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Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty, Pastors and Churches Struggle in Hiring Slowdown

Earlier this year, as COVID-19 began slamming doors of nonessential business, schools and churches, pastoral candidates Rafael and Marie Rodriguez wondered if their passion to pastor would ever manifest. The anticipation of the future weighed heavily on them. Submitting applications online had not produced a position and the pandemic threatened to thwart their job search even further.

“I’ve desired to be a pastor since I was a child,” said Rafael. “I told the Lord, if this is not going to happen, I’ll focus on being a schoolteacher and do well at that.”

The Rodriguez’s story is not an unfamiliar one since March. Seminaries have reported that churches are hiring fewer pastors as the pandemic constrains their finances, even as hospitals request more chaplains, while churches that do want to fill an empty pulpit struggle to vet candidates virtually.

Paul Pettit, a career service representative at the Dallas Theological Seminary, sighed before answering a question about placing ministers.

“The requests have slowed down and offers are not as quick,” he said. He continued that the interviews moving to digital platforms like Skype, Zoom and Google Meets had benefited applicants, reducing their amount of travel amid the pandemic. But he emphasized that it had not produced an increase in placements.

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Pettit also noted a significant spike in chaplaincy requests from medical facilities around the country this year.

“I have four full pages of requests from hospitals, hospice care facilities and such. I don’t know what has happened to all the chaplains,” Pettit said. “Maybe they’re sitting this one out.”

Campbell University’s Divinity School offers a referral program to place ministers on the school website’s job board. Many churches withdrew their advertising for pastoral openings at the start of the pandemic, according to Teresa Murphy, administrative assistant to the dean. Out of 61 requests for pastors, only six have been filled since March for two primary pastors and four youth pastors. Campbell reported unusually high requests for youth pastors, and that number has remained stable since COVID-19 shifted everything to the virtual world.

Henry Kendall attends South Mountain Baptist Church, in South Mountain, Pennsylvania and is part of the pastoral search committee.

“We have been searching for a pastor almost a year and COVID-19 shut down the church from March through May,” confided Kendall. “There were no candidates or interviews for months.”

In a phone interview, he reported that the virtual process of interviewing was not implemented during the pandemic. South Mountain’s preference was an on-site or an over-the-phone interview for the candidate filling the pulpit.

Kendall acknowledged that some churches had experienced financial difficulties but was thankful that South Mountain Baptist had not suffered financially, since they were without a pastor. South Mountain’s pastoral search remains in progress at the time of this writing.

Erik Alsgaard, managing editor and social media editor for the United Methodist Church, shared that United Methodist pastors were appointed by the presiding bishop if a vacancy became available. Alsgaard revealed that at the last Baltimore-Washington conference appointment session, running between March and June, nearly 100 ministers were appointed to new positions. However, Alsgaard did not divulge COVID-19 implications or effects on any of these placements.

Dr. Peter Lee, dean of students at Reformed Theological Seminary, had not witnessed significant changes in requests for pastoral placement but indicated how COVID-19 had subjected church budgets to substantial financial strain.

“Churches that were seeking pastors have put their searches on hold,” Lee said. “In general, when members don’t attend church…they don’t give.” He continued that with financial uncertainty, a pastoral search is often paused to prevent overextending financial reserves.

Bishop Brian Mixon, of the Church of God, reported that churches in overall good health—financially, spiritually and emotionally—had seen less hardship than those who were not. Mixon sits on the Church of God State Council in Illinois and said the financial strain incurred due to shutting down for weeks wreaked havoc where financial woes were already present.

Mixon said that each local church is handling COVID-19’s effect in their own way.

“There are some we are concerned about if this thing continues long term,” he said.

In his two pastorates, they have used One-Call, a phone tree service where the congregation is called and participates in a daily devotional and Facebook live to keep a semblance of in-house meetings.

“The challenge facing the body of Christ at large is a shortage of pastors,” Mixon said. “Culture has changed. A few years ago, ministers were waiting in the wings for a church—not so anymore.”

The bishop agreed with others that the pandemic has made finding a replacement for an emptied pulpit even more difficult. Mixon and his wife, Brenda, both contracted the virus and testified to its seriousness.

“I had a significant case with some stiff symptoms, while my wife had a milder case,” said Mixon. “The medical field confirmed it was COVID-19 and sent us home—no massive medication supply, just instructions to stay hydrated and rest. We give God all the glory for bringing us through it, because the medical field didn’t do much for us.”

For at least one clergyman, COVID-19 didn’t prevent his dream job.

For the last three years, the Rodriguez’s, former Assembly of God missionaries, had resided in Cleburne, Texas. When their application for the pastoral opening at Abiding Hope Assembly of God in Okeechobee was accepted, the Rodriguez’s embarked on a whirlwind four months from applying to arriving in Okeechobee on Sept. 1.

Rodriguez met with the church board and pastoral search committee using Zoom, spoke at the church in person July 12 and was well received. After spending the weekend in Okeechobee in South Florida, the church voted 80/20 in favor of Rodriguez as their new pastor.

Robert Hines, church board president and pastoral search committee leader, attributed Rodriguez’s selection to fervently seeking God in prayer over several months.

“We sensed God’s approval and now we’re expecting diversity and growth,” said Hines.

The Rodriguez’s added their vision for Abiding Hope: “We see a multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-economical congregation influencing Okeechobee with the love of Jesus.”

This article first ran at Religion UnPlugged