By Chris Moon
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult one for church leaders and staff to navigate.
But try doing it without a senior pastor in place.
That’s the reality Richwoods Christian Church in Peoria, Ill., has been living during these days of the new coronavirus.
Tom Butler, the church’s executive pastor, joked that he took a class in seminary about serving in a church through a major pandemic and a recession—and without a head shepherd in place.
“That class has really come in handy,” Butler said. Then, in a serious tone, he said, “This has been unprecedented in many ways.”
Richwoods Christian, a 1,000-person church, has been without a pastor since Dec. 23, 2018, when Jim Powell resigned the position. The search for a replacement hasn’t been an easy one.
Butler said the church has engaged in a two-pronged approach to finding a pastor—one through a traditional search process and one through networking with other pastors and church leaders from around the country.
At the start of the church’s search, Richwoods engaged a recruiting company, but church leaders weren’t happy with the results. So the church recently switched to another firm and is engaging in interviews with a new round of candidates, Butler said.
At one point, Richwoods was close to hiring a potential lead pastor candidate. Still, the church remains optimistic about how that process is now going.
With the search ongoing, the church has spent much of the past 18 months bringing in guest speakers for its Sunday gatherings. Those speakers not only filled the pulpit, but they also spent time getting to know the church.
Butler said one purpose of the guest preachers was to introduce them to the congregation so that they could help spread the word about the church and its need for a full-time lead pastor.
Butler said Richwoods is hopeful that “people can hear about us and our story,” and the word will spread to the person who eventually is called to lead the church.
In the meantime, the staff has been guiding the church through a collaborative leadership plan.
The church has a lead team of four senior leaders consisting of Butler and pastors Dan Crumrine, Alyssa Wier, and Marty Hunt.
Those leaders oversee other ministry leaders on the church’s staff. Butler said he is happy the lead team has been able to create “a safe, authentic space” in which to map the direction of the church.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things got a little more complicated for the church. With travel more difficult, Richwoods couldn’t bring in outside ministers to preach on Sundays, Butler said.
The church formed a six-person preaching team from among the staff to take on the task of providing Sunday messages. At that point, services were online.
This was a “significant ask” for members of the church’s staff, Butler said. Sermons require many hours of preparation. And preaching wasn’t in the job description of those leaders, who also had their regular responsibilities to fulfill.
“Everybody is just wearing more than their one hat,” Butler said.
But he said the staff has demonstrated a sense of teamwork and selflessness that has kept the church moving forward even as things have gotten difficult. Butler said the church’s elders have been very supportive of the staff as they’ve pursued their work.
That’s not to say the church isn’t eager to secure a lead pastor.
While stretching staff members with new challenges can be a good thing, it also can be unhealthy. Butler said he is mindful of the dangers of burnout.
“All of us are probably better for the experience, for the stretching and the opportunity this has provided,” he said. At the same time, “all of us are tired from this experience and will need rest and recovery.”
Asked what he sensed God teaching the church during this season, Butler said “perspective and trust.”
He said experience has been “reminding us all that our best efforts alone pale in comparison to what God can do in us and through us and for us. That’s an important perspective to keep in mind.”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.
Richwoods Christian Church is providing updates on the lead pastor search at their website.