A year ago, I could feel the Spirit hard at work shaking up my sense of call. By the end of January 2020, a new congregation transparently revealed their excitement about me. I had the time and space to pray, consider, and debate over this opportunity. By the time they felt ready to move towards voting, I felt ready to accept.
That time happened to be March of 2020. You’ll recall that month as the one where a pandemic officially descended and shut everything down—most notably, churches. And for a while, my call process was also shut down.
A month later, the call committee chair and I decided the truth not just for my call process but for church life in general: the situation may have changed, but the work was still there. So, let’s do it together. In May 2020, the congregation in which I now serve held one of the first digital special congregational meetings to call me as their lead pastor.
Since that day, many other church leaders have left their previous congregations and started to find their way in a new church context. I have a very personal interest in hearing these stories, sharing my own, and collaboratively pointing out the ways we move to a new church as church leaders in a pandemic. I won’t pretend I knew what I was doing when I made the move, but then, neither did anyone else. Despite this, it can still be done well.
Here are a few of the best practices I’d offer as you consider switching calls in a pandemic:
If it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave—even if it’s a bad time to leave.
You will try to tell yourself that you shouldn’t leave because life is so hard right now. You will never find a good time to leave because you’ve conflated good with easy. Leaving isn’t easy. Leaving is complicated, hard, and full of grief even when you know you absolutely must leave to be faithful to your call, your community, and your commitment to the work of the church.
Ask yourself earnestly, if there wasn’t a global pandemic, social unrest, and a racial reckoning, would you be ready to go and move into that next call? And better yet, given those things, can you consider the blessings you might bring in the new place? Isn’t that just as urgent and vital? If you can answer yes to those questions, even a tiny bit, you know the truth: you can leave, even in this hard time.
You have to say goodbye as well as you can.
Depending on your church’s policies and your area’s politics, you may have fewer options for leave-taking. Receptions, lunches, and coffee dates won’t work. Worship can’t even offer the usual forum for speeches and ceremonies of closure—at least, not in person.
You have to be more creative. You need to make space for two things in particular—letting people say what they need to say and letting people physically say goodbye.
My outgoing congregation invited members to send me mail after I announced my departure. I received stacks of cards with lengthy notes. While I ached to read the expressions of grief, anger, and betrayal, I could also tell it was much more measured and thoughtful than the gut-reaction responses I would have had to endure in the narthex. Ultimately, the opportunity to think through what we’d say was better for all of us.
Because I left in a midwestern summer, we could hold worship safely in the parking lot. On my last morning, a parishioner in a convertible drove me around the parking lot after worship so I could physically wave and speak to everyone in attendance. The closure of actually saying goodbye to faces (not screens) meant a lot. It might be harder in colder places, but a physically distanced goodbye can be very meaningful.
And then the hardest part: you have to actually leave them. With most churches now living out their work and communities online, you must be extra-intentional about not being their pastor any more. Do the slow, hard work of unfriending and unfollowing on social media. Remind them that their church needs them. Encourage them to watch their own church’s online services, not yours—they belong to a congregation, not a pastor. Our relationships live online now, so help them make space for their next pastor.
The stuff that worked for call transition before still mostly works now. Mostly.
Physical presence bears too much risk right now, but you can show your new congregation that you care for their physical and spiritual well-being by taking advantage of every other way to meet them. Before I even arrived, my new congregation set up a series of meet-and-greets that took place either online or in the parking lot with appropriate distancing. I will always be grateful for their foresight.
Depending on the season and climate of your new place, you could hold regular office hours, either online or on your church’s front lawn. Balance weekend, evening, and daytime hours. It’s hard and demanding work, especially when you’re doing it through a screen or at a distance, but it’s your best shot at meeting as many people as possible. Investing the time and effort shows them that you care enough about them to make the connection.
If you have a staff, prioritize getting to know them. Make sure you spend time with them often, including safe in person meetings if possible. While no one likes meetings that could be emails, structure as much staff time as you can. You can’t meet at the coffee pot or copy machine for those beautiful, spontaneous ministry conversations that happen so naturally in person, so you’ll have to schedule them and hope for the best. (Surprise! The Spirit can work with a calendar!)
It is lonely.
There, I said it. It’s lonely work. All the human interaction, challenge, and kudos you’re used to won’t happen. The new church doesn’t yet know you beyond your digital presence. You will preach into a camera and hear nothing back. Or, you’ll preach from a safe distance without any lingering in the narthex afterwards with no opportunities to hear stories and offer critique.
One pastor, whose new call started the week the state shut down, likened the feeling to being welcomed into a new family, walking into the house for the first time, and discovering everyone had gone to their rooms and closed the doors. The feelings of isolation and abandonment are real.
To counter this, pick up the phone. Call pastoral colleagues who can cheer you up. Call old mentors who can remind you of your gifts and ability. Call new church members just to say hi. Call people your staff suggests would be “good for you to know”. Sure, a Zoom call is fine, but there’s something even more freeing and focused about just talking on the phone. Do it. Then do it again.
Accept that the work is different. Actually, no, embrace it.
One pastor, whose family moved across two time zones mid-pandemic, told me, “The pandemic has made it hard to be the pastor I was, so I have to trust that God and my new partners in ministry will help me be the pastor I need to be for this time and place.”
If you’re taking a new call in a pandemic, might I suggest you put those words on a note card right in front of your home office desk?
When pastors take new calls, we see God’s gifts at work through us in a new context. It can be incredibly challenging and affirming in all the best ways. However, pandemic church requires a whole new set of skills, whether it’s editing a worship video, commending a dying member to God by phone, responding to a whole new level of community need, or balancing digital staff meetings while navigating your kid’s e-learning.
But look, you’re here for a reason. You’re here at this time for a reason. You never saw this church pre-pandemic, so you are exactly the right person to help them prepare for who God calls them to be post-pandemic. “The way we’ve always done it” doesn’t exist for you—and for that matter, it hasn’t existed for them for over a year, too. This is your time to be the pastor God has called you to be, free of ministry ruts for you and them.
If that sense of call could be there for you and for them in this strange time, then the Spirit is really up to something. Don’t forget it.
You have to do hard, lonely, anxious work right now. You are putting in the time and the work, building up capital in your new congregation, reminding them that by the Spirit’s call, you chose them, even in the midst of a pandemic. If you can love and choose each other to God’s glory in a time like this, well, you can do anything.
And you will.
Whether you are considering a change or not, it’s a good idea to find a safe conversation partner to discuss your sense of call, and how the pandemic has impacted it. Make plans today to talk it through with someone you trust.