The oldest megachurch in the country, Chicago’s Moody Church, also relied on technology to vote in a new senior pastor last month. Despite its stately age, Moody isn’t tech-shy; in the 1980s, it bought a bank of answering machines to serve as call-in Bible study recordings for kids. This time, the church allowed members to vote online through Survey Monkey or call in their vote. With help from Moody Bible Institute, it set up a telephone helpline for anyone struggling with the digital process. Church staff used the member rolls, email addresses, and other identifying information to verify each voter’s membership.
The church ultimately confirmed Philip Miller as its new pastor on March 29. Miller, who had been leading a church outside Seattle, was in the final stages of the hiring process when the shutdowns hit and decided still to fly to Chicago to preach on the day of the vote. Both Illinois and Washington had instituted shelter-in-place orders by then, but Miller said the elders at Moody believed it was essential to continue the hiring process.
“The thought was, if we stop now, when would we pick it back up again?” Miller said. He also felt it was important symbolically to greet his prospective new church for the first time from their own familiar pulpit.
As an extrovert, Miller said, it took some mental gymnastics adjusting to preaching without audience feedback. “In your mind you just think, ‘In that camera are thousands of people, sitting in their living rooms, with their kids in their laps … you’re speaking to the hearts of real people.’”
He will begin preaching regularly at Moody in July, after his family moves to Chicago, and will be coordinating with the staff in the meantime. Miller succeeds Erwin Lutzer, who retired in 2016 after 36 years of ministry there.
The challenges to transitioning to a new congregation and new role extend across levels of leadership. David Schermerhorn had just been hired as small groups pastor at Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio, a few weeks before the shutdown. He said it’s been a unique challenge trying to both introduce himself and meet his church’s leaders remotely.“Over Zoom it feels formal and corporate,” said Schermerhorn, noting the online meetings are reminiscent of the job he left in the private sector.
He now oversees around 500 small groups at the roughly 8,000-member church. Rather than hold the big meet-and-greet for small group leaders he’d planned for May, he’s joining a handful of them online each week.
“As a new pastor, I was kind of hoping to ease into grief and loss conversations,” Schermerhorn said. With the pandemic canceling everything from high school proms to weddings to visits with newborns, along with the anxiety inherent to any health scare, he said he’s plunged, ready or not, into difficult topics.
That can also be good for churches—immediately bringing new leaders into significant and weighty ministry work. “I’m hearing from pastors everywhere that their small group meetings are quicker and better … because there’s no beating around the bush about the weather or the football game,” said Vanderbloemen. “It’s like, ‘Here we are, let’s get at it.’”
Back in Texas, as the English family waits for the moving van to ship their lives to Colorado, they’re experiencing their own grief. Departing a beloved church home is always tough, but it’s even harder when social distancing means skipping out on the traditional last services and goodbyes.
When he makes it to Colorado, he will become one of a strange cohort of coronavirus-era pastor hires, all struggling to greet a church without any handshakes and step up as a leader without gathering the flock in a church building.
As new pastors eagerly await their first gathering with their new congregations, they are in good and biblical company. As the Apostle Paul wrote the Roman church, “I long to see you … that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith,” Paul wrote. “I planned many times to come to you, but have been prevented from doing so” (Rom. 1:11–13).