The Way It Was: Wait for the Call to Come in
Pastors of an older generation sometimes speak of the Sunday afternoons when, out of the blue, they’d receive a phone call from First CRC, Far-away-ville, informing them that the good people of Far-away-ville had, “just voted to call you to be our next pastor.” At this point, you’d take a deep breath, say something to buy yourself time, and ask your kids to get out the atlas and figure out just where Far-away-ville is.
Though out-of-the-blue calls happen much less frequently these days, some pastors report that they still receive somewhat regular inquiries from search committees after “someone recommended your name.” The search committee member then asks, “are you open to a call right now?”
Your name may have been recommended by someone who knows you well. Or someone who read an article you wrote in the Banner twelve years ago. Or it may have been recommended by your niece’s husband’s cousin’s co-worker’s grandma. Or your name may have been recommended by a group of denominational staff.
For many years, there was a group of denominational staff that met monthly to review open church positions and to recommend to search committees the names of possible candidates. Periodically, a pastor would contact the denomination and indicate he or she was open to a call.
All of these processes worked occasionally to find a match, but increasingly, these ways of helping pastors and churches find each other have shown signs of age. Why is this?
Our pool of pastor candidates is increasingly diverse. The old networks of who-knows-whom were established back when most CRC pastors attended Calvin Theological Seminary or came from a small number of Christian colleges and universities. Increasingly, eligible CRC pastors come from all kinds of backgrounds and are not necessarily well-connected to many other CRC pastors or churches.
Our churches are increasingly unique from one another. Everything from style of worship to culture of leadership to expectations of the pastor vary much more from church to church than they did even one generation ago. Whereas some people may have previously assumed that “if you have served one CRC, you’ve served them all,” that is certainly not the case today. Pastors and churches are becoming much more particular about what they are looking for in one another. Sometimes, this is vanity; thinking, “We’re not like other Christian Reformed Churches” or “I’m not like other CRC pastors!” But it’s not always or entirely vanity. Pastors and churches are increasingly able to name their unique gifts and callings and are seeking pastors or positions that suit or stretch those gifts and callings.
There is no list anymore. There is a perception that the CRCNA still keeps a list of pastors actively seeking calls. We do not. For years, the denomination tried to maintain such a list, and a committee of denominational staff would recommend a name or two to a congregation. But even then, the committee relied on some incomplete databases and limited anecdotal evidence to predict who might be looking for a call. The truth was (and is) even the most well-connected person cannot know every pastor who is considering a call.
Even if we had a list of names, would your name be on it? Many pastors, if pressed, would struggle to know whether to say they were “looking for a call.” It is tempting for search committees to think that all pastors exist in one of two states: they are either “looking for a call” or “not open to a call.” The truth is that many pastors are somewhere in the middle. Some who say they are “not open to a call” mean to say that they are quite settled and engaged in their present ministry. But for some of them, it is also true that if the right opportunity came along, they would be willing to open the door of discernment a little wider.
For these reasons and more, the process of finding a call has changed and requires different approaches from both search committees and pastors.
The Way It Is: Make Yourself Known
Pastor searches in the CRCNA are now supported by the denomination in four primary ways.
1. Thriving Together: Exploring Transition
Pastors who are in the midst of exploring their call might consider connecting to the Thriving Together Program. This grant-funded project of the CRCNA is for those who are thinking about taking a new call, exploring what God might have next for them or even considering stepping away from formal ministry altogether. You may be able to take a vocational ministry assessment, attend a gathering of pastors exploring their call or form a mentoring group that focuses on the unique dynamics of discernment.
2. Pastor Search
The denomination maintains a database, the PastorSearch Portal, that is supposed to include the minister profile (a sort of CRC-specific pastoral resume) of all Ministers of the Word in the CRCNA. A search committee can ask for access to this database and search according to a few filters like length of time served in present call or regions of the US and Canada the candidate is willing to serve.
The benefit of PastorSearch is that it gives search committees quick access to a lot of information about pastors and candidates, including their minister profiles.This helps search committees quickly gain a sense of the diversity of pastors available in the denomination. It can also help them clarify what they’re looking for and what questions they need to ask of candidates.
The challenge with PastorSearch is that it tends to yield a very large number of candidate names. Reading through those profiles can be an onerous task all by itself. Then contacting preferred candidates can be a discouraging process for search committees. Many of the pastors they contact will inform them they are not open to a call. Many pastors will not reply at all.
If you are at all open to a call, make sure you have updated your profile. An updated profile is one of the clearest clues to a church that you are, at least, open to a conversation.
If you are not open to a call, but are contacted by a search committee, please be a decent human being. It is not that hard to write a note back to the search committee that says, “Thank you for reaching out to me. I regret to inform you that I am not open to a call to your church at this time. May God bless you and your church as you search for your next pastor.” (You can even copy and paste this gem of a response!) Even that level of kindness will go a long way to mitigate the frustration search committees often encounter. Remember that virtually every search committee is composed of volunteers trying their best to serve their church during a time of disruption and transition.
3. The Network
PastorSearch can be a bit of an unwieldy tool, given that it provides so many names. That’s why the denomination offers another tool to support pastors and search committees. The Network is a denominationally-supported website which, in addition to providing a trove of helpful ministry content and resources, has a kind of classifieds section. The "Church Positions" page is the single best place for pastors to find out what opportunities are available to them. You can even subscribe to receive every new posting.
4. Other Ministry Opportunities (on church planting, chaplaincy and global missions)
If you’ve ever had a sense that God was calling you to ministry, but maybe not in an established congregation, you may be encouraged to hear that our denomination supports ministers in a variety of different settings.
The CRC is planting churches using a variety of models and a diversity of leaders. Could it be that God is preparing you to plant a church? Contact your Resonate Global Mission Regional Mission Leader to start a process of learning and discernment.
Resonate Global Mission can also share with you the current opportunities available for serving in international missions, and their Placement Advisors can help you discern this call
Or, you may also want to consider chaplaincy as a ministry calling. Chaplaincy is a healing, reconciling ministry of God, an expression and extension of God’s activity and mission in the world. Learn more about chaplaincy on their website.
A Final Note: Speak Up
Of course, a classified listing only works to make a match if a pastor is willing to reach out to a church. And Resonate only knows you're interested in church planting if you contact them. Some pastors find it unspiritual or even manipulative to initiate contact with a church or ministry. They think, “If it is God’s will, the calling will find me.” So, instead of reaching out to a search committee or Resonate, they wait for someone to reach out to them. Again, that may have worked a generation or two ago. But our denomination is simply too diverse and the opportunities too varied for it to work reliably today.
If you read a church profile and visit a church website and find the Spirit stirring something in your heart, reach out to the search committee. Let them know what about the church’s listing appealed to you. If you sense a call to chaplaincy, church planting or global missions, reach out. Ask if they’d be willing to have an informal discernment conversation. If, after that conversation, it is clear it’s not a fit, all you lost was an hour on zoom. If the conversation does go well, you may very well be on the road to God’s next call on your life.