Searching for a call, especially a first call, is somewhat akin to attempting to get picked for a kickball team. During your final months in seminary, you stand on the sidelines, watching as your classmates are offered this or that choice position, sometimes the very positions for which you interviewed brilliantly. You begin to wonder if, in fact, you are called to ministry. You wonder why no churches seem to agree with God on this matter, and panic begins to set in.
In many of the interviews for my first call, nominating committees seemed concerned that I would view the position at their church as a “stepping-stone.” Some churches attribute an associate pastor’s brief tenure to the pastor’s professional ambition. My suspicion is that many young pastors are desperate for a job and will therefore assume that the Holy Spirit is at work in the first church to offer them a call. After months of searching, writing cover letters, making phone calls, and interviewing, one can become quite adept at rationalizing God’s role in any call. Thus, we might be less than faithful in listening for God’s voice in the call process, jump the gun, and end up in a toxic situation. Within two years, the toxicity of the call has become abundantly clear to us, our congregations, and anyone with ears who dares to approach us. Our first call may not be a “stepping stone” to bigger and better things. It may be more like a pothole we fall into and have to climb out of. It’s little wonder that many pastors (male and female) find themselves wondering in their first five years of ministry if a career as a day trader isn’t what God is really calling them to.
What it takes to survive this often grueling, soul-consuming process and to remain faithful in hearing God’s call is humanity, humor, chutzpah, and a little T.R.U.S.T.: Talk, Rock, Understand, Study, Take. (I had to devise my own acronym. I am Presbyterian, after all.)
Talk to the committee, talk to references, talk to anyone who knows anything about the church. Talk to friends who are interviewing at the same churches you are to see whether they got similar impressions about the church (you don’t have to ask them how they answered the interview questions or if the committee smiled at them more). Talk to friends from the area where you’re interviewing. Talk to people to gather information, to discern your thoughts and feelings about the churches you’re considering, and to hear God speaking to you through their voices.
Rock the interview. “Rocking” an interview means participating in faithful dialogue, not selling yourself. Be yourself. Be the pastor God is calling you to be, even though you may have no idea yet what that will mean. You do need to be your very best self, but you don’t need to be the self anyone else wants you to be.
Understand what you and the church really want. It can be difficult to get clarity about what a church is looking for. Take whatever information you’re given, and ask lots of pointed questions to gain clarity. How many hours a week will you be expected to work? How much of that time do the members want you to spend in the office? What kinds of expectations do they have about your personal life? Many churches express a desire for their pastors to have a “strong relationship with Jesus Christ” or a “visible and steadfast faith walk.” How will they determine this about you? How will they judge whether your ministry is successful? Try your best to understand what you and the church really want and expect, and communicate clearly through the interviews, but be prepared to deal with surprising developments.
Study the church. Ask for information (budgets, finance reports, mission studies) from the churches you are seriously considering. Check out their websites (assuming—hoping—that they have websites) and read everything on them. Ask the committee about the church’s history, previous pastors (particularly those in the position you are interviewing for), traditions, and prominent members. Find out as much as you can about the community and how the community surrounding the church views this congregation. A question I asked at every interview was, “What is the ‘word on the street’ about this church?” What sorts of community events does the church sponsor, host, or participate in? Remember, this is not just a job. It’s a place where you’re going to live and minister for, God willing, a significant length of time. Few pastors get to move to familiar surroundings in their first call, so do your homework on your potential new home.
Take the call (if God tells you to). OK, this one sounds a little obvious, but the call of God is not always easy to discern. It’s also important to realize that you are an active participant in this process. You may be offered a call at a time when you are still interviewing with other churches. You may be fortunate enough to be offered two or more calls that you must choose from. Or you may have searched for months and finally receive an offer, but feel unsure whether you are really called to that ministry. This can be one of the most agonizing parts of the call process and requires a lot of prayer and soul-searching. This is the time to ask questions you may not have considered earlier.
Will my gifts and skills (as I understand them) be appreciated and useful in ministry in this place?
Where might God be calling me to grow as a pastor and person, and how might this call contribute to that growth?
Will I be able to minister effectively here on a personal level?
Do I feel the pull of the Holy Spirit in some meaningful way to this place?
You’ll need to clear away the clutter of needing a J-O-B, wanting to live in a particular locale, envisioning yourself in a certain kind of life, and open up your imagination to let God work on giving you a vision for your future ministry.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry
by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley
As increasing numbers of young women are discerning a call to ministry, entering seminary, graduating, and searching for the call to a parish or other ministry setting, they need to be aware of the realities that face them. The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion is about the nitty gritty of ministry for young female clergy—how to maintain a sense of personal style, what it’s really like to be a solo pastor, how to date, what to do when they’re ready to quit.
Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership
by Bruce G. Epperly
Bruce Epperly addresses the new pastor’s transition from seminary student to congregational leader; pastoral authority; the “honeymoon”; boundaries; death; the pastor’s spiritual life, health, and relationships; the role of the associate pastor; and continuing education.
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency.
The Pastoral Search Journey: A Guide to Finding Your Next Pastor
by John Vonhof
It’s not a common occurrence to seek out a new pastor, so pastoral search committees can sometimes feel as though they are inventing the process from scratch. In The Pastoral Search Journey, John Vonhof provides detailed guidance for search committees to ensure a good match between pastor and congregation.
How to Thrive in Associate Staff Ministry
by Kevin E. Lawson
A dead-end job? A sure route to burn-out? Congregational staff ministry is neither, according to Kevin Lawson. Rather, he presents ample evidence that associate staff ministry is a calling with its own identity, integrity, and exciting possibilities.
Coming in September: Two Regional Workshops
September 16: “Pastors, Pornography, and Other Sexual Compulsions”
Leaders: Susan Nienaber, Alban Senior Consultant, and Dr. Mark Sundby, Executive Director of the North Central Ministry Development Center
New Brighton, MN (Minneapolis suburb)
WASHINGTON, DC AREA
September 20: “Light Your Congregation’s Fire!”
Leaders: George and Beverly Thompson, Alban Consultants and Authors
For a full list of educational seminars and other events, check out
Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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