Friday, April 10, 2009

When the search lingers... part 2

As I highlighted in my last post on this subject, the core factor here is, are you called to serve in pastoral ministry? If the answer is "yes" then nothing-- not economic crises, not the reality of more seminarians to "compete" with for a position, not the length of time since you began earnestly seeking placement-- NOTHING should keep you from continuing to pursue the fulfillment of that call.

How should someone whose candidacy process has stretched well past his expectations, who is discouraged and heavy-hearted, who has begun to despair of finding placement and has even questioned whether God is truly calling him into ministry-- how should such a man continue to pursue placement into ministry?

To begin with, he ought to continue to serve whenever possible. Are there Sunday School classes to be taught at his church? He should make it clear that he is available to teach them. Are there other volunteer opportunities? Again, he should avail the church of his gifts and service if possible. Can he continue to serve in pulpit supply for area churches that need a preacher? The more the better.

There are a few reasons why. For one thing, ongoing service like this will keep him from getting "rusty"-- his skills and abilities will grow sharper, not more dull, with continued use. He'll actually continue to grow in the calling God has given him, not become stagnant. The discouragement he has from the absence of placement will be tempered somewhat by the opportunity to fulfill, at least in a small measure, the calling that he longs to have made complete.

It will help his candidacy, as well: churches aren't looking for someone who was seminary-trained a while back but shelved his education until he was paid to use it; they are looking for men whose sense of service to the church and Kingdom compel them to find any opportunity to use their gifts for God. They are seeking churchmen-- and a churchman will use all of the resources available to him to serve in all of the capacities available to him.

Such a candidate might also continue to advance his training and education. A "joke" at the seminary I finished was that, if you weren't placed by graduation, you could always start a Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree. While this was offered tongue-in-cheek, there's certainly no harm in continuing to learn and grow as a candidate awaits God's timing for placement. Whether it is a Th.M., a counseling program, a doctoral degree, or some other pursuit, he might seriously consider further academic work.

It doesn't have to be an either-or proposition, either. In most cases, degree programs like this can be completed, at least in part, by distance education-- so if he were to place before finishing the degree, he could continue to make progress (though he would certainly want to slow down!). He shouldn't see this option as "giving up" on placement; instead, he ought to continue to pursue placement while working on his ongoing training.

He also shouldn't feel like he must start another degree, either. There are plenty of seminars and workshops that he could attend; for example, I've mentioned the "From Embers to a Flame" conference on church vitality and revitalization that is a great four-day learning opportunity. There are probably short classes (week-long, or weekends) at the seminary he graduated from, which he could enroll in (perhaps at a discounted rate-- my alma mater offers such classes for free to alumni). Continuing to advance his learning doesn't have to be a long-term commitment.

Long-term or not, what it will be is an opportunity to gain more than what he was offered in his existing seminary degree. I know of no one who is in ministry who can report that seminary prepared them for everything. Every class, workshop, conference, or degree that a graduate accrues is an advantage to him and to his future ministry in this way. (And don't think that search committees won't recognize this, either-- they know as well as anyone that more training and education almost always means "better-equipped.")

Another thing he might begin (or continue) to do: cast an ever-widening net in his candidacy efforts. If he has been searching for an Assistant Pastor role, then he might open up his options to Solo Pastoral positions as well. If he has been looking only in a single denomination, he might also look in like-minded sister denominations. If he's been looking only in presbyterian circles, he might consider a more broadly Reformed circle. There are many avenues where he could expand your search without compromising crucial convictions.

I've blogged about this before, too-- and the longer I'm in ministry, the more I appreciate (and agree with) the advice that my friend Joe Novenson offered concerning that circumstance: there is more agreement, generally, than there is disagreement among brothers and sisters in Christ. Joe said, "I have more in common with my fellow pastors, even in congregations of very different theological convictions, than I do with an unbeliever who shares my political and social agenda."

This isn't to say that we should quickly abandon our theological distinctives for the sake of a pastoral call. But it does emphasize how much room there is to cast a wider net in our search.

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