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Represent Your Church Accurately

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, February 9, 2009

Part 5 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

So far in my series, Advice for Pastor Search Committees, I’ve suggested the following:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.

2. Pray without ceasing.

3. Be open to God’s surprises.

4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.

Today I want to address an issue that I was going to cover later in the series. But one of the comments on last Friday’s post encouraged me to address this subject now. In that comment, Bill Goff told a story about an experience he had with a pastor search committee and the church they represented. Here are some excerpts:

When I interviewed with a committee in Colorado, they shared their aspirations to move the church forward, to develop the youth program including bringing on a youth pastor, and generally to reinvigorate the church. They were excited about the prospects of the church and positive about me. They saw me as someone who could bring the changes they wanted and they called me to be the pastor of the church. I began my ministry there trying to implement the wishes of the PNC only to discover that there was great opposition from the old guard of the church which had not been represented on the PNC. I also discovered that there was significant opposition to me from some members of the rather small Presbytery who had hoped to be called to this position. They were in contact with some members of the old guard and intentionally stirred up trouble for me. I left that church after less than two years as pastor. I think that if the PNC had been more candid with me about the deep divisions in the church, I may not have accepted their call or I may have approached my service there quite differently. Several years after I left the church, I had occasion to speak by telephone to the new pastor. I asked him how things were going. He said, “I’m going through hell.” About that time I received a booklet regarding the 100th anniversary of the church. As I read this history, it became apparent that from the beginning this church had consistantly given pastors a very hard time. This was an historic toxic church. I wish I had been warned

What advice would Bill offer to a pastor search committee in light of this experience? Be candid about the particular congregation to which you are calling a new pastor. I’ve put it this way: Represent your church accurately.

Thanks, Bill, for sharing this story so honestly. Unfortunately, as you know, your situation is not unusual. I have several pastor friends who experienced something very similar to what you describe. I suppose in some cases pastor search committees intentionally hide elements of church life that they fear might turn off potential pastors. But in many cases, the search committees truly mean well. They spend months praying for God’s vision for their church. In this process, they often get excited about their church’s potential. They see what God wants to do with them and are ready to get going. This is great. But search committees sometimes don’t realize just how far ahead they are getting of the congregation they represent. They are accurately in touch with God’s vision for their church. But they overlook the fact that most of the rest of the church, including many influential leaders, do not share their vision.

For example, a friend of mine was called to be the senior pastor of a church, in part, because he was young and the search committee wanted to reach out to young people in their community. The committee rightly sensed that their church was in danger of perishing because its membership was getting old and not being replenished with younger members. Moreover, the committee realized that the church would need to change in many ways if they were going to connect with younger people. So they brought my friend to their church with a clear vision of outreach and renewal. Unfortunately, the church wasn’t ready for any such thing. Most of the established lay leaders opposed the very changes that were necessary to reach younger people. My friend tried to do exactly what he had been called to do, but faced stern opposition and criticism. After a few frustrating years, he finally resigned.

Now if you’re on a search committee, the thought of being honest about your church’s foibles might seem counterproductive to you. You might wonder: “How will we ever get a good pastor if we air all of our dirty linen?” To this I would say: The right pastor for your church will not be scared away by the truth. In fact, this person will be impressed with the committee’s honesty and engaged by the genuine challenges facing the church. Moreover, the forthrightness of the committee will help prepare the new pastor for success, rather than failure owing to misperception of the real issues and challenges.

Notice that I’m encouraging committees to represent your church accurately. This means, of course, sharing the good things in addition to the bad. Moreover, it means embodying those plusses, not just talking about them. Years ago, when I was interviewing with the search committee of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I watched the members closely. I paid attention to how they treated each other, not just to what they said about how much they loved each other. What I say with my eyes more or less fit with what I heard. And it represented the congregation accurately. To be sure, in terms of vision, the search committee was years ahead of the rest of the church. I think the committee members underestimated how much work it would take to get the whole church ready to move forward in its mission. But, all in all, they did a fine job helping me to get ready for reality in Irvine Presbyterian Church.

Let me offer an example. One of the first things I heard from my search committee was the need to reach out to youth in the community. The youth ministry in 1991 was pretty small and dysfunctional. The high school group comprised about a dozen students, in spite of the fact that Irvine Presbyterian Church was located right across the street from a major high school. Two thousand high schoolers were within a couple hundred yards of the church campus. Many were parking their cars in the church parking lot. Yet we had contact with only a handful. So the committee and I talked at length about how I might strengthen our youth ministry as a top priority.

When I began my pastoral work, the committee’s zeal to reach students was shared by many in the congregation and lay leadership, but not all. I was unprepared for the negative responses I received from some of the parents of kids in the church. One father said to me, “If there are more high school kids here, then my son will get less attention. I want the group to stay small and intimate.” Yet, in the end, the church embraced its outreach to youth in Irvine. In fact, the dad who once opposed me so pointedly ended up being a strong supporter of our efforts to bring the good news to more students. (Photo: Friday Pizza lunch at Irvine Pres. When I left the church in 2007, we were hosting about 700 high schoolers every Friday for Pizza lunch. This ministry had been envisioned and was staffed almost entirely by lay leaders in the church.)

There’s something else my committee did to help me succeed in my pastorate at Irvine. I’ll address this in my next post.

Topics: Pastor Search Committees |

4 Responses to “Represent Your Church Accurately”

  1. John Schroeder Says:
    February 9th, 2009 at 5:56 am

    You know, this advice runs both ways. I know situations where a candidate’s info packet and even the advisory letters from former Prebyterys downplayed or even failed to mention a candidate’s foibles - leaving the church that ended up calling him with any number of easily avoided issues had honesty been the order of the day.

    In other words, the church did not get what it bargained for. As a result I typically advise PNC’s to go “outside the loop” when they think they have a candidate they really like. That is to say seek information about the candidate in ways not typically available inside the PC(USA) process.

    When hiring employees generally, there is no way to really “know” what either party is getting - I think this has lead to what I consider a rash of in-house hiring for non-clerical staff positions, which brings with it a form of spiritual incestuousness and political in-fighting on whole new levels.

    I think that in this day and age a candidate and PNC just need to do a few more dances than they typically have in the past.

  2. Bill Goff Says:
    February 9th, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Mark,
    I’m glad you were able to use my story. Today I decided to find the church with a google search. I found the web site and was amazed to see the photo of a sprawling new church campus rather than the stately old downtown church I knew. There is a young pastor who has been there since the fall of 2005 and a director of student ministries who was born after I left the church! It all looks very positive and promising. So after all these years I don’t see any harm in mentioning the name of this church: First Presbyterian of Grand Junction, CO.
    I remember our Lord’s promise: “I will build my church.”

  3. Mark Roberts Says:
    February 9th, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    John: You’re absolutely right. I’m going to address that soon, actually.

    Bill: What a wonderful addition to the story. Thanks.

  4. Get The True “Downside” on Candidates | Says:
    February 10th, 2009 at 12:02 am

    […] a recent post. Yesterday I suggested to pastor search committees: Represent your church accurately. John Schroeder commented: You know, this advice runs both ways. I know situations where a candidate’s info packet and even […]


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