Nolan Porter is excited to become the next senior pastor at University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri — and he’s also excited to eventually meet the congregants there. On Sunday (March 29), Porter preached in view of a call at UHBC, but with coronavirus forcing the church to move to virtual worship, he preached and chatted with people on their computer screens, and they voted electronically to call him.
“This call weekend experience was certainly unusual but incredibly encouraging, especially after we got through it! Any weekend like this is full of some level of anxiety but my wife Lisa and I both felt it was increased simply because we couldn’t see and speak to people face to face,” Porter told Word&Way. “I am not used to preaching primarily to a camera (although I was thankful for church staff being there for a small congregation) which added some stress. However, the stress and anxiety we felt was primarily in questions about how we might be perceived digitally, but we trusted the search committee to represent and know their church well, and they did.”
“The response was overwhelming and positive. As I said in my sermon on Sunday, we were all having to learn to trust the Lord in a new way and grow in faith,” he added. “My family and I are so very thankful we are now a part of UHBC, and thankful that we were all able to share in this experience of faith and trust together. The folks of University Heights are to be commended for their willingness to adjust and adapt through this process.”
UHBC leaders also reflected on the unusual process after the coronavirus pandemic upended their original plans. As Trey Hatchcok, UHBC minister of students and media and the generations team leader for Churchnet, told Word&Way: “The church’s bylaws didn’t outline how to call a pastor during a global pandemic.”
Porter had visited with the search committee in person about a month ago when, as Porter said, “COVID-19 wasn’t on our radar at all,” and the call weekend was set for the last weekend in March. Then in the first half of March, the coronavirus erupted in the United States, which now has the most infected persons in the world with, as of March 31, over 176,000 people testing positive and more than 3,400 dead. Globally, there are more than 837,000 cases and more than 41,000 deaths from the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.
The Sunday that the search committee shared information about the selected candidate, March 15, happened to be the last Sunday the church met in person for worship services. They discussed if they could hold multiple worship services with Porter, capping each at just 50 people to follow recommendations for mass gatherings amid the outbreak. But then when the limit dropped to 10, they had to develop a new plan.
Porter and the committee discussed if they should delay the visit, but they worried it might mean months instead of just a couple weeks. So, UHBC organized a vote to see if the members would agree to change the format to a digital call weekend, a process agreed to in a 109-8 vote.
Porter and his family still traveled to Springfield, where Hatchcock interviewed him on a Google Hangout on Saturday as many members in the church watched and asked questions. Porter filmed a sermon as part of UHBC’s virtual service for Sunday morning, which the church posted on YouTube. And with virtual worship services as the norm across the country, Porter also managed to film a sermon for the virtual service of his current church, Garner Baptist Church in Garner, Texas.
For older members of UHBC, volunteers delivered a DVD copy of his sermon. Voting was then opened online with Google Docs for five hours, with the option of calling in votes as well. Hatchcock’s wife, Abby — UHBC’s minister of children — announced the unanimous 119-0 vote to call Porter in a YouTube video on Sunday night, and then the video switched to Porter and his family offering greetings from their couch.
“It was not a normal way to call a pastor, but these are not normal times,” Trey Hatchcock told Word&Way. “We were incredibly encouraged when we had a large majority of members vote, and even more so that the vote was unanimous. God has something planned for UHBC and we are excited to see how it benefits the community and the Kingdom.”
Bob Perry, UHBC’s search committee chair, told Word&Way that selecting a pastor is “one of the most important decisions a local church ever makes.” He’s worked with hundreds of churches in his decades as a director of missions in Missouri and Virginia, but, he added, he’s “never experienced anything like this.”
“This has been an important, and perhaps a historical, experience in the life of the church. It allowed us to learn the flexibility to deal with difficult limitations on our usual way of doing ministry. It showed the church that we can make hard decisions in trying times and remain unified,” Perry added. “Another thing we learned in this situation is that God’s Spirit is not limited by our inability to meet in building.”
UHBC Interim Pastor Jim Hill also reflected on the unusualness of the moment, telling Word&Way he hadn’t “ever experienced in 48 years of ministry” the amount of change the pandemic has brought to church life.
“No one would prefer this approach to calling a new pastor. I certainly have never experienced anything like it,” added Hill, who has led two Baptist conventions and served as an interim for 22 churches. “Sometimes flexibility allows a church’s ministry to continue and hopefully even grow. Moving worship and other activities online, finding new ways to stay connected, and even calling a new pastor can happen if God’s people are open.”
Now as Porter and his family make plans to move to Springfield, he is considering what churches can learn during this unusual time of worshiping, ministering, and even calling pastors.
“We are all getting a crash course on how to adjust and minister in the midst of incredible change,” he said. “For a long time, churches in general have found it too easy to remain comfortable and static while the world around them changed. I believe ministry in the time of pandemic has shown us that the church has incredible tools for creativity, adjustment, and flexible ministry.”
“At some point, I believe things will return to some sort of normalcy, but my hope and prayer is that UHBC will use this experience as a primer for life and ministry in a world that is always changing,” Porter added. “It has been a unique experience, but I am thankful I was able to be a part of it and thankful for a church trusting the Lord in uncharted waters.”