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Churches taking care of business during COVID-19 crisis

May 19th, 2020 / By: Shawn Hendricks | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Churches taking care of business during COVID-19 crisis

On Sunday, May 17, Sagemont Church called Matt Carter to be its next pastor through a mix of online voting, filling out drive-thru ballots, and voting by phone. Screen shot from Sagemont website

More than 300 vehicles lined up on Sagemont Church’s property with members displaying signs, cheering, honking their horns during an hour-and-a-half long parade that followed a less than typical church vote to elect their new pastor Matt Carter. 

But amid the COVID-19 crisis, most would agree these aren’t typical times. As their church building remained closed for regular worship, Sagemont offered a variety of options during the pastor election that included voting online, filling out drive-through ballots, or voting by phone. And they aren’t alone as many ministry leaders throughout the state—and around the world—grapple with best approaches, not only for online worship, but also with carrying out routine business meetings. 

Sagemont was one of at least three Texas Southern Baptist churches that were in the process of calling pastors as the pandemic began to unfold. Others included Central Baptist in College Station that recently called Phillip Bethancourt, and Crossroads Baptist Church Woodlands that called Marcus Hayes.

For Sagemont when all was said and done, 99.6 percent of those who participated in the vote on Sunday (May 17) voted to affirm Matt Carter as their new senior pastor. 

“Our former pastor [John Morgan] weighed in, and he said ‘I don’t think Billy Graham could have gotten a vote like that,’” joked executive pastor Chuck Schneider.

While calling a new pastor can be a challenge for any church, it was the first time in Sagemont’s 53-year history that they had called a new pastor. And this has been in the midst of the church finalizing its plans to regather May 31.

“We’ve never been through this process before,” Schneider said. “We called him and then had to figure out how to do it because we were in the middle of a pandemic.”

Overall, Schneider said the last few weeks have been challenging. But all of the online video calls and livestreaming have allowed the church to get to know their incoming pastor. For the past month, Carter has met with church members online to answer questions and discuss the position. 

“He’s been in one meeting after the other, after another,” Schneider said. “And the challenge of doing it with proper social distancing made it very difficult, but we did it … And I don’t know that we would have been that thorough had we not had the pandemic to worry with.”

“We’ve honestly seen the Lord’s hand in this entire process.”

Not so business as usual

Spencer Plumlee, pastor of First Baptist Church of Mansfield, said his team also has encountered their share of challenges. In the month of April alone, they held three online business meetings.

“One of our meetings was about some land that we are selling,” he said. “It was a big issue. It was millions of dollars-worth of land that we are selling.

“I think we had a higher level of engagement than we would have had otherwise with questions,” noted Plumlee, who pastors a church that averages around 500-600 people each Sunday, “because people were more comfortable with texting in their questions than they otherwise would have been asking them in person.”

He noted, “It was effective, it was stressful, but we made it work.” 

While some may be experiencing “Zoom fatigue” from all kinds of online meetings, Plumlee noted there have been plenty of positive online break-through moments that have offset any frustrations. 

Technology, Plumlee said, has definitely opened up ministry opportunities at times when the usual day-to-day life issues could easily have gotten in the way. 

He recalled one of the men in his discipling group needing to watch his kids while his wife had a doctor’s appointment. That normally would have derailed the meeting, he said, but a simple Zoom call allowed them to still meet.

“He put a movie on for the kids and plopped down on his couch and Zoomed in with us and we had our discipleship group online,” he said. “As before, he just wouldn’t have showed up. We would have said, ‘Ah man, bummer, and we would have had to reschedule. So, I see it providing help, a workaround when it comes to the business of our age of conflicting schedules.’”

And Plumlee noted that the churches adult life group numbers are up from year to date by 10 or 15 percent. 

“I think this season has caused us to hold tightly to our mission, but hold our methods a little looser,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times in this process I’ve said, ‘Man, this is pushing us to do some things we probably already should have done.’” 

With online services, Plumlee realized his media team was able to provide picture-in-picture capability with sign language for their Deaf ministry.  

Most church leaders, he noted, will be surprised by how their congregation can help find new ways to share their message.

“I don’t care the size of your church,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many technologically savvy people you have in your congregation who can help you.”

An opportunity for churches

While Hollywood is virtually shut down, faith-based media expert and consultant Phil Cooke offered church leaders advice on how to expand their online reach and discussed ways “the church is ramping up media production to the highest levels in history.”

“From livestreaming worship services, to producing short videos, to impromptu Facebook and Instagram videos, webinars and more—churches and ministry organizations across the country are answering the call to reach out and connect through media,” he wrote on his site.

Livestreaming, he noted in an online video, can not only help churches stay connected but can actually help them grow.  

“This is our moment,” he said. “Don’t be filled with fear. Don’t worry that we should hunker down and close our doors. This is a time for us to make an impact in the culture.”

Cooke expressed how encouraging it is to see so many churches embrace technology amid challenging times.

“I’ve spent so much of my career trying to convince pastors and ministry leaders of the importance of media, that I can’t describe how gratifying it is to see them responding to the crisis in such huge numbers,” he said. “Right now, I can look out my home office window and see Walt Disney Studios, Universal Studios and other film studios sitting silent. But at the same time, I’m seeing churches and ministries raising the standard.

“Hopefully,” he noted, “that’s something that won’t change after this crisis is over.”