Will your church have an intentional or unintentional interim minister?

Among my clergy coaching clients, I’ve noticed a spike recently in ministers who realize they’re doing work that ideally would have been completed before their arrival: helping the congregation grieve the loss of the last pastor, addressing issues with under-functioning (and sometimes outright sabotaging) staff, creating or making long-overdue revisions to basic documents such as personnel manuals and by-laws, right-sizing lay leadership teams, and visioning for the next chapter of the church’s story. This work, which is time-intensive and emotionally draining, can leave clergy wrung out before they celebrate their first anniversary with a congregation. They find themselves asking, “Can I keep up this pace? Do I see myself here long-term?” More than occasionally, the answer is no, and the call these ministers envisioned lasting for many years ends up being an unintentional interim stint.

There are many good reasons to call an intentional interim minister in between settled pastors. Interims expect to enter systems in turmoil, and they are trained to handle the challenges. Interims can manage all the extra pastoral duties (with ample breaks, that is) that come with a highly-anxious congregation because they know their time there is limited. Interims, with one foot in the church and the other out, can offer insights that neither a consultant (outsider) nor a settled pastor (insider) is able to see and voice.

The costs to a congregation of an unintentional interim minister, on the other hand, are high. Full-blown pastoral searches are pricey, not just in terms of money but also time and energy. Severance packages can hamstring a church’s budget. Congregations are often hesitant to invest in the next settled minister, not wanting to get attached to a leader who could turn out to be another short-timer. Throughout all the uncertainty, trust among church members and between members and staff/lay leaders begins to suffer, and the congregation’s focus shifts from mission to survival.

With all the benefits of interim ministry and the downsides of not utilizing this transition resource, why doesn’t every church call one? There are a couple of reasons. First, congregations think the interim is a time to save money on personnel costs. They see stop-gap measures such as a revolving door of guest preachers as a way to protect the budget. Additionally, they want a settled minister in place as quickly as possible because they fear the loss of members and a decrease in giving during the transition.

But the second reason, I believe, is the real one. Churches think that calling an interim minister means that they’ve failed or that they’re unhealthy. There’s a myth that only “messed up” congregations need guided introspection during the time between settled ministers. In fact, it is a sign of health and maturity as well as an investment in the future to call an interim minister. It never hurts to breathe deeply, take stock, and move toward what’s next with purpose – in other words, intentionality.

Photo by Chris Brignola on Unsplash.

Clarifying expectations of your new minister

One of the most effective ways to help your new minister get off to a fast start is to make sure everyone – minister, search team, lay leadership, and congregation as a whole – is on the same page about the shape of pastoral leadership. Here are four key areas to cover:

Ministry definition

What counts as ministry? What work is your minister doing that no one else sees? Where is the minister interacting in a pastoral/professional role with church members and neighbors beyond the church walls?

Availability

How many hours or units of time are you compensating the minister for? How much of that time should be in the office, and what proportion is best used serving and making relationships out in the community? How should the minister make up for missed time off when funerals, weddings, or other special events fall on sabbath days? What is defined as a pastoral emergency, and how are these covered when the minister is unavailable?

Priorities

Where should the bulk of the minister’s time and energy be spent? What are the minister’s particular gifts and passions? What work must be done by the minister, and what can the minister empower other staff and lay leaders to carry out?

Oversight

To whom does the minister answer? What systems are in place for the congregation to share constructive feedback? What are the goals of an annual review, and who facilitates it? Who advocates for and supports the minister?

Clarification of expectations begins pre-call, as church and candidate discern the match and wordsmith the covenant. It continues through the first several months of the new minister’s tenure, and along the way there will be many opportunities (and likely needs) for educating the congregation about what this person’s role in this season of the church’s life will look like. Doing this hard but good work builds trust between parish and pastor and paves the way for the minister's long and fruitful tenure.

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Introductory webinar recording now available

Searching for the Called offers live introductory webinars on a regular basis. These hour-long sessions cover the story behind Searching for the Called, the unique aspects of this approach to ministerial searches, the applicability of this approach to your context, an overview of the search stages, a website demonstration via a deep dive into one search stage, and search team coaching information.

The advantage of a live webinar is that participants can engage with the presentation and with one another, sharing insights and asking questions. The webinar schedule might not line up well with yours, however, or you might not have an entire hour to spare. For those reasons a 31-minute recorded webinar is now available. The recording addresses the same topics as the live webinar but without the person-to-person interaction. You are invited to view the video and share it with anyone who might be interested.

Helpful principles for getting the word out about your open position

Is your search team unsure where to begin with getting the word out about the ministerial opportunity at your church? Or has the search team started advertising, only to be disappointed by the number or caliber of profiles and resumes received? Perhaps journalist Malcolm Gladwell can help. In his 2000 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Gladwell explores what it takes for an illness, a trend, or a message to go viral. Here are the implications for a ministerial search:

First, notice of your congregation's search needs to reach what Gladwell calls connectors, mavens, and salespeople. Connectors know and keep up with a wide swath of friends and acquaintances, simply because they enjoy the interactions. Mavens seek and share information, eager to improve the lives of those around them through the distribution of what they've learned. And salespeople persuade not just through their words, but also through their way of being in the world. Identify these three types of people in your search team/congregation's circles of influence - and there might be overlap - and leverage their natural amplification tendencies.

Second, ensure the notice about your open position that you give to your connectors, mavens, and salespeople is "sticky." Make it memorable by staying away from generic descriptors about your church ("welcoming," "loving," etc., even though these words hopefully apply to your congregation!) and hooking potential candidates with a compelling story or information about a ministry that is unique to your church.

Third, find the contexts in which candidates who might be good matches for your church are looking for position postings. Use official denominational channels. Buy space or airtime for your search announcement in print/online publications or on podcasts that your kind of pastor might be reading or listening to. Have your connectors, mavens, and salespeople work their contacts at the seminaries whose theologies align well with your congregation's and the conferences that potential candidates might attend. Use all of these outlets to push your sticky search message.

While your open position will not be a great fit for everyone who finds out about it, leaning on connectors, mavens, and salespeople, creating a sticky message, and seeking out the right contexts for identifying candidates whose skills and beliefs line up well with your church's needs will give you an ample stack of potential matches to consider.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash.

How Searching for the Called dovetails with intentional interim ministry

If you have an intentional interim minister in place or are considering calling one, you might be wondering how Searching for the Called fits with the self-study work your interim and transition team will lead. Great question! As a trained IIM, I have designed Searching for the Called to honor the interim process.

The work of the congregation during an intentional interim is to reflect deeply on the church's history, purpose, leadership needs (lay and clergy), connections with denominational and missional partners, and future. Notice that these areas are the focus of "befriending the past and anticipating the future," stage two of Searching for the Called. Follow the link to find reflection questions, best practices, and tools that can complement those that your intentional interim minister brings to the table. There's also an assessment that helps the congregation know when this self-study is complete.

When your interim minister shifts from coaching the church through this time of discovery to encouraging the search team, Searching for the Called utilizes the same intentionality and deep reflection your minister has been urging during the your movement through the five focus points. It helps create a seamless hand-off from transition team to search team and emphasizes the importance of building on congregational discussions. Since many denominations frown upon interim ministers becoming deeply involved in the search, Searching for the Called can pick up the coaching role as needed.

For those who would like to read more about how intentional interim ministry and Searching for the Called work together, check out this summary for interim ministers.

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash.

Background checks: not the candidate's burden

Before your church extends a call to a candidate, you must run a thorough background check on that minister. This step will help your search team ask necessary questions, give your congregation peace of mind, reduce your church's exposure in case of litigation, and - most importantly - protect vulnerable people in your congregation. (For more information on what this search should include, click here.)

That said, payment for the background check should not be the candidate's burden. A check that includes all the information your search team needs is expensive. As a point of reference, the price tag for the service used by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is $150 per person. If your candidate is a new seminary graduate or between calls, $150 could make a deep dent in cash available for groceries or rent. Practicality and hospitality suggest that search teams build the cost of background checks into the search budget.

There are denominations that require candidates to submit to a background check before their ministerial profiles can enter circulation. In that case, make sure your search team plans to reimburse that expense upon extending a call. A note to leaders in these denominations: please consider shifting this cost to calling congregations or making scholarships available for those ministers who cannot afford background checks. There are excellent candidates who can't even get their information to searching churches because of this insurmountable, initial hurdle.

Photo by Mathieu Turle on Unsplash.

 

 

 

 

Common approaches to soliciting candidates

In some denominations, most or all resumes or profiles come through a national or regional office. For congregations that receive this candidate information directly, however, there are several schools of thought about which applicants to consider:

Everyone. The search team will look at all resumes, whether they were sent directly by the candidate or by someone else on the candidate’s behalf.

Pro: you might find stellar candidates who weren’t on any influencer’s radar.

Con: you might have a tall stack to sort through, with resumes that need a closer read than those who were referred.

Consider: what difference does it make to your search team - if any - when a minister self-refers?  

Only candidates who are not looking. Some congregations don't like to advertise at all. Instead, they look for ministers who are doing good work where they happily serving.

Pro: this minister is likely competent, already being at a church.

Con: there are many great candidates out there who are looking for reasons other than because they are un-callable. (Maybe their positions were downsized, or they were victims of sexual harassment, or they have just not yet found the right fit.)

Consider: would you would want another congregation to lure your (content) minister away?

Only candidates who are referred by trusted sources. It's becoming a more common practice to solicit names from seminary faculty, consultants, and ministers who are friends of the congregation.

Pros: these candidates have built-in references and are well-networked.

Cons: you might get roughly the same list from every source, who in turn might be giving that list to other churches.

Consider: what questions you might ask your sources to uncover less obvious – and therefore a better range of – candidates?

Whatever approach your search team chooses for gathering candidate profiles, consider ministers who would stretch your congregation and remember to be hospitable in all your interactions. Communicate with everyone whose resume or profile you receive, and affirm candidates’ gifts even as you tell them you will not be continuing conversations.

Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash.

What to put on your church website

When candidates find out your position is open, their first action will be to visit your church’s website. For a candidate to begin imagining a future with your congregation, it is essential to have a web presence that is informative and aesthetically-pleasing. Here are some important details to include:

High-resolution photos of church members in action. Use pictures of actual congregants (after asking parents to sign photo releases for the use of their children’s likenesses), and make sure at least some of the photos show people doing something other than sitting in a circle or around a table. 

Statements of identity and direction. Tell what your church values and what goals it is working toward.

Key ministries. How does your congregation connect with the community through giving money and providing hands-on help? What programs exist for the people who come through your doors?

Visitor information. Make it easy for candidates to understand more about your context with a map. Tell them about the culture of your church by sharing expectations about dress, accessibility details, and information for parents. Include a few carefully-chosen photos of the physical plant, such as a view of the church from the road.

Affiliations. A congregation’s denominational and community partners reveal much about its priorities.

Position announcement and related information. Putting your position description, church profile, and community snapshot on your webpage is an inexpensive way to share a lot of information with a wide swath of potential candidates. 

Your church’s website does not have to be expensive or overly-designed. It does need to be regularly updated, easy to navigate, and revelatory. The effort is worth it, not just for your pastor search but also for potential visitors to your congregation.

What would you add to this list?

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Strengths versus skills

When searching for a new minister, it is vitally important to discern what each candidate’s strengths are and how they align with your position description. Strengths are God-given talents. They are central to a person’s identity. They are manifestations of passion and purpose.

Skills are a bit different. We pick up skills through education and experience. They are add-ons. They’re important too, but some skills are better indicators of fit than others. If the skill is built on top of one of my strengths, then it enhances my ability to live fully into my call. If the skill is something I’ve learned out of necessity – not because it aligns with my purpose – then it can actually be a distraction, even if it’s a really useful ability. For example, I have taken several pastoral care classes and spent many hours making hospital and home visits. I’m pretty decent at it. Pastoral care, however, is not my natural gift. It takes substantial time for me to rev up for and recover from this work. If your church needed someone who would spend 10+ hours per week checking on folks, then I would not be your ideal candidate. My energy is increased, though, by coaching people toward action, writing sermons, and attending to details, and I’ve developed a range of skills that build on these strengths. I would thrive in a context that wanted me to preach once a month, plan ministries, proofread newsletters, and coach ministry leaders.

Most candidate resumes and profiles will include strengths, skills that relate to these strengths, and skills that don’t. It is important for your search team to develop questions that distinguish among these three categories. When are you most engaged in ministry? What pieces of ministry drain you? How would you state your purpose in ministry in one sentence?

A great-fit candidate will be one whose strengths, associated skills, and sources of energy match your congregation’s priorities. That minister will be able to give maximum effort and be set up to thrive.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Introducing group coaching for search team leaders

Could your search team use additional guidance through the search process? Would it lower your anxiety to have pre-scheduled opportunities for working through the challenges of the search? Would you like to learn from and share best practices with other search team chairs?

If you answered these questions in the affirmative, I encourage you to sign up for group coaching. On the dates listed below I will walk participants through the designated phase of the search, then open up the conversation for coaching around the opportunities and obstacles each leader is encountering. All sessions will take place from 4:00-5:30 pm eastern.

September 9 - pre-search stages

October 14 - developing the search team

November 4 - designing process and core documents

January 13 - engaging with candidates, part  1

February 10 - engaging with candidates, part 2

March 24 - covenanting with the new minister

This group coaching will take place via the Zoom platform, which only requires an internet connection. The cost will be $100 per person per session, or $550 for all six sessions. If multiple members of your search team want to attend, the cost will be $150 per church per session, or $800 for all six sessions. Note that space is limited.

If you would like take advantage of this learning event in order to increase your confidence and competence for carrying out the search, sign up here. If you would like more information, contact me here. I encourage you to forward this post or this flyer about group coaching to others who might be interested. 

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash.

Welcoming a guest preacher

When your congregation is between pastors, there will be times lay leaders will need to arrange for pulpit supply. Here are some tips for extending hospitality to your guest preacher:

Pay generously, or at least fairly. High-quality sermons generally take at least ten hours to research and write. Do the math and make sure you are compensating a professional with an advanced degree accordingly. Multiply the pay if there's more than one worship service. And if your preacher is coming from out of town, reimburse mileage and cover a hotel room.

Think through what it is reasonable to request a guest to do. Worship logistics vary greatly from one church to another, and there’s a lot that isn’t written on the order of worship. Plus, it's odd for a guest to give the welcome (“Welcome to this church. I’m here for the first time too!”) and greet people coming forward to make commitments at the end of the service. (“I’m happy to invite you into this faith community that I don’t belong to.”) Minimize the potential for confusion and awkwardness by asking the preacher to do only what laypeople or staff cannot. 

Ask if the minister would like to take on particular piece of the order or worship. For example, I like to read the primary scripture text myself, because I use inflection and pacing that set the stage for the sermon.

Make sure the preacher has a point of contact who will be onsite. Give a name and a cell phone number in case your guest gets lost or has car trouble. Let the minister know where to park and at which entrance the point of contact will be waiting.

Physically walk the visiting minister through the order of worship. Related to point #2 above, help the preacher know where and when to sit and walk and stand. Rehearse the communion liturgy, if applicable.

Don’t make the preacher chase down the check. Give payment before worship. That way the minister isn’t worried that getting paid depends on making hearers happy, and the minister doesn’t have to ask to be paid.

Thank your pulpit supply. Many guest preachers do so on top of many other work and personal responsibilities. Appreciate them for taking 10+ hours to prepare a sermon, 1-1.5 hours to be in worship (more so if there’s a second service), and however long to drive to your church.

Aside from the gifts that hospitality offers to your guest preacher, treating your pulpit supply well will let potential candidates for your ministry position know that they should check out your church. (Clergy talk to one another!)

Ministers, what would you add to this list?

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash.

Supporting the pastor-parent, part two

Note: This post originally appeared on laurastephensreed.com. I am sharing it here so that search teams will know what it looks like to have a parent of a young child as a minister. I hope that this peek behind the curtain will allay fears that search teams might have about calling a pastor-parent and will encourage churches to build in more support for these leaders.

Last week I shared my positive experience with a congregation that worked with me so that I could live into my dual calling as pastor and parent. Since then I have heard from several clergy: those whose churches who have made similar efforts and those who have left congregational ministry or are considering doing so because their churches want them to compartmentalize their pastoring and parenting selves.

Sometimes congregations simply don’t know how to support the pastor-parent. Below I have shared a few ways a church can reduce parenting stress so that the pastor can better focus on ministry. I have thrown in some notes on how these actions benefit the congregation as a whole – beyond having a grateful and less frazzled leader.

If your church has a daycare or preschool, offer a reduced rate to the minister. Side benefit: the minister will undoubtedly be more involved in the school and will be a more informed and enthusiastic evangelist for it in the community.

Allow flexibility in work arrangements, such as permitting the minister to work from home or bring a child to work as needed. Side benefit: though it may seem counterintuitive, ministers will likely be more available and productive if they are not spending time and mental and emotional energies on arranging emergency childcare.

Set up a rotation of church parents/grandparents to help the minister’s child(ren) participate in worship – or to care for young children during worship, if there’s no formal nursery. Side benefit: the church will develop more cross-generational communication and investment.

Provide childcare for evening and weekend meetings that the minister must attend. Side benefit: other parents with young children will now be able to participate in those meetings when childcare is a given.

Help the minister manage the congregation’s expectations of the minister’s family. Side benefit: the graciousness extended to the pastor’s children and significant other can reinforce or help establish a church atmosphere in which everyone feels safe to be their true selves before one another and God.

Congregations need not be afraid to call pastor-parents. In addition to their many gifts, these ministers bring a deepened investment in the church as their child(ren)’s faith community, an instant means of connection with parents and grandparents in the church, and a unique perspective on hospitality toward and the spiritual formation of young families. For pastor-parents to call upon these “extras,” though, the congregation must demonstrate its willingness to welcome both aspects of the minister’s identity.

Photo by @nicholasgithiri from nappy.co

Supporting the pastor-parent, part one

Note: This post originally appeared on laurastephensreed.com. I am sharing it here so that search  teams will know what it looks like to have a parent of a young child as a minister. I hope that this peek behind the curtain will allay fears that search teams might have about calling a pastor-parent and will encourage churches to build in more support for these leaders.

I was in congregational ministry for over ten years before my child came into the world. During that decade it was sometimes necessary for my husband (a pastor in another denomination) and me to negotiate conflicts between our calendars, but we were both free for the most part to work odd hours, commit to all the ministry-related trips we wanted, and sleep off church-induced stress and exhaustion.

That freedom came to a full stop when our son was born five years ago. Suddenly I had to become much more thoughtful about my time and energy usage. While my call to ministry was (and is) as strong as ever, I now had a calling to parenthood as well, and my baby’s dependence meant that I had to figure out how to operate pastorally in a new way.

I was between church positions during my pregnancy, but I was ready to begin looking again soon after my son was born. I was extended a call in a congregation that was a great theological fit when he was two or three months old. After much hand-wringing, I turned it down because there were big red flags about the position’s flexibility. Not long thereafter I accepted an offer to a congregation that went out of its way to work with me on my office hours, provide me with reduced-price daycare, and set up Sunday evening childcare. This church got the best I had to offer as an experienced minister/new parent because of this extra effort.

While it is true that caring for wee ones consumes a lot of time and focus, parents can be great pastors. And congregations can promote excellence in ministry (and in parenting) by understanding the following:

Some (many? most?) pastor-parents see ministry and child-rearing as dual callings. They are committed to doing both well. A church can make living toward both purposes much easier…or much harder.

Pastor-parents are better able to focus on ministry if they aren’t always worried about their child(ren) or about how congregants view their parenting. The childcare arrangement that works best for the pastor’s family – whatever it looks like – is usually best for the congregation, even if it’s not what the church members would have chosen for themselves or for their minister.

Every minister will have a different pastor-parent style. Some will want or need to bring their child(ren) on pastoral care visits or to evening meetings. Others might choose to build in more separation between pastoring and parenting.

Pastor-parents typically welcome the congregation’s help and parenting wisdom. We can’t do it all, and we don’t know it all! Criticism of the minister’s child-rearing style and especially of the child(ren) is never welcome, however, and can harm the pastor-parishioner relationship.

The church is not just a pastor-parent’s workplace, it is also the PK’s (preacher kid) faith community. Just like with any other family in the pews, pastor-parents will invest more in the church if the church invests in their children.

Congregational ministry is one of the only callings in which the leader is evaluated primarily on a weekly take-your-child-to-work day. Bear that in mind when a minister’s kid has a meltdown on the front row during the sermon, and respond with compassion both to the child and to the concerned/embarrassed pastor-parent.

Next week I will offer a part two to this post, noting some ways your church can support the pastor-parent, thereby deepening the pastor-parish relationship and giving the minister opportunity to lead with a full heart.

Being church

In the secular world an employee is hired to perform a task, to fill a need. The process for hiring this employee is somewhat utilitarian and transactional.

In the church world a pastor is also called to carry out a particular position description. But beyond bullet points on a job announcement, clergy and congregation are brought together to belong to one another. Unlike in secular work, a minister cannot live fully into the role without developing deep bonds with parishioners, without journeying toward the heart of God with them, without working alongside them to be the hands and feet of God beyond the perimeters of the property. And sometimes the pastor has a family who joins in this belonging as well.

This is why the search for a clergyperson must be approached differently than the search for an accountant, a machine operator, a boat captain, or a cartoonist. A ministerial search is a chance for the search team and congregation to embody all of what we know to be true about Christ and that we hope to become ourselves. To grow in faith and understanding. To offer hospitality. To listen to voices others might dismiss. To work hard yet playfully with our ultimate purpose firmly in mind. To trust and be trustworthy. To face challenges head on. To pray fervently and often. In all of these efforts, we expand our capacity for belonging to one another and to God and make it possible for the new pastor to become one of us.

In short, the search is a chance for the church to be the church. I urge you to seize this opportunity!

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash.

The why behind all the paperwork at the end of a search

You might be wondering why Searching for the Called emphasizes trust-building with candidates (and other affected parties) throughout the process, then pushes for extensive discussion and clarity around the nuts and bolts of the agreement in the covenanting phase. If congregation and clergy trust each other, shouldn’t that be enough? Why do we need to name and put expectations of one another and the terms of call in writing?

Leadership changes. The chair of your search team or governing board might know all the details that went into covenanting and compensation conversations, but what happens when that person is no longer in that position, leaves the church, or dies?

Memory fails us. We often give our recall ability more credit than it deserves. It’s easy to forget or mis-remember, and often the people in the room will later recount the same conversation in divergent ways.

Documents provide touchstones. How is the pastor-parish relationship going? You can compare its current state to the promises you put on paper, then course-correct as needed.

Assumptions breed problems. Unvoiced ideas lead to clashes in expectations, which can quickly escalate.

Transparency breeds even greater trust. Nothing undergirds a healthy relationship more effectively than meticulousness and forthrightness.

Get the details in writing. Your church will save itself a lot of conflict and heartache – which distract from the work of ministry - down the road.

Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash.

The church as candidate

Scenario 1: Your search team is interviewing a candidate by Skype. You’ve told the candidate to expect an hour-long conversation. At minute 57, you ask if the candidate has any questions for the team. The candidate looks miffed, flustered, or a combination of the two.

Scenario 2: Your search team has narrowed the pool of candidates still in consideration to two, and you’re ready to start setting up in-person conversations. One of the candidates asks about your intended timeline for the remainder of the search, because this candidate has been invited to preach to another searching congregation in the coming weeks. You are taken aback.

Scenario 3: Your search team and finance committee have agreed on a salary package for the candidate of choice. The candidate, upon seeing the package, has lots of questions and a counter-offer. You start to worry if the church and candidate will be able to agree on terms.

Your search team is listening deeply for God’s guidance throughout the process. Sometimes, though - in the midst of details and excitement and church members’ anxiety – it is easy to forget that candidates are doing their own discernment work. Candidates need space to ask their questions about the congregation and the position. (You want them to ask! Their queries can tell you a lot about their experience, perceptiveness, and interview preparation.) Candidates are likely talking with other pastor-less churches who are at various points in their searches, unless you and the candidate have agreed that you are in the negotiation phase. Candidates want to make sure that they will have the compensation they need to pay off seminary debt, live close to your congregation, and focus on ministry.

For the fit to be great, both church and candidate must explore every data point, every issue, and every gut feeling, praying that God will speak clearly through the collated information. As a search team, don’t hesitate to ask at each stage, “What questions do we need to answer and what information do we need to provide to our candidates before they even ask?” This openness will breed trust and assist discernment in both directions.

The impact of the 3 Ps on candidates in the call process

Note: this post was originally published at laurastephensreed.com, but I wanted to share it here to give you a peek into what candidates often go through when they search for a new ministry position. 

Searching for a new call is hard. Congregations are eliminating positions due to shrinking budgets. Systemic inequalities make it difficult for some candidates to get a good look from search teams. Call committees often don’t understand how covenanting with a clergyperson is different from hiring an employee.

And those issues don’t even address the mental, spiritual, and emotional toll of the search process on a candidate. In a previous post I described psychologist Martin Seligman‘s three Ps – personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence – and the ways these shame responses show up in congregational life. They also manifest in powerful, potentially debilitating ways in search & call. When candidates hear “no” over and over, they can begin to think that:

  • the problem is on their end (personalization),
  • every call committee will see their supposed unworthiness (pervasiveness),
  • they will be stuck in this vocational purgatory forever (permanence).

The three Ps can suck any energy for a minister’s search and for the current position in a hurry. Let me assure you that you are a gifted and called minister and that with time you will find a great fit. I really believe that.

So now you feel confident and ready to hit the interview trail again, right? Yeah, I didn’t figure a positive word from me alone would make the difference, even though I truly, deeply mean it. Then let me propose a few ways to combat the three Ps and their pernicious effects during that trying search season.

  • Pray. Make sure your search is deeply rooted in your relationship with God.
  • Seek encouragement from people who know you. Spend time regularly with a friend or small group that recognizes and affirms your many talents. Getting an attitude boost from those who cheer us on can help when it feels like we’re hearing a lot of rejection.
  • Approach every interview as an opportunity to network. Not every church will extend a call to you, but with every encounter you expand your exposure and gain invaluable interview experience.
  • Debrief interviews. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes to mull what you thought went well, where you felt hesitant, what questions bubbled up in you during the interaction, and what your prayer is going forward. 
  • Ask for feedback from search teams. Did you get a no from a church you were excited about? See if the search chair will give you a few pointers based on your time with the team.
  • Focus your search. Have you been scattershot with your search approach? It might seem counterintuitive, but it could be time to cull your options. Create a one-sentence mission statement and self-refer only to those congregations whose positions would allow you to live well into that purpose. You’ll be better able to explain why you’re a good fit – and you’ll be much happier if you end up going to that church.
  • Work on telling your story. Of the parts of the search process we can control, none is more important than good storytelling. Refine your paperwork, making sure you have included action words and vivid examples. Think before interviews about what you want to be sure a search team knows about you by the end of the hour. Role play with a colleague. Spend time picking out an interview ensemble that tells the story you want.
  • Remember that you were called before, and you will be called again. If you are serving or have served a church, a search team has seen and responded to your gifts. It will happen again! (For years I held onto my first congregation’s newsletter that announced my call for this very reason.)

The church needs you and your gifts. Hang tight – a great fit is out there.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash.

Profiles in hospitality: First Presbyterian Church, Fernandina Beach, Florida

The Rev. Julie Jensen began in February as Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida. I got to see Julie’s search for a new call through a few different windows, and it seemed clear that something special was unfolding when she began communicating with FPC. I asked her to share how FPC’s hospitality impacted her acceptance of the position and the start-up of her ministry in Florida.

When did you discern that FPC was a great fit for you?

Julie said that her inclination grew throughout her interactions with the search team. As someone who is experienced at reading congregational profiles and position descriptions, she could tell that the search team had taken care to show their heart and their story in these documents. When her initial Skype interview was rescheduled due to a hurricane threat in Florida, Julie noted that she had family in the path of the storm as well. When the Skype call took place, one of the search team’s first questions was about her family’s safety, and the team members noted that they had been praying for Julie’s loved ones. In the various rounds of interviews, the search team asked thoughtful questions that provoked candid conversation. For Julie’s on-site interview, the search team was flexible with her about timing, the scheduling of events during the visit, and her transportation and lodging options, all the while being clear about the ways they would cover her expenses. There was a basket of goodies in her hotel room, along with a handwritten note of welcome. Her one-on-one time with the Senior Pastor/Head of Staff was spent in conversation, prayer, and the building of a truly collegial relationship. As Julie sat in the airport after her on-site visit, she reflected on all her experiences with the search team to that point. Realizing that she would like to serve this church and these people even if they were far from a beautiful beach setting, she knew she had found a new home. Her discernment was confirmed when the congregation put her on speakerphone following their vote to extend a call, and the people in the pews burst into thunderous applause.

After the congregational vote, how did church folks begin welcoming you?

Julie began immediately receiving friend requests on social media, and her new church members were understanding about her decision not to accept them until her new position was public. The search team contacted her weekly to see how she was holding up during the impending transition. The church was generous with moving expenses and helped her secure housing. The staff cleared out the Associate Pastor office, and upon her arrival Julie was given a budget to decorate it as she liked. Two church members helped her with the project, which was a fun way to get to know them better. Julie's name was already on the permanent sign for her first day, and someone brought her flowers. The church threw her a “welcome wagon” at which church members were asked to bring their recommendations for local services and an item that represented what they loved about their community. Three months in, people are still taking Julie up on her offer to meet one-on-one or in small groups so that she can build relationships with her parishioners. She also notes that her Senior Pastor/Head of Staff cleared considerable time on his calendar during her first two weeks to help her enter well. One of the first things they did together was pray in the sanctuary for their ministry. He made himself available, as did the rest of the staff, to help ease the transition and answer questions Julie had. 

What difference has the hospitality of the search team and congregation made in your mindset and ability to do ministry?

Julie says she started her position wanting to work hard for these people who had already accepted her not just as one of their pastors, but also as a human being. Through the way she has been welcomed since the beginning of this search, Julie felt the desire on all sides to build good, healthy working relationships with members and staff.  These relationships have provided a foundation of people she can reach out to when she needs questions answered or systems explained. She still hears the thunderous applause in her head when she has a hard ministry day and knows that her church is still cheering for her, which allows her to focus on the tasks at hand. The warm welcome of the congregation, staff, and others in the community has allowed her to find her way in a new place with confidence.   

Hospitality doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money, just some attention to detail. But it makes all the difference in a church and a minister’s excitement for learning to love and live well together.

Why don't I offer vetting services?

I have received a few contacts from congregations asking if I vet candidates for pastoral searches. Here’s the short answer: no. I’ll explain why I believe vetting is work that belongs to the search team:

You are the expert on your congregation. I know about processes, powerful questions, church size and life stage dynamics, the duties of a pastor, and other such things. But no two churches are exactly alike, and no one knows your congregation like you do.

A search rooted in hospitality requires the willingness to interact with all candidates, at least on paper. Imagine a party at which a gatekeeper turns away certain people at the door – before you as host have even had a chance to greet these folks. What if those who are turned away are really interesting and would have added a lot to the gathering? And what could this rejection do to the hearts and minds of partygoers who were excited about the event but weren’t even allowed into the foyer?

The resume reading and interview processes are opportunities for spiritual growth. God moves in powerful and surprising ways through interaction with candidates. And your increased dependence on God to point you toward a great-fit candidate will lead to a deepened trust in God.

You will be more invested in your new pastor if you have walked with that candidate through each stage of the search. Letting someone beyond your church cull your candidates sows the seeds of discontent. When your new minister disappoints you – which is inevitable – you might jump to the conclusion that your vetters made a mistake. If there is solid trust between the search team that did the work and the congregation, though, the new minister will have more margin for error and there will be re-doubled effort to make the pastor-parish relationship work.

You can do this. It’s true, maybe you’ve never done it before. But I’ve given you good tools, and God will be as involved in the process as you let God be.

Ministerial searches are hard work, and the bulk of that work comes from listening deeply to candidates’ stories and imagining the various futures your church could enjoy under each minister’s leadership. The benefits of this wrestling, however, are not just in the outcome (a new minister) but also in the process itself.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash.

Ten commandments for welcoming your new pastor, part 2

Here are my translations of the sixth through tenth commandments into practices for congregations to covenant around when welcoming their new ministers. (You can find the first five here.)

6. Thou shalt encourage, encourage, encourage. Share your hopes with your new minister. Express your excitement that your minister is part of your community. When things go well, give your minister genuine and specific affirmation. That feedback provides replenishment, motivation, and focus.

7. Thou shalt address concerns directly and promptly. Don’t allow problems to fester, and don’t relay your beefs through a third party. Instead, give constructive and timely comments so that the issue can be nipped in the bud. Though it is hard to tell people things it might hurt them to hear, your minister will appreciate your courage, forthrightness, and investment in the relationship and in the church and will know that you can be counted on to give honest feedback.

8. Thou shalt pay your minister fairly. Appropriate cash salary and benefits and annual cost of living pay increases will allow your minister to focus on ministry alongside you instead of on scraping together enough money for groceries.

9. Thou shalt refrain from making assumptions, and thou shalt stop rumors in their tracks. It’s easy to make mental leaps about someone you’re just getting to know, then spread them around as facts. Instead, be curious. Ask. Use your wondering to build the relationship.

10. Thou shalt manage your expectations. Remember that this is a new city, faith community, and role for your minister, and there will be a period of adjustment. Be helpful and welcoming without monopolizing the minister’s time and attention.

Chisel these guidelines into a couple of stone slabs and keep them constantly before you, and you will have laid the groundwork for years of growing in God and serving your neighbors together.

Creative Commons image "Ten Commandments Tablets" by George Bannister are licensed under CC BY 2.0.