Phillip Bethancourt’s kids aren’t convinced other children actually live in College Station, Texas. They moved from Nashville a few weeks ago for their dad’s new job as pastor of Central Church, but because of the coronavirus shutdowns, the four boys have yet to go school, make friends in the neighborhood, or meet the kids at their new church.
Bethancourt too is living in his own strange parallel reality, preaching to a video camera in an empty auditorium and waiting for a congregation he hasn’t seen to officially vote him in. If all goes as planned on Sunday, he’ll become a lead pastor for the first time while his flock is still social distancing.
“Nothing matches the opportunity to be with people in person,” said Bethancourt, who left his job as vice president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to pursue the call at Central Church. “But I would say the process we’ve been using so far is the best substitute we can create.”
“This is not the time to be without a pastor,” said William Vanderbloemen, who runs a consulting agency that helps Christian organizations with hiring. His phone has been “ringing off the hook” with churches wanting to get serious about their pastoral search.
Many have decided to forge ahead with the process despite the unique challenges of social restrictions and shutdowns due to the pandemic. Several congregations, including high-profile megachurches Moody Church and Willow Creek Community Church, were in the midst of leadership transitions and have named new senior pastors in recent weeks.
Vanderbloemen tells churches and prospective pastors to avoid jumping into anything too quickly, even if it feels like the pressure’s on. After that, he says to remember “the internet is your friend.” Hiring a new pastor—like everything these days—takes digital deftness.
When J. T. English first applied for the lead pastor position at Storyline Church in Denver seven months ago, the new coronavirus had yet to infect its first patient. But by the time he and his wife, Macy, traveled to Denver the first weekend in March, the pandemic was starting to spread in the US. They returned home to Flower Mound, Texas, where English was pastor of training at the Village Church, right before widespread shutdowns began.
English said he briefly considered pausing the hiring process until the pandemic had passed, but he decided against it. “I don’t feel like I can be the pastor of a church in a good season … if I’m unwilling to pastor them through this, too,” he said.
Leaders at Storyline—which had been without a lead pastor since founder Ben Mandrell became president of LifeWay Christian Resources last summer—agreed. “We thought, ‘What if the Lord wants to keep moving this forward?’ said Lindsay Acocella, a staff member and part of the church’s search team. “And we felt like he did.”
English, a Colorado native, was presented to the congregation as a candidate through a video recorded 700 miles away in Texas and has continued to preach from there. After taking Zoom calls to talk with each small group and ministry team—reaching about 400 out of 500 members of the church by screen—the congregation voted to approve him during an online meeting on April 5. (English was relieved, since he’d already recorded the Easter sermon, which the church planned to run either way.)
The online process, though lacking the in-person fellowship that’s so important to churches, has actually given congregants more access to pastor candidates. If English had simply traveled to Denver to preach one Sunday before a vote, as originally planned, he would’ve gotten a few hours, maximum, with the congregation. Now he has pages of names, notes, and prayer requests—jotted down by his wife—from more than 17 Zoom meetings. “It would’ve taken weeks or months to get that,” he said.
Bethancourt said his Zoom calls with members at Central Church were equally rigorous. “I had one church member say to me we’ve probably been asked more questions than any candidate in the history of church searches,” he said.
According to Vanderbloemen, it’s a smart organizational move for churches to continue their hiring process right now in anticipation of a flood of worshipers returning to church when the doors reopen. Plus, many congregations need reliable leadership to provide direction in the meantime. “In a crisis, people run to a church, and right now they can’t,” he said. “So they want to run to at least a pastor.”