• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

New Pastor in a Pandemic

In January 2020, I accepted the call to become Pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown, after serving my last church for almost eight years. I arrived as the new pastor in February 2020, fully expecting things to have a different feeling... for me and for the members and friends of the new congregation.


There's an accepted reality for new pastors. When we arrive, we are bringing change into the new church just by being ourselves, just by showing up. Therefore, if we are wise, we try to be careful and to tread lightly. We try not to change anything else for a while. We try to let the new congregation teach us, the pastor, how they do church. We try to learn the difference between the ways we naturally, normally do or say things, and the ways the new church prefers or expects we do or say things. 


My first Sunday in worship with the new congregation was February 2, 2020. I was only able to sit with Session (the governing board of Elders), Diaconate (the board of care-givers, Deacons), and Staff twice before the pandemic arrived and shut things down. I was only able to lead worship and preach five or six times before we closed the building and asked staff to work from home if at all possible.

Now, I've been the new pastor for six months, but it still feels like I barely know this church.


For me, I get to know a church by watching and listening. 


When I am leading worship or preaching, in fellowship times, in meetings, or in group discussions, I am watching. I try to watch people's eyes and body language. I try to notice the expressions on faces of the other worshippers. I try to notice if someone is leaning forward with interest or leaning back with resistance. I try to notice if someone is taking a note or fiddling with their phone. I try to notice if someone has a tear in the corner of their eye or has an expression of distance.

When I am leading worship or preaching, in fellowship times, in meetings, or in group discussions, I am listening. I listen for tone of voice. I listen for matches to what others have told me, and for differences. I listen for that moment of beautiful vulnerability when someone shares a tiny piece of themselves. I listen for how someone laughs through a big mistake, or complains about a little one. I listen for where someone is passionate, or numb.


Over these last six months, I have been grieving not being able to watch and listen, not being able to meet and know this congregation in that way. I am grieving their inability to meet and know me at a similar depth. I have been missing the fun impromptu conversations in the Narthex (churchy word for Foyer) and Fellowship Hall. I've been missing the deep visioning and leadership conversations of Session. I've been missing the shared pastoral conversations and imaginations of Diaconate. I'm missing the expectations of meeting, watching, listening, and knowing the flesh of this church.


This Sunday, August 9, after almost five months closed and virtual only, we will begin cracking open the door and pews for people to attend worship in person again. I'm a little excited about it, and at the same time hesitant. There will finally be real, in the flesh people here again! Caitlan (our other pastor) and I will not be preaching to the camera lens of my iPhone anymore! But, the facial expressions of the people in church will be hidden behind masks. I will get to see some of their body language react to liturgies, prayers, and sermon! Yay! But, we are not allowing singing yet. We will be sitting apart, spread out all around the sanctuary. Perhaps worst, all our body language has shifted toward grumpy due to the uncomfortable presence of COVID lurking nearby.

My prayer, for the months ahead, is that this "new" congregation and I find some way to get to know one another better and better. I will do my best to keep watching and listening. I hope and trust and pray they will find some ways to show and share with me who they are, and why they are still excited and willing to be God's church in Chestertown and beyond.

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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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