Church Order Article 14a and the question every pastor asks: When should I talk to my current church about a possible call elsewhere?
“Dating” and “courtship” are two of the most commonly-used metaphors to describe the experience of churches searching for pastors in the CRCNA. After all, both parties maintain “profiles,” featuring their attributes, interests and, often, a photo or two. Both parties engage in, at first, fairly superficial interactions (a few emails, a short interview), that become more serious over time. Inevitably, both parties run internet searches on each other and investigate their respective web presence. Eventually, if things progress, you meet each other’s “families.” And when a match is made, churches and pastors make promises to be faithful to one another in the presence of gathered witnesses.
Not Quite “Until Death Do Us Part”
This metaphor has its limits, of course. One big limit is that whereas the dating metaphor seems to end in something like a wedding and lifelong marriage, a pastor's call to any particular church is, in fact, not “till death do us part.”
For Christian Reformed ministers, it’s not uncommon to serve four or more congregations in a career. Some congregations seldom experience pastoral tenures longer than five or six years.
And this reality puts both pastors and churches in an awkward position that the dating metaphor helps illustrate. After all, except in the rarest of circumstances, at some point, your church’s pastor will start “dating” another church even while they are trying to faithfully serve their current partner.
In fact, our whole system of matching pastors and churches only works if pastors, even content pastors, are willing to consider these opportunities. Or, according to the logic of our metaphor, this system only works if pastors are willing to “cheat” on their current churches and consider “dating” another church. And while we sincerely describe this process as “discerning God’s call,” it can feel a little dirty to the pastor and quite off-putting to his or her current church.
Pastor Lee’s Problem
A perennial question for pastors receiving these inquiries and considering another call is this: Whom should I talk to in my current church about this? And when should I talk to them?
Consider Pastor Lee, who has served First Church for five years. Things have gone fairly well and Lee is not actively looking for “a way out.” There’s work Lee still feels excited to do. But a couple of months ago, Grace Church contacted Lee, conveying their search committee’s conviction that Lee is a strong fit for the needs and opportunities at Grace and asking Lee to meet for an interview. Lee rebuffed them at first, telling them "I'm not looking for a call right now." But now they’ve called back and asked Lee to reconsider.
Pastor Lee Doesn’t Know What to Do.
Pastor Lee is happy. Nothing at First Church is going particularly badly. But Lee is part of a denomination that believes that a minister’s call is not just about professional fit or personal comfort. Lee believes God calls us to serve, and that God’s call might not make immediate sense to us. Could Grace Church’s search committee be conveying the voice of God?
Now the question that Pastor Lee, and hundreds of pastors like Lee every year, has to answer is: when in this process might I talk to people at First about the inquiry from Grace?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Lee realizes that the moment folks at First find out Lee is “dating” Grace, some will conclude, “"Lee's not committed to ministry here anymore.” Lee could lose leadership credibility that's been hard-won. But if Lee waits too long to tell them, they might feel hurt that they were not included in the discernment. Plus, Lee genuinely wants people at First who know Lee well to help listen for God’s leading. What should Pastor Lee do?
Church Order Wisdom and Limitations
The Church Order affirms Pastor Lee’s instinct to involve First Church in the discernment. In a line that often surprises both pastors and churches, Church Order Article 14a says, “A minister of the Word shall not leave the congregation with which the minister is connected for another church without the consent of the council.”
In other words, the council of First Church needs to be included in the discernment at some point.
Alas, the church order did not anticipate how the calling process would evolve over time. Whereas in previous generations, a pastor might receive a letter of call quite out-of-the-blue and be asked to accept or decline to move within a matter of three weeks, the current calling process is quite a bit more protracted. Most pastors, before they ever receive a formal letter of call, will have had multiple interviews and at least one substantial in-person visit with a church. By the time the letter of call arrives, there’s not much left for the pastor to discern. In some cases, conversations between pastor and prospective church have been going on for six months or longer. That’s a lot of momentum.
Practically speaking, if Pastor Lee waits to have a formal letter of call in hand to ask the council what they think, it may feel like trying to stop a runaway train with a few traffic cones.
For that reason, it makes sense for Pastor Lee to involve First Church in the discernment even before the call is formally received. In the early stages, involving First Church might simply mean inviting a few trusted leaders to pray for your discernment and offer their perspective. One particular question to ask this group--when do they think you should share this discernment with more people at First Church?
A Hypothetical Call Process
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.
Once Pastor Lee has been invited to come for an interview weekend, it will be important for the full council, and perhaps others to be aware and to begin discerning alongside Pastor Lee.
After the Call
Once the call has been officially issued it can be valuable to give all members at your current church a chance to pray and participate. But, if you've done the process well, it will be extremely unlikely that anything said at this point will sway your discernment. Their prayers and participation in your discernment may, to be honest, be more for their benefit than for yours. So don't lead them on. Don't use this "discernment" to fish for complements, "Oh Pastor, we just can't live without you!" or to leverage better compensation.
Receive their input, give thanks for their prayers, and follow God's leading. Though the calling process can be challenging for both churches and pastors, it also reflects our deep biblical and theological conviction that pastors, (as well as elders and deacons) are not merely hired or sign up to serve but rather they are called by God in a calling affirmed by the discernment of God's people.
Thrive supports churches in times of transition and pastor search. Learn more at Pastor Search Process.