An [Online] Network for Alumni and Friends
The Truett Church Network (TCN) launched in 2019 under the direction of Dr. Matt Homeyer as a hub for connection, support, and resources for Truett alumni and friends, particularly those working in congregational ministry. Homeyer and his team kicked off the new initiative by hosting a number of events at Truett and at churches across Texas as well as creating leadership huddles, small groups of ministers brought together to discuss the challenges of ministry and to grow together.
Plans for late spring 2020 looked bright with several larger-scale retreats and out-of-state events on the calendar. But unfortunately, like many “best-made plans” of early 2020, things were about to change.
“March 12th. I remember very specifically eating lunch over Spring Break when everything started to be canceled. We still had about 60 percent of our budgeted events that we had been building to all year,” Homeyer said. “There was a time of paralysis as we tried to figure out what was happening, along with the rest of the world.”
Not one to sit idly by, however, Homeyer soon had ideas to keep the TCN fulfilling its purpose, even when his original in-person plans were no longer possible. He had the foresight to anticipate that the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 were not going away anytime soon as well as an understanding that this “new normal” would put a unique and increased strain on those serving in ministry.
“We all needed to pivot in a new way.”
One of Homeyer’s goals for the second year of TCN programming had been to start a webinar or podcast series or another virtual opportunity for a wider audience. With COVID-19 shutting doors across the nation, it seemed like an especially appropriate time to move up the launch date for this initiative.
The week after Spring Break, Homeyer subscribed to a Zoom account for the TCN and upgraded the internet at his house. He began calling friends in ministry to ask about the types of information and support that would be helpful during this time. Then, with Dean Todd Still’s help, Homeyer sought out thought-leaders in ministry to help address the questions and concerns of ministers. The first in the series of “TCN Conversations with Thought Leaders in Pastoral Ministry” launched on March 23.
“The webinars were the first thing we did. We scrapped everything we were planning to do in person for a year, got as much money back as we could, cut our budget in half to help Baylor, and evaluated how we could provide effective resources on a much more streamlined budget,” Homeyer said.
Since launching the first webinar, the Truett Church Network Facebook page, where many of the online events are hosted, has quadrupled in followers. The online format of the new TCN initiatives has allowed the Network to welcome a greater diversity of experts to lead and inform. This has, in turn, broadened the reach of the TCN to audiences it may not have been able to reach with an in-person event focus.
Following the “TCN Conversations” series, the “Todd Talks” webinar was born. Each episode features Dean Still visiting with a noted expert on relevant issues. Past guests have included Beth Moore, N.T. Wright, and Dr. Esau McCaulley. In addition, the new “Pastors Round Table” webinar series involves two to three pastors discussing challenges faced by ministers in the field and offering support and encouragement.
These webinars have so far proved successful, and Homeyer continues to evaluate how to ensure that the information provided is applicable and beneficial to the people TCN seeks to serve. Outside of the public Zoom space, the TCN has also launched additional leadership huddles. Each of these huddles—one for Truett students, three for young alumni, and one for senior pastors—meets virtually to discuss how God is working in their lives and through their ministries.
The Office of Ministry Connections, an arm of the TCN led by Jack Bodenhamer, has adapted to meet the needs of churches and ministers navigating job searches during the pandemic as well.
“From its inception, the Office of Ministry Connections has provided counsel and comfort to hundreds of pastors and ministers in their job searches as well as churches and search committees in their work,” Bodenhamer said. “This work didn’t change in the pandemic, but we shifted our efforts to include Zoom interview training for both ministers and search committees, and we helped many churches in early spring transition and keep their searches moving forward.”
Most recently, the TCN is working with key organizations and ministries to provide helpful online training in areas like racial equity for clergy. In addition, the Network is also launching Alumni Covenant Groups.
“The mental health challenges of COVID and leading during this time are increasing, and then you add in a divisive political season and racial tensions across the country. A lot of ministers have groups to meet with, but many do not. We’re offering to help gather these groups and provide materials from Truett’s Office of Spiritual Formation,” Homeyer said. “These groups may go in a number of directions, but the hope is that they are a place to read Scripture together, pray together, and discuss what’s on our hearts and minds.”
Looking forward and past the restrictions of COVID-19, Homeyer hopes that the virtual skills and innovations learned during the pandemic are able to be integrated into TCN planning and strategies for the future. He hopes those reached by the broader range of online programming might be introduced to more personal and richer in-person offerings like affinity group retreats, once it is safe to do so.
“I don’t think there’s any putting this genie back in the bottle as far as online programming. But while Zoom is great and it connects you to people around the world, getting together is so important,” Homeyer said. “We’re still learning though. In one of the webinars, Ralph West said that we don’t know fully the lessons of COVID until we’re through COVID, and I think that is really true.”