Saturday, June 11, 2005

“Selling yourself”

Early in my ministry experience, I also worked in retail; at first it was when I was volunteering for a church youth group and Young Life, then when I needed full-time employment but the church I served could only pay part-time. I worked briefly for a clothing store, then a toy store, then two different camera stores. I learned a lot of lessons in those jobs that have served me well in ministry.

One of the best things I learned from retail sales was how to simultaneously make a sale and satisfy a customer. It works like this: figure out what the customer really wants and needs, then sell them that. Pretty simple, right? Not so fast...

First of all, the customer often does not know what they want or need. They usually think they do; it requires a greater-than-average level of humility to admit that they don't understand their own needs or desires. Nevertheless, most of the time they don't have any clear idea of what they are shopping for. They have some ideas-- for example, a customer at a camera store knows what kind of pictures they usually take now, or would if they had a camera. But when it comes to camera models, features and functions, or technical specifications and capabilities, they rarely even have a clue, let alone the language to articulate it.

This presents a second obstacle: since they don't really know which products meet their needs and which do not, it is often possible to sell them whatever you want them to buy. In fact, I had co-workers who employed this tactic: they pushed whatever products offered them the best commissions, whether or not that was what their customers were looking for.

It is because customers don't know what they need or want, however, that they have come to a retail store in first place. They need someone who can ask the right questions, who knows the available product lines, and who can take answers and products together for the right recommendation. That's why they would come to me. When I worked at a camera store, for instance, I knew the specs and abilities of every camera, lens, and flash unit we sold. I also knew the right questions to ask to determine which products would best fit a customer, and could make recommendations based on what they want and need, even if they couldn't specify this themselves.

It works the same way in pastoral placement. Churches often don't know how to articulate what they are looking for in a pastor, but they will know if they get it or not.

In response to a previous post about a candidate's sense of calling, a comment was made about the integrity of “selling yourself.” I may misunderstand what that commenter intended, but “selling myself” in pastoral candidacy reminds me of my co-workers who would push products for the sake of the commission: both are only after the short-term, dollar-bringing solution.

My co-workers may have earned a fast buck through a commission on, say, a camera body and lens. But if that camera did not meet the needs or desires of the customer, you can bet that customer would not return to buy another camera from them; in fact, they may not return to our store at all (after all, they believed they were getting what they needed, but were deceived). In the long run, determining what met their needs and selling them that product would produce a trusting relationship that would result, in time, in far greater amounts of sales and commissions. Pushing the wrong product may satisfy for now, but it will leave a salesman wanting in the future.

Likewise, a candidate who “sells himself” to a Search Committee-- he tells them what he thinks they want to hear so that they will offer him the position-- will mirror my commission-minded co-workers. It may produce a short-term satisfaction on both sides: the candidate-church thinks it is getting what it desires, and the candidate-pastor gets a placement (and therefore a paycheck). Long-term, however, both will be found wanting. The pastor will likely be unfulfilled in his work, since he had to misrepresent his own sense of calling to get the position. The church will realize quickly that they were taken by a fast-talker, and become even more difficult to shepherd. Everyone loses.

On the other hand, if a candidate-pastor follows my lesson from retail-- figure out what the church really wants and needs, then offer them that (if he can)-- then everyone wins. To do this, a candidate-pastor has to figure out what questions will reveal whether a church is looking for someone like him. Ask the right questions, and he will know if he is the man for the job. If not, then his integrity should lead him to say so. If he is the one, it is far from a “sales job” or “selling himself” to help them understand that it is a good fit.

This comes back to the basic assumption that you know what you're called to do. You must be the expert on you-- in retail terms, you have to know what kind of “product” you are, and what needs and desires you can and cannot satisfy. If you know this and learn to articulate it, what you present is no sales pitch-- it's the truth.

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