For Westminster Presbyterian Church — a thriving congregation in suburban Philadelphia — personal relationships are at the heart of the church’s mission and ministry, which is precisely why the church’s associate pastor nominating committee was faced with a challenge.

Elected by the congregation in August 2009, the 11-member committee was charged with identifying a pastor who would share the preaching responsibilities for Westminster’s two sets of concurrent services.

“Because the person we call will be a primary preaching voice in our contemporary service, we wanted to be able to make more of a personal connection with our applicants than just a phone call could provide,” said Leah Johnson, an elder who serves as the committee’s secretary. “Since we hadn’t restricted our search by geography and wanted to be faithful stewards of the committee’s budget, we needed a creative solution.”

Enter Skype, a free, downloadable software program, which — through the use of a webcam — allows for a face-to-face conversation.

Johnson said that the committee voted unanimously to use Skype after it narrowed its first group of more than 100 Personal Information Forms (PIFs) — the standardized form used by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) church professionals seeking a call — to a first cut of 12, anticipating the new technology’s usefulness in deciding which candidates to visit in person.

For the ease and accessibility of the committee, one of its members set up a Web portal site where the committee houses all the PIFs under consideration, all the sermons received — texts and audio files — and other materials in support of the candidates’ applications.

Committee members gather at the church whenever a personal interview is arranged through Skype. The interview experience is further enhanced by connecting the church’s computer to a projector, allowing for a full-screen image of the person being interviewed.

“The Skype added a dimension with the video that was a step above the conference call,” Johnson said. “We can see them and they can see us.”

The committee, which has now completed eight of its 12 expected interviews via Skype, has received nothing but positive feedback from candidates.

“You’re my first Skype,” said one of the interviewees. “I’ve never done it before. What a good idea.”

Johnson said that any committee looking into the possibility of using Skype should consider having only one or two people conduct the actual interview to minimize confusion.

“We all send in a list of questions to be asked, but only two people on our team do the interview,” she said. “You should also tell the person that you’re projecting their image on a big screen.”

Overall, the committee has beenimpressed with the consistency of the Skype program and has been disconnected only twice during interviews.

“We have not noticed any time delay,” Johnson said, “and the technology represents them accurately when we compare their image with their individual Websites or their Facebook pages. It’s a good image.”

Of the eight interviews completed by the committee, all of the candidates except one interviewed from an office setting. One connected from a coffeehouse while on study leave, and one even introduced the committee to his dog.

“It’s definitely more personal,” Johnson said.

She’s excited both about the committee’s progress and its future success in finding the right associate pastor for Westminster. The committee is now doing in-person interviews with several finalists in conjunction with hearing candidates preach either in neutral pulpits or in their own congregations.

In addition to what Westminster will continue to achieve through programs such as Skype, Johnson is also looking forward to continued advances in the use of technology by Donegal Presbytery to benefit individuals, congregations and committees, especially the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry and Committee on Preparation for Ministry. She is already aware of several successful applications of Skype at the presbytery level, where the technology has been used successfully to have an inquirer for ordained ministry moved to candidacy and to allow mission personnel to communicate internationally.

“We have a very tech-savvy new executive in the Rev. Erin Cox-Holmes,” Johnson said. “With Erin, who knows what will be done in our presbytery in the future? I’m sure it will be greater than we can ever imagine.”