A Long Process
The calling process can be grueling for a pastor (also for a search committee). A phone conversation leads to a first interview leads to a second interview leads to sending links to some sermons leads to answering “just these 38 questions in writing” leads to a third interview leads to a weekend visit. The weekend visit includes non-stop meetings and meals with every constituency from the Council to the staff to the Nursery Committee to the Potluck Signage Advisory Work Group. Then preach in the morning, lead adult Sunday School, attend a church-wide potluck (with another interview). Meet with the search committee one more time. Then preach in the evening. Then pizza with the youth group. Then wait four months to hear back from the church.
Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. But the process certainly can feel endless. Pastors report that it is emotionally and spiritually taxing to invest deeply into a search process, especially while simultaneously pastoring their present congregation. Some pastors find that conversations with a prospective church can feel like cheating on their current church. All those meetings and interviews, when taken seriously, require a lot of energy.
The Moment of Truth
And then, when that letter of call finally comes, the truth is sometimes you’re still not sure you have the straight story on the church. Have they represented themselves rightly? Every pastor expects the church to put their best foot forward, but just how gnarly is that other foot?
Sometimes churches are transparent about the good AND the bad. But in our office at Pastor Church Resources (PCR), it is not uncommon to listen to a pastor, three years (or even three months) into their call, say, “I had no idea what I got myself into. The search committee told me one thing. But the reality couldn’t be more different.”
So how does a pastor candidate learn what he or she needs to learn about a church before accepting a call? Well, partly, it’s worth saying you never can know everything about each other. Extending and accepting a call both require faith and trust in God. But there are ways to avoid some common discernment mistakes.
The Big Three
Every serious pastor candidate should have an opportunity to interview (not just be interviewed by) at least three groups in a church: The church council, the church staff and an open/larger meeting of the congregation.
Of course, by the time you might be talking to one of these three groups, you are clearly a finalist for the position and you legitimately think God might be calling you here. But most (maybe all) of your conversations up until now have probably been with the search committee only. The search committee is a natural place to start conversations, and good search committees will represent the church’s vision and reality clearly. But search committees cannot be your only source of information on the church. Interview or have a frank conversation with the other three groups.
Beware Hearing Only What You Want to Hear
One of the most common mistakes both pastors and churches make when discerning a call is that they hear only what they want to hear. We all have confirmation bias. But churches (like pastors) are complex and full of nuance. To really begin to understand each other, you need to listen to each other actively.
Active Listening Skills and the Interview Weekend
In almost every round of pre-marriage counseling, a pastor will introduce some version of active-listening skills to the bride and groom. Have the bride explain what she wants. Then ask the groom to speak back to the bride what he understood her to say. She then can confirm or clarify what she meant. Back and forth, it goes. Both the speaker and listener actively engaged in clarifying toward the goal of deeper understanding. The beauty of active listening is that it is very hard to hear only what you want to hear, since you give every opportunity for the speaker to correct or clarify what you thought you heard.
If nothing else, it would be worthwhile, in the presence of the council, the staff and the congregation, to attempt a little active listening. Briefly describe the narrative of the church as you understand it. The narrative of a church includes her core identity, her driving vision and her expectations of the pastoral role. Name those things, as you understand them. And then, invite others to confirm or clarify.
Essentially, repeat in your own words the answers to questions you’ve posed to the search committee. Is that also how the council, the staff or the congregation would answer the question? Take the opportunity to state clearly how you understand the role and what attracts you to the position. Don’t just say what you think most people will want to hear. There is no prize for getting a 100% vote on the congregation’s advisory vote for your call. (except maybe an even bigger surprise when 20% of people leave in your first year anyway!) Speak the truth about the church and your potential place in it, as you understand it. Let them correct you now (not just three months after you’ve moved into the parsonage).
The Outsider’s Inside Scoop
Sometimes pastors ask, “Is it ever appropriate to talk to someone outside the system?” In other words, are there other people like a former pastor or a classis functionary, who might offer a helpful perspective? And if there are people with a helpful, outside perspective, am I even allowed to talk to them?
At PCR, we think conversations with people outside the system are appropriate, if done well.
Some outside folks to consider talking to:
The classis’ Regional Pastor
A Neighboring Pastor
The church’s classis-assigned Church Visitors
The church’s Article 17 Oversight Committee (if there has been an unwanted Article 17 separation, the classis often assigns an oversight committee to the church. This committee would offer much wisdom about the dynamics that led to the separation and the work the church has done since that separation.)
Ask, Don’t Assume
If you are serious enough about a call that you want some outsider perspective, your next best move is to ask the search committee for their blessing. Maybe you say, “I’m taking the potential call to your church seriously. As part of my due diligence, I’d like to speak with a couple of folks in classis or in the community like Person A and Person B. Do you have any objections to me talking with them? Is there anything in particular you’d recommend I ask them about?”
If permission is denied, you might consider that denial a red flag worth evaluating in your discernment. If permission is granted, it shows an openness that will likely make serving the church in the future much less contentious.
The other benefit of getting permission beforehand is that it can help the person you are reaching out to feel more at ease to speak freely.
What about the Former Pastor?
Asking a classis functionary or neighboring pastor is one thing. But is it okay to talk to the former pastor?
At PCR, we think it’s fine to talk to the former pastor. But it’s helpful to right-size your expectations. Former pastors, like all of us, have their own biases and blind spots. Many former pastors are very concerned that they might prejudice you against certain members of their former church or certain aspects of the ministry. They want you to have a clean slate when you come. For that reason, many former pastors tend to be fairly circumspect about what they share.
It is also true that a former pastor, if he or she left under not-great circumstances, may have an ax to grind with the church. If the former pastor is a little too forthcoming, it may be a hint that there are some hurt feelings.
In sum, conversations with former pastors are permissible, but for these reasons, should be taken with a grain of salt. With that in mind, it may be best to acknowledge explicitly the limitations of the conversation at the outset of the conversation. But then, feel free to ask things like, “What did you really love about this church? What was the hardest thing for you? Do you have any advice for me?”