LONG DISTANCE CALL: Church votes on new pastor few have met in person

Church members joining the service via live streaming saw and heard their prospective pastor preaching from an isolated pulpit.

By John D. Pierce, Executive Editor, Nurturing Faith Journal

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — For the first time in its storied history the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga., called a pastor and hardly anyone showed up.

Jeremy Shoulta, who accepted the call to become pastor of the congregation founded in 1837, was introduced last week in a video posted on the church’s web site. Then he preached to row after row of unfilled pews on Sunday morning (March 29) — knowing faithful church members were watching online or listening via a local radio station.

The church’s homepage provided directions for joining the worship service and voting afterward.

“What a unique situation,” said Matt Nix when introducing the prospective pastor during the worship service.

Nix chaired the pastor search process that lasted more than a year and resulted in a unanimous recommendation. However, many of the committee’s plans — such as hosting receptions to meet the candidate and his family — were shelved due to the coronavirus pandemic causing widespread cancellations of public events.

“Who would have believed … we’d have our ‘call Sunday’ with nearly an empty sanctuary?” Nix added.

Shoulta, who grew up as a pastor’s kid in Kentucky, comes from the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain, N.C. He and his wife Valarie have two daughters, Maggie and Macy.

Earlier Shoulta served as pastor at the well-visited Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., where former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter serves as a deacon

At the conclusion of the March 29 service in the spacious Gainesville sanctuary, occupied by only a handful of well-spaced worship leaders, deacon chair Jim Harrison called the church into conference. Members were invited to vote online or by phone for a one-hour period beginning at noon.

Jeremy and Valarie Shoulta with their daughters Maggie and Macy

Following the overwhelming affirmative votes, Jeremy will begin as pastor in Gainesville on April 19 — though uncertainty remains as to when the pews will fill again.

One may wonder what church members of the near and distant past would have thought of someday calling a pastor they had never met or heard personally. But strange times call for innovation and adaptation — even when it comes to the spiritual discernment of calling new pastoral leadership.

A sentiment shared by search committee member Cathy Bowers in the introductory video was widely echoed: “Obviously, this is a special way to do a pastor candidate introduction, but I’m excited.”

Yet extending the right hand of Christian fellowship will have to wait.

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