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How embracing changes to the calling process can make the traditional three week response time unnecessary. 

It has been the historic custom in the Christian Reformed Church to give pastors three weeks to respond when they’ve received a letter of call. This custom helpfully reinforces the conviction that a call to ministry requires prayerful discernment and that prayerful discernment takes time. 

But the three week custom comes from a time when pastor candidates received phone calls without warning informing them that Grace CRC three provinces away just voted this morning to call you to be their new minister. The first thing you did after hanging up the phone was dig up the atlas to find out where the church was even located. Because there had been no prior discernment beyond the calling church, the three weeks were necessary to learn more about the church, the reasons for the call, and to talk to your current council about leaving

These days, a pastor search and calling process is usually long and deliberate. If a search committee and pastor have engaged the process well, sending and accepting a letter of call should be fairly perfunctory. 

Here are four things you can do to make a three week delay unnecessary. 

1. Discernment Starts Now (not once a call is issued)

A calling process is like dating. It begins somewhat casually and either ends or becomes more serious over time. As the relationship progresses, it becomes important to begin inviting more and more people to pray about and speak into your emerging “courtship.”

In a hypothetical call process, let’s say you have three rounds of interviews. 

  • In the first, you have a brief conversation with the search team by phone or zoom. 
  • In the second, you have a longer conversation with the same group. 
  • In the third, you meet in-person for a weekend including preaching and meetings with the congregation, the council, and more. 

For most pastors, once you’ve been invited to a second interview, you want to begin engaging more people in the discernment, including trusted advisors, mentors, and at least a council member or two. These are the people whose judgment and discernment you most highly trust. If the people who know you best and whom you trust the most raise any red flags about the call, you have time to process those concerns. 

Then, once you’ve been invited for an in-person meeting, you probably want to tell the full council and ask for their prayers and discernment, especially if you’ve been able to… 

2. Ask for what you need to know before the call is extended (even before you visit, if possible)

In between the second and third stage listed above, (after the search committee has determined they want to invite a pastor to visit but before the visit is scheduled) churches can create a lot of rich opportunities for the pastor to get to know the church. 

Since COVID, most of us have become fairly comfortable conducting meetings and interviews online. We’ve even become accustomed to watching a sermon or two online. What this means is that a pastor and church can gain a lot more insight, even from afar, on each other’s fit for the call. A pastor could ask to meet with staff or lay leaders or watch a typical worship service. A search committee could watch sermons and see the pastor lead worship online. 

Is all this online research and meeting the same as being in person? No. But the amount of time we can spend with each other and the amount of things we can learn about each other from afar are far greater and more useful for discernment than ever before. 

In fact, I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect that a search committee be 90% sure of recommending a call and that a pastor candidate be 90% sure of accepting a call before the in-person interview weekend takes place. 

And if there’s been that level of engagement ahead of time, the in-person visit is more for confirming a mutual sense of call than discerning one afresh. 

3. Be Honest

I commend search committees who can say to a pastor candidate, “We feel very confident that you would be a good fit for our community and that God could be calling you here. What do you need to know or who do you need to talk to to be as confident as we are?” See if there’s anything your search committee can do to help bring the candidate’s confidence from 50% to 90%. 

If the candidate wants to meet with staff, set it up. If they want to review the compensation package, work with the classis counselor to prepare a draft of a letter of call. You get the idea. These things don't have to wait until after the letter of call is issued. 

Likewise, I commend pastors who are honest with churches about their level of interest and openness to call. If you’re only 50% sure it’s a fit, let the church know. There’s often both significant expense and significant emotional energy put into an in-person visit. Search committees are often exhausted by the time they get to the point of an in-person visit. Just as churches sometimes lead pastors on, so too pastors sometimes lead churches on. Dispense with the nonsense. Be transparent with each other early and often. If you do end up together, your relationship will have a much stronger foundation. 

One wrinkle that makes all of this much more difficult is…

4. Avoid Duos or Trios

If a search committee has two or three pastor candidates they like, and they are reluctant to recommend Pastor A ahead of Pastor B, then it becomes harder for either pastor to do a “90% Confident” discernment ahead of time. Pastors don’t want to tell many people in their current congregations about a possible call elsewhere unless they are reasonably confident the call will proceed. Don’t expect a pastor to be 90% sure you’re the right church if you’re only 50% sure they’re the right pastor. 

If search committees do have multiple candidates they like, tell the candidates that. Be honest with Pastor B that you intend to call Pastor A first, but that if Pastor A were to decline, they also think Pastor B would be a great fit. 

And pastor candidates can extend the same courtesy to churches, if there is more than one church with whom you are interviewing. 

Conclusion

If you take advantage of today’s more robust search processes and available technology, a three week discernment delay after a letter of call can be cut down considerably.

Thrive supports churches in times of transition and pastor search. Learn more at Pastor Search Process.

 

Comments

Thank you Sean for bringing this forward for discussion.  This conversation may be helpful for anyone not having gone through a calling process (either as pastor or calling committee) to know the dynamics that can take place.

Here are my thoughts on this.  I would not want the three week period to be shortened.  One aspect you did not really touch on was the fact that it is common for a pastor to walk the path with a calling committee but not yet bring their Council (or most of their Council) or their congregation into the picture until a call has actually been issued.  If this process is opened up to the pastor's church early on, you will be bringing all kinds of wondering and anxiety to your own congregation or Council and then, not uncommon, the calling congregation might not actually vote in favour of extending you the call, or their vote percentage is not a ringing endorsement of a call. 

A pastor is not called to a new church until the call is actually issued by the Council.  Prior to that it is, as you say, dating.  Yes discernment takes place along the way, but without the actual call extended it remains simply a possibility.  Once a call is extended, then it is not just the pastor & family who use three weeks to decide, it is also both congregations that get three weeks to pray for, weigh in on, add input to, help discern with, share perspectives and so forth.  I think it would be premature to have conversations with either one's Council or congregational members asking "should I take this call or not", when there is no call as yet extended. 

As an active pastor, I have a standing call to the church I am called to serve.  If I wish to know if I should be seeking to go elsewhere, I should have a robust evaluative process in place already ongoing, that is not dependent on receiving a call.  One church I know called three different pastors in a row, all three recommended by the calling committee and the Council only to not be endorsed by the congregation.  It would be odd indeed to have a congregation or Council praying for discernment to accept a call or not, when no call has yet been issued.  Does the pastor's present congregation pray that the church looking to call, decide against doing so?  

Let's keep the three weeks.  I have never heard anyone from any calling committee or church complain that the pastor gets a few weeks to consider the call.  Having gone through this process a half dozen times over the years, the two or three week period after the call being extended is space and time a pastor and family need to now examine what they will do, without being in the space of wondering if that church will actually extend a call or not.  It may be different of course for a pastor who is presently not serving a congregation or who has already discerned the need to change churches.  They may by the time of the call being extended already know if they will move or not. 

But for pastors in the midst of serving in the church they are called to, being willing to explore with a calling committee a possible change is not the same as looking for a new place to serve, or "job hunting" so to speak.  The calling committee of another church is actually "head hunting" for a new leader, to use the somewhat crass terminology from the business world.  To test the location of where a pastor is to serve, they need the new call to actually be extended, then space and time to prayerfully discern.  I would never be sharing with my congregation about a calling committee that wants to have a conversation about a possible call.  It is, in a sense, irrelevant to the present congregation, until a call is extended.  Then time is needed for the congregation to walk through their discernment input.  

And three weeks ... is not a long time at all.  It seems seldom that a pastor and family are going to pick up and move immediately any way, often it is a few months before that takes place.  Anyway, that's my two cents worth, oh wait, I am in Canada, have to round up to a nickel.  

Grace and peace to you all.

Colin Vander Ploeg

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