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« Recommendation #3: Use the Internet | Home | Recommendation #5: Choose a church that proclaims and embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ »

Recommendation #4: Meet with the Pastor

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Part 7 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

So far I’ve put up three recommendations for those who are looking for a new church home:

#1: Clarify what you value most in a church, though with an open mind and heart.

#2: Look for a church that is essentially orthodox, unless . . . .

#3: Use the Internet.

Today I discuss Recommendation #4: Meet with the Pastor.

Dozens of times during my tenure as senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I had appointments with potential church members. Usually they had visited several times and liked what they experienced of our church. But before they took part in one of our new member’s classes, they wanted to talk with the pastor.

Sometimes these visits were relaxed and informal, just “get-to-know-you” sessions. People would tell me a bit of their story, sometimes relating their spiritual testimony. If they didn’t bring up how they became Christians, I’d ask. They’d ask me questions about my background, my family, and so forth. These were pleasant, low-blood-pressure kinds of conversations.

Sometimes, however, people came with literal lists of theological questions. Before joining our church, they wanted to know what I and other church leaders believed about a wide variety of subjects, including: salvation, the nature of Christ, the authority of the Bible, women in ministry, spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, homosexuality, abortion, politics, and predestination, just to name a few issues. I would do my best, not to “sell” the church to the potential “buyers,” but to describe our core beliefs as accurately as possible.

On quite a few occasions I’d tell people things about our church that they didn’t like, knowing that this would in all likelihood mean that they weren’t going to join. Some folks were unhappy that our church was inadequately political, either on the right or the left. Some were miffed that we regarded all homosexual activity as sinful. Others were disappointed that we ordained women as pastors and elders. I remember one man who was almost incredulous: “You really ordain women as leaders? But you’re such a great church! And your preaching is so biblical? How is this possible?” When I tried to explain that we believed the Bible pointed in the direction of women in leadership, and that I’d be willing to work through the relevant texts with him, he was not satisfied. “There’s no way I’d ever be able to join a church that ordains women. But I’m really upset about this because I like this church so much.”

Many of my conversations with potential members had to do, not so much with theology as with practical questions about ministry and mission. Folks wanted to be in a church where they could get involved with the work of Christ. They were excited about our church’s ministries in the local community and beyond. They wanted to join us as we fed pizza to high schoolers or built homes for homeless families in Mexico.

While I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, the congregation grew from the upper 500s to the upper 700s. We are one the larger side of mid-sized churches. This meant is was possible for potential members to meet with me personally. In larger churches, it’s sometimes difficult or impossible for people to meet with the senior pastor. While I was on the staff of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, for example, a person who wanted to make an appointment with Lloyd Ogilvie was able to do so, but there was often about a one-year waiting period. Given the size of the church, then over 4,000, and the widespread popularity and influence of Lloyd Ogilvie, this kind of delay was understandable. But it meant that, in reality, most people who wanted to learn about the church were better served by meeting with one of the associate pastors, with whom they could get an appointment in just a few days. So, if you’re considering a large church, my advice would be: Meet with one of the pastors. (Photo: Lloyd Ogilvie and me at my installation as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church)

It may seem like I’m giving the pastor or pastors too much of a role in the church-choosing business. After all, isn’t the church far more than its pastor? Yes, indeed. But, in my experience, pastors are usually able to represent accurately the church they shepherd. Plus, it’s important to know what the chief preacher(s) and teacher(s) believe.

Before my family joined St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, I did indeed meet with Pastor John Watson. Over lunch at the Boerne Grill we became acquainted. It was more of a “get-to-know-you” meeting than an theological examination. I was especially interested in the kind of person he was. One of the things that matters most to be about a church is the integrity of the pastor. I need to know that my pastor is truly seeking to honor Christ, not only in ministry, but also in daily discipleship. After my meeting with John, I knew I’d be glad to be one of his flock.

Topics: Choosing a Church |

12 Responses to “Recommendation #4: Meet with the Pastor”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    May 28th, 2008 at 5:17 am

    Dear Rev. Roberts:

    What the pastor believes is certainly very important. The previous church I went to had a man I thought was a great pastor. A slim majority of the congregation eventually saw that he was moved out, though.

    Sometimes I wonder why the Bishop placed him there. But other times I wonder if it wasn’t the hand of God, helping to illustrate the true spiritual beliefs of the folks in power there, which were quite different from the pastor’s in many ways.

    The event caused many, including myself, to leave the church and go elsewhere.

    I certainly was much more careful picking a new church than I was picking the last one. In my defense, I picked the last one due to past experience in a denomination I’d been associated with for 15 years.

    I’m enjoying the series. It’s been very helpful and comforting.


  2. CHOOSING A CHURCH, PART 7: MEET WITH THE PASTOR « Christ-Driven Web Clippings Says:
    May 28th, 2008 at 9:19 am

    […] View Original Article Blogged with the Flock Browser […]

  3. chris giammona Says:
    May 28th, 2008 at 12:05 pm


    In terms of meeting with the pastor, what would you recommend for IPC or similar churches - given that they are in an interim situation?


  4. Mark Roberts Says:
    May 28th, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Chris: Excellent question. I’d go ahead and meet with the interim pastor. You might find greater candor with an interim than with an installed pastor. But you might also meet with a pastor (or other staff person) who has been around the church for a while, and who can represent the church’s beliefs well.

  5. HenryH Says:
    May 28th, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    And of course, if the pastor happens to have a blog…

  6. Mark Roberts Says:
    May 28th, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    HenryH: Yes, indeed! In my last couple of years as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian, at least half of those who joined our church, perhaps more like 75%, had read extensively from my blog. It provided an easy way for them to know where I came down on a variety of issues. I’d estimate that at least 25% of first time visitors had already visited my blog. Quite a few were regular blog readers before they considered visiting the church.

  7. Jim Says:
    May 28th, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Pastor Mark– I personally am going through a related struggle that I hope you can comment on or maybe deal with in a future column.

    I am looking at a possible move to a new community for financial and health reasons. But I’ve done a lot of research on churches in the new community on the internet and it is just dismal. (And I am not being too picky–I really don’t care about worship style, buildings or denomination so long as the church is faithful to Scripture.)

    I have prayed a lot about this, but so far the Lord has not given me any clear indication what I should do, stay or go, or any other alternative.

    In your move to your new community, would it have been an issue for you if there were no proper churches in terms of doctrine and theology? Would it have been a “deal killer,” or would you have dealt with it in a different manner (e.g., maybe tried to set up your own Christian fellowship)?

  8. Randy Says:
    May 29th, 2008 at 10:06 am

    What’s in a name ? I think that a real barrier to finding a church is the inclusion of the denomination in the church name. I recently invited someone looking for a church to IPC and they weren’t sure they “wanted to be a Presbyterian.” Emphasis placed on denominational affiliation can result in stereotyping, fear and too much attention placed on non-biblical church traditions, all which detract from spiritual and truthful worship. After all, isn’t the CEO all the same no matter the denomination ?

  9. Bill Goff Says:
    May 29th, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    In response to Randy - There’s a lot in a name, as Juliet found out. In Southern California, where I live, it seems common for churches to hide their denominational affiliation. Excluding the denominational name may attract more seekers, but it is hardly truth in advertising. Would you let your children go to “Our Lady of the Scientific Synagog” if you found out that it was really a Roman Catholic church with a history of pedophile priests?

  10. Mark Roberts Says:
    May 29th, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Jim: This is a difficult. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a decent church within reasonable driving distance. I spent a good chunk of my life in New England, arguably one of the hardest places to find good churches. But they are there, even if there aren’t a lot of them. Have you looked in neighboring communities?

    Randy: For some people the denominational label is a negative. You’re right. For others it is a plus. And I tend to agree with Bill (comment 9) that churches shouldn’t hide their denominational affiliation. You’ll find newer PCUSA churches that call themselves something like: Boerne Community Church, with a subtitle, Presbyterian Church USA.

  11. Randy Says:
    May 29th, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    I’m not suggesting hiding the denominational affiliation, just that perhaps it can be over- emphasized and is clearly a barrier to some. I wonder how many incredible community churches go undiscovered because of preconceived notions of what it means to be Presbyterian or Methodist or Lutheran or Baptist. The emphasis should be on what it means to be a Christian, not on what tradition the church is affiliated with. I like Mark’s example of using the affiliation as a subtitle which may be less intimidating to some.

  12. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    May 29th, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    Randy: Earlier in this series I wrote that denominational labels are often unhelpful for another reason. In many cases, the fact that a church belongs to a certain denomination tells you very little about that church’s core theology and ministry. When I lived in California, most (but not all) of the Episcopal churches I knew were quite liberal. Here in Texas, I’m familiar with a number of very evangelical Episcopal churches. So the label “Episcopal” tells you something about church order, but not much about theology. The same is true with the label “Presbyterian.”


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