Widow of pastor killed in fire talks about her husband's legacy

Entering the halls of Goshen Free Will Baptist Church in Mount Holly, you're bound to feel a sense of togetherness and fellowship among the crowd in attendance, anytime there is a service. Everyone there is like an extended family to one another- singing, studying their Bibles, and praying.  

Right at the front row is Barbara Burch.

"She teaches in the choir, she teaches the small children," church member Ronald Rickard said. "She hasn't let up what she does here."

The last month and a half have been anything but easy for her, or anyone in the congregation. Just outside the church is the reminder why- the remains of parsonage where Barbara lived with her husband, the church's pastor Clayton Burch. A fire on Dec. 4, 2018 engulfed the home and ultimately took the life of the church leader.

Firefighters said the blaze, accidental in nature, started in a garage and extended throughout the home.

"I had nothing to go back to," Barbara Burch said. "I had one piece of clothes on."

Burch's recollection of the early morning hours when she was forced from her home are vivid. But so are the memories she made with a man she was married to for 41 years. Memories of how they met, his call to preach, and the life they built together.

"I was actually a cashier at a grocery store in New Bern, and he was the bread man," said Burch. "He came in every day, and he came in through my line just so he could talk to me."

Anyone who knows Clayton Burch would be hard-pressed to forget him. Nearly every member of the congregation that spoke publicly about him noted Clayton Burch's colorful coats.

"He always said he was not a 'black suit preacher'. He wore colors because he said he served a living God and not a dead God," Burch said. 

Depsite his flashy dress, his preaching was anything but. Seven years ago, when the church was searching for another pastor, Clayton Burch went to the top of the list of candidates.

"His style of preaching was 'down home'," said Rikard. "He was a country boy at heart, and he really enjoyed what he was doing. He really did."

The enjoyment showed, and the congregation loved Clayton Burch back. His sudden death left a deep hole in many hearts.

Barbara Burch said she and her husband were stirred from their bed by their dog barking and by the constant ringing of their doorbell. Firefighters told Burch that the heat from the fire caused the electricity to act up, leading to the doorbell ringing, but she believes it was a sign from above.

"My husband was yelling, 'Barbara, get out! Barbara, get out!', and she turned around to make sure that we got out," she said. "I went out the front foor, he went out the back door. He sat down in the swing in the back yard and that's where he passed away."

Clayton Burch officially succumbed to his injuries a day later.

Life without the pastor has become a new normal at Goshen Free Will Baptist Church, one that the congregation, his wife included, is still coming to terms with.  

The church recently decided to move forward in the search for a new pastor. As for Barbara Burch, she said she plans on remaining a member of the church, crediting the congregation with helping her through her grief.

She also has the words of her husband, who preached about death.

"My husband always preached, 'when I die, don't mourn for me, because I'm at a better place. You can mourn for Barbara and cry for Barbara, but don't mourn for me because I'm with the Lord'," she said.