Searching for a Pastor Amidst a Pandemic

Turns out that a global pandemic is not the best time for parishes to look for a new priest.

“The normal search process would have been to interview a number of candidates at a distance, then narrow the field,” says Susan Williams, who co-chairs the search committee at Trinity Church in Bloomington with Jim Skomp. Trinity began looking for its next rector in February after its previous rector, the Rev. Charlie Dupree, became the rector of a church in Richmond, Virginia, last summer.

“Then we would normally appoint sub-committees to visit candidates’ parishes,” Williams says. “The last stage is to bring finalists to our parish, but it is not clear we are going to be able to follow either of those last two steps.”

St. Andrew’s in Greencastle finds itself in a similarly uncertain situation. “Bishop Jennifer was with us on Palm Sunday for our virtual coffee hour, and she said that anybody we might want to call probably has their own flock they are ministering to in the middle of this pandemic, and they are not looking to make a change right now,” says Susan Murray, the senior warden. “So we are looking at fall as a best-case scenario.”

To complicate matters further, congregations currently searching for rectors or priests-in-charge are attempting to define their values, needs and aspirations just as the COVID-19 pandemic may be altering their sense of who they are and where God is calling them.

“Are people thinking, ‘Well in June 2021 things are going back to normal, so let’s hire for that time,’?” asks Jennifer Phelps, the diocese’s transitions minister. “Or are they going to take this moment and say, ‘We need to find a priest who is nimble, who is comfortable with going digital, who is finding ways to be pastoral when people can’t meet face-to-face, to do formation in a world that is changing so rapidly that our heads are spinning. That’s my curiosity right now.”

Pandemic or no pandemic, the diocese helps congregations explore their hopes and disappointments, and explore their priorities through the three-session Holy Conversations program developed by Kay Collier McLaughlin of the Diocese of Lexington, who has served as a search consultant in the diocese. The conversations explore what members love about their congregations, the times it has hurt or disappointed them, and how they envision the future.

Congregations are sometimes reluctant to have these conversations, believing that they slow the process of calling a new clergy leader, but Phelps and the Rev. Kristin White, canon to the ordinary for congregational development and leadership, insist on them.

“Our first response was to ask why, but it was probably one of the best things we could have done to take the time to do, especially to identify those parishioners who were mourning the loss of our rector,” Murray says.

“It was the depth of people’s emotions, positive or negative, that were surprising to me,” Williams says. “I think I knew what was important to people, but I wouldn’t have ranked them properly before the conversations.”

Distilling feedback from these conversations helps congregations make what can sometimes be difficult decisions about their future.

“I am looking for a sense of identity and initiative to emerge from its lay leaders,” Phelps says. “Does the parish profile reflect self-knowledge? Have they gotten some clarity on what their strengths are and where their needs are?”

At St. Paul’s in Richmond, the congregation knows it is facing some challenges. The parish has been without a rector for nearly four years, relying recently on the services of the Rev. David Ottsen and the Rev. Brown Mujete, an Anglican priest from Kenya, as their long-term supply priests. “We need to take this leap of faith to where we can call a fulltime priest and try to build up the congregation,” says George Eastman, who chairs the search committee.

A downtown church, St. Paul’s tries to stay in touch with residents of two nearby apartment buildings. “We have Open Arms Ministries, a diverse faith-based coalition, trying to help people, living in poverty, with rent and utilities and felons released from prison returning to Richmond,” Eastman says.

“We don’t have too many young families,” he says, adding that the church’s typical Sunday attendance is about 30. “While our congregation is small and older, every member is involved. We feel like we’ve got a lot to offer this community and we feel like we need to try to do as much as we can to bring the people back to the church.”

In Greencastle, where the Rev. Mark Van Wassenhove is serving as interim rector, conducting a search during the pandemic has made members more aware of the importance of formation and of friendship to their congregation. “Continuing the youth program was on all of our minds,” Murray says. “The junior high group that meets remotely once a week, but for the younger kids it’s not happening, so that’s a disappointment.

A group of young mothers is using a Google chat room to talk about the challenges of educating their children at home while schools are not in session, Murray says. And parishioners go out of their way to make sure that the matriarchs of the congregation, four women in their 80s and 90s. are able to dial in to worship on Zoom.

“We keep asking: How do we keep people connected? How do we keep people learning?” she says.

Trinity in Bloomington was better equipped for the pandemic than some other parishes, with a number of technically adept people in the parish, and the Rev. Virginia Hall, a former associate rector, in place as their interim rector. During its search, the parish has discussed strengthening its relationship with the campus ministry at Indiana University, and continue to broaden the parish’s social justice ministry.

Trinity founded Bloomington’s Interfaith Winter Shelter in 2009 and was a founding member of Monroe Country United Ministries, which runs a day care and food pantry, Williams says. “What has happened recently, though, is that people have begun to think about not only providing direct service, but also being more active on advocacy on the underlying structural problems,” she adds. “So we have a growing social justice focus that I think is a completely natural extension of our historical focus on outreach, but is a new aspect to it.”

Few churches learn as much about themselves during a search as St. Paul’s in New Albany. The parish found itself without a priest on Ash Wednesday and had to put together a lay-led service. And that was before the pandemic forced the congregation, which consists primarily of older members, to worship online with interim rector, the Rev. Mark Feather, who arrived before Holy Week.

“It did sort of throw us directly into ‘Okay, what do we do to fix this?’” says Monica Mitchell, senior warden. “‘We can’t be together so what do we need to do?’ You hop into problem solving and maybe find out some things you need to think about.

“I personally learned that while a large chunk of our congregation is older and a little more hesitant to bring in new technology, the second we decided to do service online people were jumping in left right and center,” she says.

The results have been pleasantly surprising. The church drew about 25 people to its pre-pandemic Sunday services, but have had as many as 50 participants online. A virtual coffee hour has been successful as well. And the parish’s pet food pantry was recently written up in a local newspaper.

“It has gotten so some people who normally would never consider a virtual meeting of any kind are saying, ‘Well we could do a bible study,’” Mitchell says.

She is seizing the moment. “I am trying to communicate as much as I can that [choosing a new rector] is really our decision as a church. This is giving us time to pull away from relying on a priest all the time. If we have a sense of who we are, we should be able to find someone who will fit us.”