Testing a calling – how decisions are made

As you know, we are in a bit of a transitional phase, on the 31st December, I left my previous pastorate and we are now taking a little bit of time to look at different possibilities to see where God is leading us next.

The possibilities really divide into two categories. On the one hand, I’ve had conversations about possibly taking up a pastorate in a different church.  That means applying for an employed position and following the recruitment process. At the same time we have been seriously considering pioneer church planting into an area where there is the need for a new church.

I thought it would be helpful to write a little about how those processes work. They may be helpful for others who are either in the process of considering a pastoral calling or churches looking to call someone.

Pastorates

The traditional free church process tended to involve someone “preaching with a view.” This was a shortened form of “… with a view to coming as pastor” not “with a view over beautiful scenery.”  They may be selected on the basis of 2 or 3 sermons and there may be interviews as well, however the primary method the congregation has for determining suitability is by hearing the man preach. Sometimes the candidate will preach a first time without mention of the fact that it is with a view. There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, it enables people to start engaging in a low key natural manner. On the other, there can be an awkwardness, what are the rules of disclosure if anyone asks why you are there?  Indeed, sometimes it may be one of those open secrets where everyone knows it is a date but no-one calls it that.

I’ve used the word “date” above and the purpose of the process is a little like courtship. The end goal is to reach the stage where a pastor is found who is a good fit for the church and vice versa. In fact, a good test of the process is that when either party decides to say no that this isn’t really a shock to the other side. When the worker decides to turn the church down or the church the worker (I’ve sat both sides of the table on this), there will always be a little bit of emotional hurt, no one really likes being turned down, some emotional attachments may have been formed and there may be a feeling of increased uncertainty but usually it isn’t that big a surprise and often  one feels some relief too!

Now, most processes today are a little bit more complex than the above as people are concerned to do due process. There are also multiple options. Here are the decisions that have to be made.  I’m not sure there are right or wrong answers on this and I’ve seen all methods in play.

Some churches, especially those following closely to the classical approach prefer to look at one man at a time.  They identify a candidate and at that point let other interested parties know that they are in conversation with someone.  Then they interview them in depth, listen to them preach and spend time with them over a few months to see if this is the one.  Similarly, some potential pastors prefer to function that way, looking at one church at a time. The pros are that this really does enable you to focus on the person and church and look at things relationally. It also does not feel like a copetition. The cons are that this creates a very linear process and this sets either party back considerably if at any point the process breaks down. And it can break down right at the last minute. I know of people who have gone all the way to a members’ vote and then lost. I know of churches voting to call a man and then at the last minute he tells them that he is withdrawing, he has had an offer elsewhere or the margin of the vote wasn’t enough. You are back to square one and whilst you may have people who showed an interest in the past, it is rarely ideal to go back to them. Even if they have not found a position yet, emotionally they have moved on.

So, there is wisdom in looking at multiple people or multiple positions. However, the risk with that is it can begin to feel like a competition and comparison and that can be risky for both church and candidate. My advice is to avoid recruitment exercises that emphasise that feel. I would also recommend that a little bit of mix and match is possible and maybe helpful. For example, when we came to Bearwood, the Chapel interviewed a couple of people and whilst we knew that others were being interviewed, we were happily looking at other church profiles, I was sending off my CV and I was preaching at different places. However, a day came when the Chapel were clear that they had narrowed down the field and they were just looking seriously at me. At the same time,  I then contacted the other churches I was in touch with and in a couple of cases responded to churches that approached me and let them know that I was focusing on the one possibility.

May I also note at this stage that church leaders seeking to call a man shouldn’t jump to conclusions about how a man reaches that decision. In the world, the obvious job is the one with the highest status, the best pay and the best conditions including work life balance. If you are a smaller church in a difficult area, then you may feel like you will always lose out.  Well, just to re-assure you, when we decided to focus on Bearwood it meant closing down two particular possibilities. Both would have involved working with a larger church, in one case as a lead pastor and the other as an assistant. In one case there was an incredibly generous offer to buy us a house in a very prosperous area (yes, that’s right, not provide accommodation, buy the house for us!) On paper in worldly terms we were nuts to close off those options but in Gospel terms God was already placing love for Bearwood in our hearts.

Some churches advertise. Choose where to advertise and where to look carefully. I am from a conservative (reformed) evangelical background with a preference for contemporary worship styles. I am non-cessationist but not an ultra-charismatic.  That means people like me are likely to be looking for churches that advertise via The FIEC jobs page and Evangelicals Now. Bearwood Chapel advertised at Oak Hill (going to appropriate Theological Colleges in your tradition is a great idea too). Oddly they had also advertised in a fairly traditionalist reformed paper and an overtly charismatic and more liberal magazine. This caused me a little confusion and it boiled down to simply no knowing where to go and some of the associations and back story to the relevant journals.  I also know of churches who have been flooded with every nut job and discontent possible. Of course even a careful selection process may attract those but in general I would say that when I heard where they had advertised I was not surprised at the type of candidate they attracted.

My own preference both when applying for a job and assessing candidates is to ask for/provide a CV and a one page covering letter outlining how experience matches the job profile.  I’m honestly not keen on application forms. Worst still if I’m honest is when you submit a CV, then get asked to full in an application as well as the recruiter have decided late in the day to include one, then to supply further information only to get a quite curt “Thanks but no thanks” at the end.  Apart from not really liking the format of application forms, finding them un-relational, I also think they can discourage the very candidates you want. I am in the unusual position of having redundancy time now to fill in such forms but a lot of candidates will be busy in an existing role or with studies and the last thing that will enthuse them is filling in yet another form.

If you do use an application form, think carefully about how you word and structure it so that the candidate is left in no doubt about what you are looking for in the questions and how long an answer you want. Remember, that unlike with an interview, there is no time/space to clarify.  To be honest, I would still say that you would do better to pick up the phone when you receive a CV and have a conversation.  I would gently discourage away from those “rate yourself on this scale” questions. I saw one example on a form I decided not to submit of being asked to place myself on a theological scale from extreme Calvinist to extreme Arminian and from extreme Egalitarian to hardline complementarian. Such scales make little sense.  I think that I am complementarian, I’m definitely not egalitarian but what some people would think of as the hard end of the scale would be a form of hierarchialism where men are superior to women and in power in all matters. That’s not my view but I would not consider that to be complementarian I’s consider it something different indeed! Similarly, being Reformed/Calvinist is not somewhere slightly to the left of hyper Calvinism on the way to being Arminian. 

The reason I never submitted that application form was that I realised I was explaining in the comments why I simply disagreed with their questions! As it turned out, I found out later that this had been providential and there were other good reasons for not ending up at that church.

It is worth recognising that in something like church calling, it is often not as simple as an advert being put out and people applying. Churches function in networks and traditions. Churches have “friends” and potential pastors have friends. There is often a level of personl recommendation. Some churches do not even advertise but prefer to use word of mouth and connections to in effect head hunt. This can play a useful part in the process. However, be careful again that you don’t send out confusing messages, If you really already have people in mind and expect them to come from within your networks, there is nothing wrong with that but be open and honest about it. Just as you don’t want time wasters applying, you don’t want people to feel that you are wasting their time, taking them through a process when they were never ever going to be successful.

Referees and Extras

Most processes require referees.  However, sometimes we can assume that we know someone well because we did the head hunting, they were recommended by a friend or they were an internal candidate.  I would advise, always do due diligence on the references, even for internal candidates. I also notice that some churches ask specifically for a non-Christian referee and think that is a brilliant idea. We as pastors and leaders need to have a good reputation outside of the church too. 

I want to mention an “extra” thing that I would include in the process.  I have already indicated that wherever I go, I would want the church to look at the recent 31:8 review of The Crowded House.  I think there should be something that helps a church open a conversation about safe recruitment. Another alternative might be to pick up a book such as “A Dangerous Calling” by Paul David Tripp for the elders to go through with the candidate/new appointment and discuss together.

Conclusion

These processes can be lengthy and challenging. They involve hard work but all solid relationships require hard work. They can also be enjoyable as you build up relationships. Just because a specific church/pastor isn’t the right fit does not mean that time was wasted. New friendship, fellowship and partnerships may be formed this way.  

I also want to be clear that there isn’t a right or a wrong answer providing the process is thorough. I’ve mentioned things above to show that any approach has its risks and its benefits. A lot of it is down to personality (the candidate) and culture (the church).  Some processes are more likely to bring in someone who fits the existing culture of either the church or the network, the person is probably likely to fit the image, style and outlook of your network. The benefit is that they are most likely to rule out the nutjobs and the mavericks.  The problem is that they will rule out the mavericks. That’s right, you may avoid the person who wil do untold damage but you may also miss the person who brings something different. Other processes will allow that kind of room to bring in someone different and distinctive but might leave you prone to being taken advantage of or finding that you missed something later on.  The important thing is to think things through carefully and be aware of those challenges.

The man who you decide isn’t quite the right fit for you may help you identify things you haven’t thought of. If you treat him well in the process he may end up not being the one who comes but he may well link you up with other possible candidates and maybe the right person will be one of them. Similarly, the nature of Gospel partnership means that a church may feel that the fit isn’t right but know of other churches where there is a need. 

In another article I’m going to share a little about the process involved in investigation pioneer church planting possibilities.

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