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Seeking a pastoral call during a pandemic

Candidates, search committees get creative while learning more about one another

by Emily Enders Odom | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Teresa Larson in front of the chapel on the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary campus. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE— When Teresa Larson first learned that her graduation from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary would be virtual, she did what she was trained to do.

She thought theologically.

“I knew it was coming, but it still didn’t soften the blow,” Larson said of the seminary’s digital commencement ceremony, which was held on May 16. “I couldn’t shake the disappointment of my family not being there, but one of my biggest learnings from COVID-19 has been how to hold that deep disappointment alongside the joy. Those can exist side by side.”

This same hard-won knowledge continues to inform Larson as she navigates the uncharted waters of seeking a call during a global pandemic.

As a former teacher and an alumna of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Young Adult Volunteer program, Larson was already well ahead of the game when it came to communicating her gifts for ministry in a virtual world.

“I had the idea of building my own website even before the pandemic struck,” she said. “Creating the bare bones of an online portfolio was not only part of my teacher’s education but it was also a seminary assignment in our practical theology class. When I started to apply for ministry positions, I thought it would be a good idea to include the link to my website as part of my PIF [Personal Information Form] so that committee members could watch my video sermons and get to know me a little more.”

Already in conversation with several associate pastor nominating committees [APNCs], Larson, a candidate under care of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, soon discovered that her prior preparation served her well as the natural, next steps in the call process necessarily stalled as a result of travel and other restrictions related to the pandemic.

“The day I had to cancel those reservations was a frightening day,” she recalled. “It didn’t take long, though, for APNCs and me to begin working together to figure out how to faithfully move forward, and how to continue the process over virtual platforms.”

Larson added that the pandemic has also changed the nature of some of the questions that she poses to search committees.

“As churches consider their identity and call in light of COVID-19, there will be transformations,” she said. “I’m asking churches what they are doing in response, and what they are learning about themselves along the way.”

Social distancing celebration on the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary campus. From left are Andy Thomas (MAMFT 2020), Daniel Van Beek (MDiv 2020), Teresa Larson, and Rachel Potts-Wells (MDiv/MAMFT 2022) (Contributed photo)

In the meantime, Larson is grateful to the pastoral staff and the leadership of Second Presbyterian Church in Louisville, which has extended her term there as seminary intern on a full-time basis until she receives a call.

“Being welcomed as a full member of the team is a gift I cannot repay,” she said. “After we made the move to live-streaming our worship, I have had the opportunity to join the team every week to reflect on what we did and what we could do differently with the video, sound, lighting and more to have the experience better translate to congregants.”

Larson’s most recent challenge was to preach her Sunday sermon to an empty sanctuary.

“Preaching is never a craft where you’re done learning,” she said. “The current crisis has refreshed my own theology of proclamation and how to care for others in ways that feel unfamiliar. I have no doubt this will serve me wherever I’m called to serve, especially since my first few months likely won’t look like what I expect. It’s a new reality, with a steep learning curve, that I am ready to take on.”

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