The Rev. Jeremy Shoulta never expected to deliver his first sermon to Gainesville’s First Baptist Church in a nearly empty sanctuary.
“Two weeks prior to my call Sunday, that’s when physical distancing started nationwide,” Shoulta said. “We considered briefly how we would need to navigate that, but ultimately decided it was appropriate and timely to pursue that call.”
Shoulta and his family made plans to have him preach in the mostly empty church on Sunday, March 29.
Candidates for senior pastor of a Baptist church undergo a “call weekend,” where they meet the entire congregation and give a Sunday sermon. After the service, the entire church votes on whether or not to accept the prospective pastor.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shoulta filmed his sermon in First Baptist of Gainesville’s sanctuary and recorded a video that answered questions about the church and his philosophy of ministry.
“It was very strange,” Shoulta said. “I haven’t done anything like that before.”
Shoulta, who was raised in Louisville, has served as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Black Mountain for three years, and before that, he was the pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter attend.
Shoulta said up until last year, Jimmy Carter would teach Sunday school one to two times a month, but stopped because of health complications.
From 2014-2016 Shoulta watched as the couple cared for the small town of Plains and the church community.
“It was a joy to walk with him on this Christian journey and to experience his teachings up close,” Shoulta said. “Also, to see him live out his faith locally and with his neighbors in Plains was inspiring as well. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter wouldn’t only visit on Sunday mornings to teach and attend worship. Shoulta said they also participated in the Sunday evening service and took part in church events and initiatives.
He remembers one day when Jimmy Carter noticed a broken rail in the stairwell of the church. Shoulta said the former president brought his tools and repaired it on his own.
“That’s just the kind of person he is,” he said.
The Rev. Mark Green, minister of music at First Baptist of Gainesville, said the church began its quest for a new senior pastor 15 months ago. The congregation formed a search committee composed of six members. They received over 75 recommendations from First Baptist of Gainesville staff, members and church leaders throughout the country.
Green said the group eventually narrowed their search down to Shoulta and held meetings at a midway point between Gainesville and Black Mountain, North Carolina, where Shoulta lives and worked as a pastor.
After meeting with Shoulta, Green said the committee invited him to “do the call.” People were able to place their votes for Shoulta via the church’s website or by calling its office.
“I know that particular Sunday, 2,129 people viewed the service on the website,” Green said. “People started calling and voting, and he was unanimously elected. We are thrilled that he’s coming. He seems like a wonderful servant of God, and very humble and bright.”
Shoulta said he wasn’t looking for a congregation, but someone passed his resume along. Once he spoke with the church’s search committee about the congregation’s priorities and future plans, Shoulta said he felt led to pursue the call.
“I’m excited about First Baptist of Gainesville’s desire to pursue a vision for faithful ministry and mission in Gainesville, and to discover creative ways to make that happen,” he said. “I’m excited about a congregation that has been present for the people of Gainesville for many years.”
Shoulta plans to soon move to Hall County with his wife, Valarie, and two daughters, Maggie and Macy. His start date as senior pastor begins on April 15, and he will deliver his second sermon on April 19.
Shoulta said he wants the people of First Baptist of Gainesville to know that “we're going to get through this.”
“This is a crisis unlike anything we've ever seen,” he said. “But with God’s leading and our desire to serve and protect each other, we’re going to come out of this stronger, and I think more willing to be present for each for the long haul when this crisis is over.”