Monday, March 31, 2014

Things NOT to do during transition: apply for every position

Long-time friend of Doulos Resources, Ginger Korljan, recently posted a link to a great article entitled, "5 Job Search Tactics You Should Stop Immediately" by Jenny Foss. (Read the whole article here.)

There's a lot of good stuff to mine from this article; while it is obviously written for those working in a more corporate work environment, much of what is said applies to pastoral transition too (if indirectly). The one I want to focus on today is #2 on Foss's list: "Applying for jobs (blindly) when you're not an obvious on-paper match."

I think this is one of the bigger problems that pastoral candidates (and, consequently, search committees) have to deal with. And I think that because, when I have interacted with search committees—and especially committee chairs—about this question, they often tell me so.

Here's a typical scenario of what I mean: during a season in which I am candidating (such as right now!), I usually try to find potential opportunities through my network of contacts; invariably, though, I will see some on the various lists that are out there that appear to be intriguing at first glance. In these cases, my next step is to get in contact with the search committee chairperson: I want to find out if the position would be a strong potential fit for me and for them.

Often, when explaining this reason for calling or e-mailing, the chairperson will first express gratitude, and then surprise. It seems that search committees receive a lot of resumes from candidates who, it seems to the chair, have never stopped to consider whether potential "fit" should influence the decision to submit their names for consideration!

What happens when a candidate doesn't bother to consider fit? Wasted time: it wastes the candidate's time— because they've spent time writing an e-mail and attaching files, at minimum. In some cases, the work that goes into taking the first steps of submitting one's name are much more involved. If a candidate has so much spare time on his hands that this waste is not a big deal, there are still many better ways to spend it fruitfully toward an effective transition.

And it wastes the committee's time— because now they have to consider this candidate's resume, discuss it, and take the time to respond (negatively). If it were once in a blue moon, that would be one thing; add three, four, a dozen, or more candidates who are poorly suited for position to the mix, and you have a recipe for a committee that is fatigued, discouraged, and disenchanted with the process on the front-end of it. (Oh, and by the way: if you think it's no big deal to discourage a search committee like this, you've just proven how poorly suited you are to be their pastor!)

This is not to mention the wasted energy, emotional investment, and so on that inevitably results from every time you chip your name into the hat. It costs a lot to NOT consider fit!

How should you go about determining "fit" and avoiding the blind mass-application? Here are few ideas...

  • Don't worry about casting a wide net. Early on in my research on the topic of pastoral transition, I thought that guys who had not submitted their names to at least a dozen or more churches were either being lazy or settling too quickly. As I've studied this topic over the last decade, I've come to realize that this can also be the mark of a careful consideration of what a good "fit" looks like. (This doesn't mean that a candidate shouldn't think outside of the box in terms of what he really is fit to do; there's a difference.)
  • Remember that fit-ness will ultimately determine the effectiveness of your future ministry. If this is so (and my research certainly has demonstrated that it absolutely is), then you need to be all about this from the start. I was just talking with a fellow pastor over the weekend who recounted how tempting it was at one point to simply accept any position, because he knew he needed a job; fortunately for him (and for his church!), his wife was a voice of reason, reminding him of the need to follow a sense of clear calling, not simply gaining a paycheck.
  • Actually read all of the information you can find. I would hope this would be pretty self-evident from what I've already written on doing church research (see "What do you do first?"); just in case it isn't—or in case you haven't yet read that post—hear this: your first steps are to learn about this potential congregation. Try to figure out whether you are a good fit, and whether they are a good fit for you (see comments below on what to think about "fit"). If you've read up on a church thoroughly, and talked to others you know in that area or region about the congregation, and you still think you'd be a good fit for them, you are ready for the next step.
  • Get in touch with them. I always do this, and I've never yet regretted the time spent. It usually starts with a simple e-mail to a key person (the search committee chair, the current or previous pastor, an elder or leader in the church, etc.) saying, "I'm interested in the position, and I'd like to talk with you briefly about it to determine whether it would be worth the search committee's time for me to apply." (If they are unresponsive or uninterested—which will be rare—that may be indicative of fit, as well...) Then just have a conversation with them. Ask them what you should know that the information you have can't tell you. Ask about the circumstances of the previous pastor (if relevant). Ask what kind of person they are seeking to fill the position. Ask about the leadership and what sort of leadership style they will expect from the new guy. Ask whatever you think you need to know to determine whether it's a congregation you could be content serving for the next season of your life and ministry.
  • Now, you may apply. If you've made it this far and you still think a good fit could be there, by all means send your resume and other information along!

What are you thinking about to determine whether the "fit" is good or not? Just a few ideas...
What are their convictions and preferences?
Who are they? And are they folks you can pastor?
What is their stated "vision" and does it fit with you?
What challenges have they faced in the recent past that you will have to deal with?
Are there any keywords or key phrases that describe particular convictions that you have, that they also clearly share? (Conversely, are there particular convictions expressed that you know will be a struggle for you to go along with?)

These are just a few. There are definitely others (probably a couple of blog posts' worth of "fit-ness" questions could be developed).

In closing, here's a quote from the late William Still on waiting for the right fit (which I have posted before):

You must know or be seeking decisive assurance that you are called by Him to minister the Word; and you must eventually, before you begin, be so certain of this that you would die at the stake for your knowledge.

[Then] you must be willing to wait His will. Some of the most fruitful ministers I know in Scotland have had to wait years for their God-given appointments. And I might add that some have to wait for years in what I call a preparatory ministry, which is often more for their own personal good than for what an unwilling evangelistic people bargained for. You must be sure that you are in the right place. Only one thing kept me in my pulpit when all hell was let loose against me: it was the knowledge that God put me there, and there I had to stay until God took me out. I have hurled this more than once at my enemies with, I assure you, devastating effect!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Another question for search committees

A long time ago, I wrote a post on "10 questions I would ask a search committee..." That post has been one of the most popular on this blog through the years (coming up on 10!).

Here's a new one that I am definitely adding to the list: What is their view of church membership?

This deserves some elaboration. Most people have some idea of what their expectations are regarding church membership—the degree of commitment, participation, responsibility, and so on that is to be expected of someone who joins the church as a member. And many people assume that everyone has roughly the same view as they do!

This is a mistake. DO NOT assume this of the church you are interviewing with.

My own view of church membership is a fairly high view; I believe strongly that commitment to, participation in, and accountability from the local church is an essential element of our spiritual health, and indeed our salvation. Like Cyprian (3rd century church father), I believe that "he cannot have God as his father who does not have the church as his mother." I think that the Bible declares—and orthodox believers through history have affirmed—that God uses his church so primarily for outreach and evangelism that, as one confession says, "there is no salvation apart from the church." I believe that a healthy and growing Christian will invariably have an active and committed presence in a local church. And I believe that, once someone has committed to a local church in membership, they should have very good and specific reasons to leave that congregation for another.

Now, I'm not under any illusion that my view of church membership is the dominant view in our 21st century western church, or even within my denomination. But I learned in one congregation how I mustn't take for granted even the assumption that most (including fellow PCA members) are "pretty close" to the same view.

I'll give you an example of how I learned this. I knew the pastor that preceded me at from seminary, and after I moved to town we had lunch a few times. In one of those times, we were talking about his ongoing sense of connection and affinity with the congregation, and I said, "I know you still think of yourself as a '[nickname for the church member].'" He looked at me with surprise and said emphatically, "I AM a [same nickname]!"

Now, this conversation took place over a year and a half after that pastor had left the congregation; during that time, he had only returned once (during my installation, and at my request). Though he had been in contact with some members, and others had followed him to another congregation, his relationship with the church I now served had no ongoing formal or regular connection. And yet, he thought of himself as a part of that body in a form no different from how any other member thought of themselves.

The analogy for how this pastor seemed to view his connection came to me later. I graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1999, and in the 15 years since I have only been back on the campus twice. I haven't attended one of my alma mater's sporting events in over 20 years, though I occasionally watch them on television (maybe two or three a year); I do check the scores on a regular basis, but at best I could be described as a tepid fan. I am still in contact—through Facebook and Twitter—with a number of my classmates, but here again it has been years since I saw most of them face-to-face. Likewise, I occasionally read with interest some news about some aspect of the school's leadership, academic development, or other recognition. And yet, in my sense of self-identification with the university I attended, I still think of myself as a "Gamecock."

That's about how this former pastor was in relation to my congregation: he was a fan—and surely a devoted and deeply-invested fan. But he was merely a fan, nevertheless. And he had succeeded in teaching many of the congregation (including most of the leadership) that church membership essentially meant being a fan.

In the end, this led to severe and sometimes devastating consequences, relationally, as my expectations AND theirs were not met. They wanted to be fans; I wanted a deeper and more lasting commitment. The bottom line: our views on church membership were very different.

Notice: this extended to much of the leadership as well. It's one thing when many lay-level members have a different understanding of what you expect from them as members; there's always room to grow, and a committed leadership can shape a culture over time that will affect consistency across the whole congregation.

In my case, the leaders and I were at odds (not all of them—and not all members in general either; but enough). What this tells me is that there was a major area of ill-fitness that I missed (and they did too) when considering whether I should be their next pastor.

I won't overlook this again—and I urge anyone else who is in candidacy to explore this topic with the congregations they are interviewing with.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Removing pebbles from the path…

My friend and collaborator, Adam, and I were talking the other day about the "pebbles in the path" that can trip up a search committee and make it easy for them to pass on a candidate. We both thought it was worth a blog post.

When we think about these kinds of issues, we have to keep two things in mind: (1) while God looks at the heart, man often looks at appearances; this is not only a fact of life, it is a necessary reality in the search process (when search teams aren't yet able to know—much less consider—the heart of a candidate yet). And, (2), when you're a search team with 75, 100, 150, or more résumés in front of you, inevitably you will look for any and every reason to eliminate a candidate and move on to the next guy. This, too, is a cruel fact in the pastoral search process.

So what are the pebbles that you can easily remove from your path? Any of these…
  • A goofy picture of you (or of something else) on your social media page
  • Misspelled words in your information packet
  • An e-mail address that suggests you don't take yourself seriously
  • Not bothering to get the addressee information right (wrong or misspelled name, etc.)
  • Evidence that you copied and pasted the e-mail/cover letter/other material
  • Obvious grammatical mistakes
  • Using Comic Sans, Papyrus, or other "casual" style font/typeface on your documents

…and a world of other possibilities.

These are so easy—yet, they are so easily and frequently overlooked. I see résumés and other materials regularly that make me wonder, "Did they even bother to proofread this?" And I get connections from would-be candidates ("would-be" because no search committee has advanced them beyond the initial stages) on Facebook with ridiculous pictures on their profile.

When I was teaching in seminary, I had a student who's e-mail address was something like "packer-fan@…" That was 11 years ago, and that former student is now a lawyer. I can still reach him via "packer-fan" but now he also has an address with his name and nothing cute as his main contact. He grew up, and it shows.

So what should you do? How do you "clean it up" and get things in proper order?

Some of these deserve their own post (I'll probably do something like "Facebook for Pastors" down the line). But some of them are simple.

Set up (or just start using) an e-mail address that shows you are serious—and that you take yourself seriously enough to be their pastor. You don't have to register a special domain; Gmail or Yahoo are fine. But avoid stuff like "WonderBob@gmail…" or "wildcats_rule@yahoo…" These were fine in college. Now it's time to move on.

Check over your social media profiles. Make sure that your profile pictures are you, or at least you with others—take down the pic of the sports team logo, the cartoon character, or that funny mash-up your friend did where he pasted your face onto Richard Simmons' head. (You can leave these in your photos, if you want, but just not as your profile picture.) And make sure that your other information is accurate and, again, taking seriously the fact that people are going to be measuring your potential as their future pastor, in part from what they see on Facebook (and Twitter, and LinkedIn, etc.).

Use a traditional serifed font. Sure, Times New Roman is a bit dull, and you're probably tired of looking at it after all of the papers you've typed. But there are many great traditional typefaces that are quite beautiful and functional at the same time: Garamond, Minion Pro, Georgia, Goudy Old Style, and Baskerville are all great alternatives to Microsoft's default. (One study determined that Goudy Old Style communicates trustworthiness the most of all typefaces; isn't that something worth communicating?) And yes, it's perfectly fine to use the same typeface for all of your documents—preferable, actually.

Proofreading your documents.
And get your wife, girlfriend, roommate, or best friend to proofread them, too. That goes for cover letters and e-mails as well, if possible.

Listen to your voicemail greeting. This one is easy to overlook; most of us forgot what our voicemail greeting sounded like 5 minutes after we recorded it (and that may have been years ago)—but a search committee chair will probably hear it the first or second time they call you. Is it clear? Does it have loud music in the background? Have your friends hacked your phone and recorded something silly? Change it if you need to, but be sure you know what they are hearing (and that it is something you are okay with).

These are good starts. What are some "pebbles in the path" that YOU'VE seen?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where "vision" fits into transition

[Super-brief preamble: this blog has been "dark" for over two years—that is, no new posts since sometime in mid-2011. I aim to change that in the coming months, starting today, and return to regular blogging on transition.]

I recently blogged (on my other blog) about what happened in the church I most recently served in Arizona. One of the things that "happened"—or rather, didn't happen—was the articulation of vision.

As I laid out in that post, and won't re-cover in the same detail here, my first and biggest mistake in how I served that church was related to vision. In the case of Dove Mountain Church, they didn't have a clear vision which the congregation was united behind. This was evident in the early phone interviews (honest hems and haws in response to questions about vision), and it was clear when I visited for my interview weekend. Both in the phone interviews and during a congregation-wide Q&A time over my weekend visit, I was asked point-blank: "What would your vision for our congregation be, should we call you as our pastor?"

Candidate-Pastors, when you hear this question or something like it, you must discern which of the following you are dealing with:
  • Do they have a vision of their own, and they are seeking congruence and compatibility? OR
  • Do they have NO vision, and they are relying on you to bring it?

If the former, then your work is clear: you need to ascertain what their vision is, and decide whether YOU believe that your own vision is a good fit. A good search team is doing the same, and if you and they all agree that your vision is compatible with theirs, you'll be off on the right foot.

If the latter—and they lack a clear vision—your work is also clear: you must state YOUR vision clearly, succinctly, and in a way that can be easily conveyed to others in their congregation. In this case, you are effectively asking them to buy into your vision as part of the process of calling you to be their pastor. (This, in addition to the other things they are committing to in calling you—but that's material for a future post.)

So what is a vision? What are they looking for in asking the question I was asked?

A vision is a simple declaration of where we are going, why we're going there, and what we're going to do when we get there. Or you could think of it as stating who we are and who we want to be.

This is where my trouble arose: in response to the question above, I said, "I won't know that until I get here and discern what this congregation's vision is."

That's an acceptable answer IF the congregation already has a vision. If they know who they are and where they want to go, then it is perfectly fine to say, "I'm comfortable leading you into the greater fulfillment of your existing vision." Be sure, however, that you understand very clearly what their vision is, and that it is truly the vision that the whole congregation shares. It's still probably better if you can show them your own vision (in your own words) and help them to see how they are two different statements saying basically the same thing; in that case, you can
determine how clearly the existing vision is understood by people on the search team, in the leadership, and in the congregation as a whole.

But if they don't have a vision—or, worse yet, they have a vision that only part of the congregation has committed to—then you absolutely must state your vision for church ministry. Do so uncompromisingly; be crystal clear that this is what you believe God has called you to do in His church. (Be flexible with the wording, of course, but steadfast in the principles.) If it's not something you're that committed to, then it's not really your vision—it's just A vision. State YOURS; if they aren't able to get behind it, then you will eventually find it to be a poor fit.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On aging and succession planning in ministry

I pointed out Collin Hansen's great article on the Gospel Coalition website about succession planning last month. Hansen has posted on the topic again, this time with a video of three significant men in evangelical ministry today -- Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper -- discussing aging and how is has impacted their own thoughts about succession planning.

Congregations: do you have an aging pastor? Has your leadership had frank discussions with him about how he (and they) are planning together for how this will inevitably take place?

I would strongly urge pastors (especially aging pastors) to watch this video together with their leadership as a discussion-starter for this needed conversation.

Piper Talks with Carson, Keller About Succession Plans at Bethlehem from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

HT to Collin Hansen; read his observations about the video here.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Moving far from home, part 3

I've been doing a short series on the difficulties of moving far from "home" and family, and how some have dealt with it. (Read part one and part two.)

Back to my friend "Brian" who lives in Colorado, and his family is in South Carolina. Here's another observation Brian had, this time about his children's relationship with their grandparents.

Brian has several children, so naturally his parents (and his wife's parents) try to come visit as often as they can. Brian's wife has a sister who still lives in their hometown, so there's an interesting contrast between how Brian's mother-in-law and father-in-law relate to his children in comparison to his nieces and nephews.

Here's what Brian has noticed: his in-laws are a part of the "regular life" of his nieces and nephews. Because they live in the same town, the in-laws can attend school functions, recitals, etc., and see the kids on a regular basis. At the same time, the nature of "regular life" is such that they rarely get extended, uninterrupted time with their grandchildren.

On the other hand, when the in-laws come out Brian's way, they have regularly kept the kids home from school, and Brian has taken a few vacation days. Brian's family gives their undivided attention to his in-laws, as much as possible.

The contrast is significant. In a recent conversation with his mother-in-law, Brian and his wife learned that they (his in-laws) feel like they know Brian's children better, and that the children know them better, than their other grandchildren-- because Brian and his family live far away.

Obviously this would not be the case if Brian's in-laws were unable (because of schedule, money, health, etc.) to travel the great distance to see Brian's family. But since they are, in their case at least this is a surprising answer to what is surely a great concern for many.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

For All the Saints endorsement/review

My fellow PCA pastor Ron Steel was kind enough to send me this warm review/endorsement for my little book, For All the Saints: praying for the church.

Ed Eubanks is wise to tremble, as he says, at the prospect of writing a book on prayer, but I am glad that the women’s prayer ministry at his church in western Tennessee prevailed upon him to set aside his understandable timidity and write this practical little treatise on praying for the church. The topics covered in the space of just 88 pages range widely over a number of arenas needing focused intercession from “all the saints”. Prayer in behalf of Christ’s church is both our great privilege and the source of spiritual power in being and doing all that our Sovereign Lord has designed and destined the church to be and do. Some of these areas of focus in prayer include unity, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, church discipline and restoration, fellowship and growth, the lost, renewal and revival, suffering, church leadership and the return of Christ. The section at the end of each chapter called “prayer summary” is worth the price of the book. Together these sections compose an impressive prayer list for those committed to upholding their church in prayer. Few have been able to compose something on prayer that is sensitive to the theology of prayer while being intensely practical in providing specific guidance in what to pray. Many will find, as I have, this little book to be large in usefulness."
Ronald Steel
recently Senior Pastor of Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church, Ballwin, Missouri.

Thanks Ron!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Challenging the conventional wisdom on Ministerial Calls

Carl Trueman posted a couple of shorter pieces on the Reformation 21 blog back in June (Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls part one and part two), in which he challenged our usual approach and practice to identifying a "pastoral call" in candidates and churches.

Trueman observes that the practice often is in conflict with similar practices in other parts of our congregational life:

I have often wondered why it is in Presbyterian circles (and probably other churches too) that we routinely call men in their twenties, straight from seminary, to be ministers when we would never dream of calling someone of such an age to be a ruling elder. It seems odd to apply the biblical norms only to the latter.

I think he is more right than wrong here. I know at Covenant Seminary, where I studied, there is a requirement that a man must have at least three years of pastoral ministry behind him before beginning a Doctor of Ministry program; I have wondered why a similar requirement is not made for those who would enter the ministry. Why not at least one or the other of the following: either several years of work experience in secular employment, or several years of ministry experience as an intern, pastoral assistant, or non-ordained ministry position?

Trueman goes on to point out that, too often, churches and presbyteries simply rely on seminaries to do their jobs for them, with regard to determining whether a man is fit for ministry. If they have completed seminary, the conventional wisdom goes, they must have some "chops" that make them suitable as a pastor. He makes the following point about that:

What is needed is a clear understanding that seminaries are not presbyteries: they do not make any judgment on suitability for ministry; they simply teach the necessary technical theological skills at the appropriate level.

He concludes with a poignant reminder about achievement and potential vs. fitness and qualification for ministry:

An MDiv degree, a congregational vote, an `internal call' and an act of presbytery do not mean that a man is really called by God to be a minister.

This is much-needed re-thinking. I know that our presbytery has ordained men on these bases, when in fact several of us have had serious questions about whether they were truly ready to serve the church as pastors-- or whether we were setting them up (and their congregations as well) for potential devastation.

Read all of the posts here:
Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls I
Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls II

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Moving far from home, part 2

At our recent General Assembly I spoke with several friends who had moved a long way from "home" and family, and gleaned some interesting comments and reflections on their experiences. (Read part one here.)

Now let's consider a comment from "John" whose family is from Alabama, and who is now a pastor in California. Here's what John said:

"The best advice I received was from [a seminary professor] who said, 'you just need to negotiate into your terms of call that they will fly your whole family home once a year.' So we did-- and now there's a line-item in the church budget for $2,500 of airfare for my whole family to fly back!"

This is a great idea. Airfare is expensive enough for one or two, but John and his wife have several children. For most pastors, the cost would simply be prohibitive to think of paying for that every year, or even every other year. Or at very least, it might keep them from being able to afford other vacation time, as a couple or as a family.

With John's arrangement, however, they are free to simply not worry about the biggest part of the costs of visiting family. The first year they were there, John and his family flew back to Alabama around Christmas-- about six months after they had moved. Surely this was a great comfort, both to John's family and to their extended families.

The upside of this, among other things, is that the burden of traveling expenses is carried by neither John's family nor their parents or siblings. It's easy to think that extended family might simply travel out to see them in California, but that can get costly too (even if it is only one set of parents, with airfare for only two instead of five or six). This solution tempers that problem, at least a bit.

The downside, obviously, is that this represents a substantial financial commitment for the congregation. Some congregations may not be able to afford it. Others, while sympathetic, may not be willing to make such a large investment. (I would counter the latter, however, by pointing back to Brian's comment about how hard the decision can be to move so far from family, and suggesting that an unwilling approach in the short term may have unfavorable consequences in the longer term.)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

On effective succession planning in pastoral ministry

The question of effective succession planning in the church is a vital one, and yet it is usually one of the topics that a congregation-- even the leadership-- most often neglects and ignores.

Churches seem to settle quickly into the assumption that, now that they have a pastor, he's there for good! And some great churches have seen devastating results as a consequence of that neglect. On the other hand, the exceptions prove the rule here; think about the congregations (or even large ministries) that you know of that have had a strong, capable leader follow another, and go on to advance the existing ministry even further than their predecessor did. I can count on one hand those that come to my mind.

That's one reason why this Gospel Coalition article from Collin Hansen, "Gospel Integrity and Pastoral Succession," is so valuable.

Hansen holds out Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan as a current example of effective succession planning. Few churches in our day have ministries as strong and with as great an impact as Redeemer, and few pastors are as recognizable as Keller. Yet Keller and the leadership of Redeemer have put in place a succession plan that spans the next 10 years, and surely lays a foundation for the future leaders to build upon. Hansen comments:

The succession plan corresponds with a larger ministry reorientation for Redeemer. For about 20 years, Redeemer grew as members invited their friends to hear the exceptional music and Keller’s compelling sermons. Without Keller as a draw, however, the church’s strategy will need to change. Church leaders and members will need to become more missional.

Hansen goes on to consider several other prominent examples, all learning from the foibles of others in church history who, great though the leaders were, failed to adequately consider the need for a strong succession plan.

Hansen concludes:

Succession isn’t simple. It isn’t smooth. It’s not often successful. Yet it’s a matter of gospel integrity. God doesn’t promise our churches will evermore yield wide influence through a preacher’s exceptional leadership. Surely, however, we can testify to his steadfast love by making more of Jesus Christ than ourselves. And that means planning ahead for generations who will never hear the great preacher’s voice.

Read the whole article here.