committee chairman; James Smith, the financial review chairman; Dan Johnston, the chairman of deacons; and Raymond Johnson, vice chairman of deacons. The team was rounded out by the pastor, Bro. Buddy Keyes.

First Baptist Church Magee, a longtime insured of GuideOne Insurance, turned to its insurance agent, David Keyes of Insurance Associates in Magee, and its carrier, GuideOne, during the beginning stages of cleanup and planning. Keyes would be instrumental in guiding the church through the entire rebuilding process, as well.

SERVPRO, a restoration and cleaning service provider, was called to tend to inventory and cleanup. It was during this time that the rebuilding team really began considering a contractor — and how they would ultimately make that decision. The discussion sparked a mention of GC3 (at the time referred to as GuideOne Taylor Ball), the construction / reconstruction division of GuideOne. A meeting was set up, and the team remained open-minded as they prepared to talk with GC3.

“They met with our team, and they explained how the process worked. They explained to us their relationship with GuideOne and that it would be a much more seamless process because they communicated directly with GuideOne,” Barnes explains. “This was opposed to having someone coming to us, and then we have to be the third party, the intermediary. We listened to them, we also talked amongst ourselves, and in the church, and decided that it was the best avenue for us to take. As it turned out, I think it was without a doubt a really good decision.”

The communication between GuideOne and GC3 did provide a simplified process for First Baptist, something that was highly valued by the rebuilding team’s members. As GC3 had mentioned in their initial talk, much of the added work of functioning as an intermediary was eliminated altogether. Ray Hoover, who represented GuideOne, and Michael Schmidt, superintendent of the church’s rebuilding job for GC3, communicated regularly on the rebuilding process.

“We would meet two or three times during the week at night, and Michael would bring us up to date,” Barnes recalls. “We’d get Ray on the phone if we needed to, and we’d just work through this whole process. They had a really good, open dialogue, and it worked well for us because we didn’t really have a lot of friction there.”

In addition to clear, consistent communication on the planning progress, the committee members were often presented options for not only rebuilding, but also improvements. The building that had sustained the fire damage had been standing for many decades, possibly since the 1950s. “Michael would say, ‘Look, I can put this back exactly the way it was, but for the same money, I can do this and it would be an improvement. Not only a necessary improvement for functionality, but a safety improvement,” Barnes says. The options for upgrading took the project above and beyond a basic rebuild — on the
same budget.

Along with the time saved by eliminating the church as a third party between the insurance company and the contractor, there was a feeling of time saved just by

First Baptist Church Magee
(From left to right) The rebuilding team at First Baptist Church Magee: Raymond Johnson (Vice Chairman of the Deacons), Dan Johnston (Chairman of the Deacons), Cole Bond (Committee Chair), Robbie Barnes (Church Treasurer) and Bro. Buddy Keyes (Senior Pastor). Not pictured: James Smith (Financial Review Committee Chairman)

virtue of knowledge of rebuilding. GC3 had experience working with insurance claims, so this meant that they were familiar with the process of fixing damaged structures. As Barnes points out, many contractors might not carry the same experience that an insurance company possesses.

“With their expertise with dealing with fire claims and renovating them — as well as, I’m sure, other natural disasters — they were able to save us a lot of time, and a lot of expense, because they were already ahead of the game,” Barnes says. This experience with claims created a seamless process, one that might have otherwise been absent, or left up to the church to figure out themselves.

Making ministry work in the meantime

Over the course of the rebuild, First Baptist Church Magee held its services in its family life center, located across the street from the church. What could be salvaged from the smoke damage was safely removed from the church, with the help of GC3, and taken over to the center to be used, as church members were not allowed to reenter the building as a safety precaution. GC3 also helped to rent any items that were needed, but not available.

“Our church is like every other church. We don’t like change — we’re resistant to change. You think because it’s always been done one way, it’s [how it] needs to be done forever. And that’s not the case.”

— Robbie Barnes

Throughout the process, Barnes says he and his team viewed GC3 as much more than a construction company. In fact, Michael Schmidt flew out for the dedication of the new church. “This was really a true partnership; he advised us throughout this whole process,” Barnes recalls. “We were extremely grateful for the way that he handled it.”

Lessons from the trenches

When asked what advice Barnes would give to other church leaders based on what he and the First Baptist Church Magee have been through — from the shock of a disaster, to the lengthy rebuilding process — his response was three-pronged.

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“One, make sure you have good insurance coverage with a good insurance company,” he advises. “There were some coverages that our insurance agent had put on for us that we really didn’t know about, and they came into play. Understand your insurance coverage, and understand the limitations, because that can be critically important in a disaster like this.” First Baptist was properly insured and had replacement cost coverage; without it, renovations would have come with a steep price tag. The insurance committee had worked with their insurance agent beforehand to make sure they were adequately covered.

Two, according to Barnes, is to make sure you have proper alarm systems that alert you to an incident. Had the police officer not passed the church that night, a total loss might have been possible.

Barnes’ last piece of advice: Be open-minded. “Our church is like every other church. We don’t like change — we’re resistant to change. You think because it’s always been done one way, it’s [how it] needs to be done forever. And that’s not the case,” he says.

“I think our church grew closer through this process,” Barnes adds. “It forced us to … make some decisions that we probably would have deferred had this not occurred. Our church was strong enough to withstand that and willing to be flexible enough to allow us to make some changes. Without a doubt, we have a better church than we had prior to the fire.”’

And would First Baptist Church Magee done anything differently in the rebuilding process?

“No,” Barnes says. “We had the right people involved in it, the right insurance coverages, and the right contractor in GC3.”


QUICK FACTS ABOUT FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH MAGEE

Year Established: 1898

Location of main campus: Magee, Miss.

Number of staff (full- and part-time): 6 / 2

Combined weekly attendance: 300

2017 budget: $840,000

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