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.

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