Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Pastor's Calling and Calling a Pastor

I’m currently serving a congregation as an “intentional interim pastor.” An intentional interim pastor moves into the community and works as the church's full-time pastor for about 2 years. The first year is spent chiefly in a diagnostic process in which the congregation is guided through a period of self-reflection around five fundamental areas that define and determine the life and health of the congregation: heritage (read “the church’s congregational history and story”), mission (read "purpose"), connections (read "denominational relationships”), leadership (read “church administration and how the congregation makes decisions and gets things done”), and future (read “who and what the congregation intends to be going forward”). The second year is spent mainly in a search for a new permanent pastor. It’s a good process in that it helps to move the church past the inertia present in some (not all!) congregations that locks the church into dysfunctional patterns and rhythms of congregational life.

I’m a Baptist, and that means that I have lived my life among Christians who make decisions for their congregational life in “democratic” ways (read: “they vote on what to do”), and that includes securing a pastor for the congregation. Because most congregations are too big to function as a “committee of the whole,” most churches commission a group of congregants to do the background work for the congregation and then the congregation ratifies the decision of the smaller group. That group is typically called a “committee,” though of late that term has fallen out of favor in some churches who prefer the term “team” to “committee.” In my experience, however, the change is more cosmetic than substantive.

The committee that searches for and secures the new pastor for the congregation is called the “Pastor Search Committee;” and in Baptist life there is no more daunting assignment than to serve on such a committee. The reason it is such a challenge, chiefly, is because most congregations approach this work exactly the same way a secular organization approaches a search; that is, by looking for what we “want” rather than what we need, and in most congregations, the “wants” are both multiple and competitive. Some want a pastor who is seasoned and mature; some want a pastor who is young and energetic and, consequently, they will compromise on experience and maturity. For some, preaching is the most important skill the new pastor must possess; for others it’s pastoral care and hospital visitation. For some, having a pastor who is a strong leader, organizer, and administrator is paramount; for others, they think the pastor should just stick to “spiritual stuff” and leave the running of the church to the laity. Finding someone who pleases everybody, who “meets everyone’s needs,” has about as much chance of success as coaching for Al Davis!

That’s why I think it’s important, both for congregations and pastors, to understand that a pastor lives under not one, but two, claims on his life: the claim of the congregation and the claim of his calling as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While these two claims need not be competitive, they are prioritized in every minister’s life. Sadly (both for the church and its pastor) most pastors tend to put the priority on the former rather than the latter, and as a result they spend their time running around trying to satisfy a bunch of competitive, unworthy, and totally secular congregational “needs.” Pastors figure out pretty quickly (in a church where every week is something of a “referendum” on the pastor) that if they want to keep their jobs, they have to “keep everybody happy.” But, of course, that is NOT the mission and mandate of ministry. Pastors, who are worthy of the title, also know (and know full well) that they are even more accountable to Christ and the Church (and I mean church in the LARGER sense of the Body of Christ, not the local congregation one happens to be serving at the moment) to live out their calling – whether their congregations want them to or not, whether their congregations value that calling or not, whether their congregations “need” them to or not. And that calling has little to do with what most congregations typically list on their “pastor profile.” Beyond the “wants” and “needs” of any particular congregation, the pastor is first and foremost called by God to preach and profess the Church’s faith; to represent the Church’s account of what’s going on in the world to a secular and hostile culture; to keep the Church’s larger history and story before the particular congregation he happens to be serving at the moment; to teach (and to demand) modern disciples of Jesus Christ to think critically, thoughtfully, and deeply about their own faith; and to test the congregation’s current witness against the canon and criteria of the Holy Scriptures.

Alas, these things rarely make it onto the “congregational survey” for a prospective pastor, which is why, I am convinced, congregations go through this process far more frequently than they need to…or should!

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