Mark D. Roberts

Yesterdayâ??s post focused on the Christian Web Conference at Biola University (September 11-12, 2009). Todayâ??s post illustrates why I think Christian leaders need to attend this conference. Whether we like it or not, the Internet has changed (and will continue to change) the way we do church.
In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), pastors are called to churches through a process that involves a search committee (called a â??Pastor Nominating Committeeâ? or PNC, for short) and the affirming vote of a congregation. Given the touchiness involved when a pastor considers leaving a church, this process in a church is usually shrouded in secrecy so as to protect the pastor, the pastorâ??s family, the pastorâ??s existing congregation, and the integrity of the process in the calling church. In most cases, the pastor who is called to a new church has the opportunity to be the first person to communicate this news to the former church, beginning with church leaders. This communication comes after the vote of the calling congregation, when the deal is sealed. If for some reason the pastor does not go to the new church, the existing congregation doesnâ??t have to know.
Thatâ??s how we Presbyterian have done it for a long time. But, in the famous (though often misquoted) words of Dorothy Gale, â??Toto, Iâ??ve a feeling weâ??re not in Kansas anymore.â? For Presbyterians, â??Kansasâ? was the familiar land of carefully managed communication and comfortable secrecy. But the fact is plain that weâ??re not in Kansas anymore.
Iâ??ve watched with interest a recent example of the â??not in Kansas anymoreâ? syndrome. It involved the calling of a new pastor for St. Andrewâ??s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Iâ??ve known this fine church for many years, since itâ??s quite near to Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I was Senior Pastor for sixteen years. St. Andrewâ??s has been ably led for over thirty years by the Rev. Dr. John Huffman, Jr. Johnâ??s imminent retirement required the calling of a new pastor, so St. Andrewâ??s began a long process of finding that person.
This new pastor turns out to be a good friend of mine from Texas, the Rev. Richard Kannwischer, currently the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio. I must confess that, though Iâ??m pleased for St. Andrewâ??s, Iâ??m sad that Rich is leaving Central Texas. He has been a great colleague and friend. Now our collegiality and friendship will be of the long distance variety. Plus, First Pres San Antonio, an excellent church and long-time partner of Laity Lodge, will have to go through another, long transition. The good news for this church is that they have an excellent pastoral team, not to mention a bunch of outstanding lay leaders. But they will surely miss Richâ??s superior giftedness as a preacher and leader.
Nevertheless, the point of this post is not for me to lament or celebrate, but rather to note how the Internet has changed forever the protocol and assumptions of pastoral changes in the PC(USA) and beyond. Evidence of this change began right after Rich agreed to be the Pastor Nominating Committeeâ??s candidate. No sooner did the word get out at St. Andrewâ??s (in the correct way, from the nominating committee, I believe) than someone in that congregation emailed lots of people at First Pres San Antonio, seeking information about Rich. (Update and Correction: The sender of the email may well not have been a member of St. Andrew’s church. This was assumed by the person who related the incident to me, but his assumption may not have been accurate.) I did not see this email, but only heard about it from a friend. In the old world of neatly managed communication, a candidateâ??s current congregation would not have heard anything until after an official call was extended, which requires a vote of the calling congregation. In this case, however, the folks at First Pres knew well in advance. This meant that Rich had to notify his congregation of the possibility of his leaving First Pres for St. Andrewâ??s . . . not the best scenario, thatâ??s for sure. If, for some reason, Rich had not gone to St. Andrewâ??s, his relationship with the San Antonio congregation would have sustained considerable damage. Most folks donâ??t like the idea of their pastor looking for a new job (unless, of course, they donâ??t like their pastor!).
Besides the email from a member of St. Andrewâ??s to people at First Pres, Richâ??s nomination by the PNC was also published on Twitter soon after it was announced in California. Even if the email hadnâ??t been sent, any hope of secrecy was lost with the â??tweetsâ? that were available to anyone around the world, including Central Texas. (Yes, we have Internet here.)
At this point it might seem as if the Internet is no friend to the process of calling a new pastor. But, stepping back for a moment, I should mention how the Internet has become a huge help to pastor nominating committees. The online process of dossier publication makes it much, much easier for committees to learn about potential candidates and vice versa. The fact that most candidates come from churches with websites also allows committees to learn lots about the candidates before contacting them directly. This saves countless hours and minimizes the awkwardness of saying â??Noâ? to potential candidates who are rejected. Plus, many pastoral candidates now have sermons that can be streamed or downloaded. In years past, it was an arduous task for committees to listen to sermons, a task requiring mailing of original tapes, duplication, distribution, etc. etc. Now a committee can hear sermons of a potential candidate without even letting the preacher know this is happening. This is a giant savings of time and energy for all involved.
The situation is similar for a pastor who is considering a new church. In the past, it was cumbersome for a pastor to get accurate and extensive information about the church. Now, a churchâ??s website reveals all sorts of relevant data, including theological perspectives, ministry programs, church newsletters, etc. (I realize that some smaller churches donâ??t have extensive websites, or do not make sermons available online. But, increasingly, most churches have some Web presence.)
So, on the downside, the Internet has compromised the secrecy that was once an essential element of a pastoral calling process. On the other hand, the Internet has made many aspects of that process much, much easier and more effective. And I havenâ??t even mentioned the way email can accelerate communication in a committee.
I realize that Iâ??ve left you hanging concerning how things played out with Rich Kannwischer and St. Andrewâ??s, though I revealed the ending. Iâ??ll finish that story tomorrow, adding a truly mind-bending impact of the Internet. Stay tuned . . . .

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus