The coronavirus pandemic left few aspects of normal life untouched. Churches were no exception.

Pastor Ron Ludwick started at Lebanon Church of the Brethren in November 1999, and after over 20 years of service to the church and the community, he decided to retire in the beginning of 2020. Around the time Pastor Ludwick planned to preach his last sermon, the first wave of coronavirus closures swept through churches in the area.

“Celebrations couldn’t be held,” remembered Sarah Ditzler, chair of the new pastor search committee, in regards to their plans to celebrate Pastor Ludwick. “We didn’t get to have that time together.”

In addition to dealing with the temporary closure of the church, the congregation was faced with a new hurdle – finding and hiring a full-time pastor in the midst of the pandemic.

Because of coronavirus mitigation efforts, the church knew that the hiring process would look a little different than it would under normal circumstances. A search committee, comprised of 11 members, was formed in March 2020. Until the church reopened for in-person services in July, the committee only met virtually, but they finally got to meet in person over the summer too while observing coronavirus safety protocols.

Ditzler’s role as chair was to organize meetings and facilitate the search. “I was happy to do it,” she said. “I’m a lifelong attendee of the church. They’re family.”

The search committee worked with the community district office throughout the course of the hiring process. The committee created an online church profile (based on input from the congregation) to share what they were looking for in a pastor, then they reviewed profiles of potential hires in the district database to decide which candidates to pursue.

The committee strove to imitate the safety measures that the church was operating under, which included wearing masks and social distancing while in person, and meeting virtually as an alternative.

“From late summer through fall, we had a few in-person, masked and socially distanced committee meetings and even an interview with a pastoral candidate,” said Ditzler. “We also had various Zoom meetings during that time. In November, our church went back to virtual worshipping only; therefore, the search process continued virtually.”

In late fall, the committee met Jeff Keller.

Keller had recently completed his Masters of Divinity at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, after experiencing an ever-deepening draw to pastoral ministry. He was exploring this call when he came upon Lebanon Church of the Brethren.

He was instantly drawn to the church by the hearts of the congregation. “They have a tremendous love for the Lebanon community, and a desire to love and serve people,” Keller said. “Some of the interview process was virtual, because the church was trying to love their neighbors and to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

The search committee met twice with Keller. At the second meeting, they met his family – his wife, Adri, and their two children Jeffrey and Riley. In late December and into early 2021, the committee held final discussions and interviews with Keller, and the committee knew it was time to introduce him to the rest of the church.

The Keller family (Submitted photo)

“We prayed and felt like God was leading us in this direction,” said Ditzler, about the hiring process.

On March 7, Keller visited Lebanon Church of the Brethren and preached his first sermon to a socially distanced congregation. Afterwards, the congregation had the opportunity to interact with him and ask him questions. Following the service, there was a vote, and Keller was hired on March 8.

“My kids are so excited,” Keller said, of the transition to the new church. “They feel so loved here. They know this is a community.”

Despite the virtual interactions with pastoral candidates and masked, socially-distanced interviews, the search committee believed that the safety measures were worth it in order to protect pastoral candidates, the committee, and the community as a whole.

And now, it makes face-to-face interactions even sweeter.

“Being together in person is important,” Ditzler said. “I hope we’ll cherish it as a church.”

Keller is looking forward to how he and the congregation of Lebanon Church of the Brethren can continue to be involved in the community and work to help those who are in need.

“We would love to hear about community needs and how we can best serve,” said Keller. “All are welcome to reach out.”

For more information about Lebanon Church of the Brethren, call the office at 717-273-7111 or visit the website.

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Aubree Fahringer is a producer and reporter for LebTown.