How Pastors Arriving at New Church Meet Their Congregation
By Lindsay Peyton
Usually, when a pastor leaves a congregation for a new appointment, handshakes, hugs and heartfelt goodbyes abound. Then, when starting at a new church, the pastor is greeted with a welcoming party, meeting members and staff face to face. There’s even the tradition of a “pounding,” when congregants give their new leader a pound each of flour, butter and other essentials for their pantries. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, all of these usual traditions have been stopped in their tracks. How do you leave a congregation when a goodbye is hug is prohibited for health reasons? How do you meet new people at a distance and remember new faces when they are partially obscured by masks?
“It’s definitely been the weirdest transition ever,” Rev. Keith Tilley, associate pastor at
Grace Crossing UMC in Longview, said.
Tilley moved to the congregation from Faith UMC in Orange in May, where Rev. Val Sansing now pastors. A month earlier, he had to break the news to the church that he was leaving. “That was the hardest part,” Tilley said. “Communication is really hard right now.”
Instead of sharing the news with his congregation during a service, he had to use email to reach everyone. Some members, however, do not read email and did not hear about his departure until the church met again in June.
Tilley started his new assignment at Grace Crossing UMC the first week of July. Church members brought him a full ice chest of food, and another group came with lunch. The pastor was able to meet smaller groups, instead of the larger congregation at once.
To meet more of the church members, Tilley is working with staff on individual calls and smaller Zoom meetings. “It’s hard to be in the people business, when you can’t see the people,” Tilley said.
For now, he’s hoping to at least “see” them online. “You do what you can do,” he said. “And you remember this is temporary.”
Tilley also thinks the pandemic has opened an opportunity to realize the importance of relationships in the church. “How do we structure ourselves in a way, when something happens, that we can stay connected?” he asked. “We need to train our small groups to do life together, so when something like this happens, they’re already connected and helping each other.”
The congregation at Williams Memorial UMC in Texarkana got creative when their Senior Pastor Dr. Brad Morgan was appointed to Memorial Drive UMC in Houston and Dr. Jesse Brannen was moved from the Central South District Superintendent in Houston to the Senior Pastor post. Church members at Williams Memorial hosted a farewell parade for Morgan, and more than 100 vehicles joined.
“It was hard to say goodbye and not hug people,” Morgan said. “But you have to focus on what you have and not what you don’t.”
For example, Morgan and his family received letters and cards that they will now cherish forever. “In some ways, those will bless us for years to come,” he said.
Williams Memorial welcomed Dr. Jesse Brannen with a small group Meet the Pastor with masks. “Since then, we have enjoyed going out to dinner with several of our members, allowing us to get to know them better,” he said.
Memorial Drive UMC, Houston also hosted a parade to meet their new pastor as they said goodbye to Dr. John Robbins, who was moved to a new Conference. Morgan saw firsthand the connection that the congregation had with the church staff.
“It was a joy for me to see,” he said. “It let me know that we’re in place where we would be part of what God is doing.”
To connect with the congregation, Morgan is sharing some of his own story during online sermons. The church is also using social media for “Meet the Morgans” introductions. The pastor is also able to engage with members as they virtually attend on Sundays.
Morgan said there have been some surprises about this new way of being welcomed to the church. For instance, by meeting smaller groups instead of the congregation at large, he is able to make a more personal connection.
By being online, Morgan also met members who were on vacation or who were out of state but moving to the area soon. These opportunities would have been lost if services were in-person this summer.
On Morgan’s first day, which usually would have been scheduled with meetings, he instead had time for solo prayer – and to even join the food ministry.
“I actually got to go unload vehicles,” Morgan said. “It was really fun to be behind the scenes and become part of this amazing team of people from day one. I would have never been able to do that on a normal first day.”
His wife Laura explained that moving to a new congregation is always challenging.
“It’s never easy to leave a church of people who you love so much,” she said. “In every church, we find a community of faith that we adopt as our own family.”
Generally, the Morgans would meet their new church family right away. “This is a little more challenging,” Laura said.
Already, Memorial Drive has made them feel welcomed – even at a distance. “We’re just eager to meet them and get to know them,” Laura said. “We’re looking forward to a day when we can all be together. We know it may be later than what we want, but we want everything to be safe.”