Churches find ways to call ministers during pandemic

Troy Strickland (left), pastor of First Baptist Church in Lipan, participates in a one-hour session on Zoom with prospective youth minister Matt Olson and his wife Emily. Church members submitted questions for the youth minister candidate prior to a vote that was conducted digitally. (Screenshot)

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LIPAN—Pastor Troy Strickland never expected his first experience guiding a church through the process of seeking and calling a youth minister would be without any face-to-face interviews or in-person voting. But Strickland never anticipated ministry in the midst of a global pandemic.

In January, Strickland met with leaders at First Baptist Church in Lipan to talk about the steps the congregation would follow to search for a youth minister.

The search committee agreed to solicit recommendations and resumes, narrow the field of candidates and conduct initial interviews by phone—although they didn’t foresee all contact being by phone or video conference.

The search committee contacted Matt Olson, former youth minister at First Montgomery Baptist Church, north of Houston, and interviewed him by phone. Committee members were impressed and wanted to bring him to Lipan for a meeting.

“The first in-person interview was scheduled just about the time the lockdown started,” Strickland said.

To complicate matters, some of the first cases of COVID-19 in Texas had been reported in the Houston area, and it quickly emerged as an early hotspot. Strickland insisted it was neither wise nor fair to the candidate to insist that he make the four-hour trip to Lipan in Hood County during a pandemic. So, the committee instead conducted a video interview with Olson.

“I had never used Zoom until then,” Olson said. “But it went as smooth as could be.”

The committee wanted to present Olson to the church in view of a call.

“I was asked, “Can we do that when we are not meeting?” Strickland recalled.

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Making adjustments, keeping the church informed

After consulting the church’s governing documents and seeking advice, he told the committee the church could override its standard practice if the congregation as a whole voted to do so. He also determined affordable software was available that would enable the church to vote digitally on a recommendation to call Olson as youth minister.

Matt Olson recorded a video in which he presented his Christian testimony and discussed his calling to ministry, which was posted on the Facebook page of First Baptist Church in Lipan. (Screenshot)

So, he wrote a letter explaining the process, printed ballots and mailed them to everyone on the church membership roll. Members had 10 days to return their completed ballots on the procedural vote. The proposal carried with only two votes in opposition.

Olson recorded a video in which he presented his Christian testimony and discussed his calling to ministry, which was posted on the church’s Facebook page. He also prepared several Bible lessons for youth that were posted on the student ministry social media page.

“We shared that with everybody else, too, so they could see him teach,” Strickland said.

In mid-April, Olson and Strickland conducted a conversation on Zoom that was livestreamed for the church. Then on April 26, Olson presented a prerecorded children’s sermon as part of the church’s Sunday morning worship service.

After the worship service, Olson and his wife Emily joined Strickland for an hour-long session on Zoom in which church members submitted questions the prospective youth minister answered.

After the Zoom question-and-answer session, Strickland invited members to click on the link he had sent to each of them by email, along with a unique identification key to unlock the ballot and allow them to vote.

Joining a church staff during a lockdown

At the end of the allotted three-hour voting time, the balloting software tabulated the votes. The church unanimously voted to call Olson.

Troy Strickland (left), pastor of First Baptist Church in Lipan, and prospective youth minister Matt Olson have a conversation on Zoom that church members could access on the church’s Facebook page. (Screenshot)

In the weeks that followed, Olson sought to establish relationships with students in the church, using Zoom for Wednesday night meetings, posting devotionals on Instagram and making plans for a stay-at-home virtual youth camp June 8-12.

“We’ll meet in the fellowship hall to participate in worship and music that will be online. We’ll play games outside, and then the students will go home each night,” he explained. “It’s kind of like a teenage Vacation Bible School.”

By the end of the summer, Olson hopes the restrictions on social distancing will be lifted to a point that the youth can participate in a lock-in.

Strickland noted First Baptist Church could not have gone through the entire process of searching for and calling a youth minister the members never met in person if he and the church members had not developed a deep relationship based on mutual trust.

“Each step of the way, we were transparent,” he said. “If there’s not transparency, it’s not going to work.”

Calling a pastor during a pandemic

About 65 miles to the northeast of Lipan, Shady Oaks Baptist Church in Hurst conducted some—but not all—of its search for a pastor during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The pastor search committee began work about 10 months ago, but it received the resume of Jay Fannin, minister to students at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, not long before the pandemic restrictions went into effect, said Richard Adams, executive administrator at Shady Oaks Baptist Church.

Jay Fannin

After a phone contact and an interview on Zoom, the committee met Fannin for a face-to-face interview.

“The fact that he was local made it easier,” Adams noted. The churches in Fort Worth and Hurst are less than 25 miles apart.

When Shady Oaks Baptist resumed in-person worship services on May 17, the committee announced it had a candidate whose name would be announced the following week and who would come in view of a call as pastor on May 31.

“On Saturday (May 30), we had three meet-and-greet events at church—divided by age group and with proper social distancing,” Adams said.

A question-and-answer session with Fannin was livestreamed that same day.

Giving multiple opportunities to vote

To accommodate members who were comfortable attending a small group with social distancing but not a larger worship service, voting on the pastoral candidate was permitted at the meet-and-greet events.

“We also had drive-up voting after the question-and-answer livestream” for members in high-risk categories who wanted to remain in their cars, Adams noted.

He reported 96 members voted in the three small-group sessions, and another 35 used the drive-up voting.

“We did everything our bylaws allowed us to do so that everyone who wanted to vote had the opportunity,” Adams said.

Fannin will begin his service as pastor of Shady Oaks Baptist Church on Father’s Day, June 21.

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