I recently finished a pastoral search process that has left me with questions about how we, as the church, go about communicating with one another in this age of technology. Last spring I agreed to be considered as a candidate for a “lead pastor” position with a significant church on the west coast—one that is, from everything I can gather, a place that values integrity, intellect, and an inclusive gospel. It had been several years since I’d had any discussion with a church. But to say I had a “discussion” in this most recent experience would be inaccurate. I never had so much as a phone conversation.
Before you conclude that this is all sour grapes, let me be quick to say that it is not. I am in a pastorate of sixteen years, secure, and leading my church through what is perhaps its most exciting phase of transformation and self-discovery since it was razed and rebuilt in the 1960s. I am also an adjunct faculty of some twelve years at Howard University School of Divinity. I’m content. In fact, my willingness to be considered for the position revolved primarily around my own sense that one’s vocation should honestly be open to opportunities. Also, sixteen years is a long time and I’m fifty-six years old; opportunities like these won’t come around so often any longer. These factors led to my agreement to be part of the west coast church’s pastoral search—these and the fact that the church that inquired is a beautiful place in nearly every conceivable aspect. What I want to share here is my experience in this search process and, as much as anything, ask some questions.
I was initially contacted by way of snail mail, after which this traditional and now-archaic form of communication immediately gave way to e-mail exchanges. I answered questions and sent materials within a day or two of requests. Weeks would then pass before I heard anything from the committee chairperson assigned to me. After many such exchanges, we finally stumbled over the piece of technology that, I assume, led to my demise: the request for a DVD or tape of my preaching before a congregation. Having no such recordings, I pointed the committee to a couple of my sermons that they could read on my church’s website. About seven weeks later, I was cut from the list of candidates. The process had lasted four months.
Mind you, the committee may have read my sermons and found them to have not measured up. I understand this. And the reason for their decision is really not the question I raise with regard to pastoral search committees and their candidates. My question is this: given an incarnational theology in which we assert that God was in Christ, tabernacled in our midst, does the search process require that candidates be heard? Seen? Encountered in the flesh beyond the cyber world? Granted, at some point the line has to be drawn. A committee may have twenty resumes or personnel profiles at the beginning of their process. Must they speak with each one of those? Perhaps not. But I will go out on a limb here and say that whatever number of candidates a committee ends up with after an initial sifting and researching of the materials, yes, there should be at least a human and humane gesture of contact made with each of those candidates. Intermittent e-mail correspondence does not rise to the level of human and humane. It is coldly impersonal.
My own experience has caused me to wonder whether an overreliance on technology has led us to a Docetic praxis. I spent several months in a process during which I shared details about my life, answered theological questions, and offered candid responses to critical questions of ministry, yet not once did I ever see a human face or hear a human voice. A conversation with Hal the computer on the mother ship would have been more incarnational than this disembodied experience.
Speaking of technology, consider the fascinating story in the seventeenth chapter of Acts about how the apostles filled the position of Judas the Betrayer. There was no personnel profile. No e-mail. No DVD. But, in a sense, they did use technology. They handed out lots to the two candidates, Justus and Matthias. I don’t want to be too wooden here. After all, a strict reading would lead to a conclusion that committees need only speak to the last two candidates on their lists. And I am not suggesting we do away with personnel profiles for lots. But one thing is for certain: for nothing less than the task of becoming an apostle, the candidates could be seen, heard, touched, and even smelled. This incarnational aspect was completely missing from my experience. I wouldn’t doubt that it has gone missing in quite a few ministerial candidates’ lives.
Can we imagine the successful candidate—now lead pastor—providing DVDs for his or her sermons for the first four months of Sundays at the new church? It is an absurd, quizzical proposition. Indeed. What would it say about a pastor who did such a thing? What does it say about committees who put such a proposition into play with the very people they hope to have incarnate ministry in their churches?
Questions for Reflection
- Technology has facilitated communication between candidates and search committees for certain. What does not show up on the technological radar?
- How is technology utilized by your pastor or pastoral team in its ministry to membership? When does a visit become more important than an e-mail?
- Why did God choose to be manifest in a culture that was primarily illiterate and could write only on animal skins and papyri? In other words, does a candidate’s skill in utilizing e-mail and assorted technologies translate into pastoral skills sought after by a committee and the congregation?
- What question is the most important question the person in the pew is likely to want asked of the potential candidate?
- Is it unreasonable for a candidate to expect a phone call from a search committee member?