Saturday, September 18, 2010

Corn Flakes are Corn Flakes and a Pastor is a Pastor

I was perusing the synod newsletter and noticed that a congregation where I interviewed back in May is STILL interviewing.  I thought I would have been a good pastor for them.  Yes I understand the Holy Spirit and all that and it wasn't meant to be.  And I could accept that they found someone else that they thought was more suitable.  But to discover they are STILL looking?  Come on.  NOBODY is that special. 

I become more and more convinced of something that crossed my mind several years ago.  This searching for the perfect match between pastor and congregation with both parties filling out pages and pages of profiles with boxes for this strength or that has not served either pastors or congregations well.  

The second call I took in Birnamwood Wisconsin, the bishop gave the congregation my name and they called me, sight unseen.  I stayed there 9 years, the longest I've stayed anywhere. 

The myth of the "perfect" match has set up both congregation and pastor for disappointment.  It has led us away from unconditional love.   It has made us focus on ourselves and made it seem as though OUR personal desires, likes, dislikes, passions and even strengths are what matter.   I think it is part of the problem of expecting pastors to do more than the traditional (dare I say CONFESSIONAL?) ministry of Word and Sacrament which is what ordained ministry is all about.  Pastor's strengths should be Word and Sacrament and if they aren't then they need to be weeded out of seminary.  It's nice that you have other passions but it's not about your passions, it's about SERVANTHOOD. 

Same with the congregation.  It's nice that you have a small group ministry but you don't need a pastor to lead that.  You need a pastor to preach  and teach the word, administer the sacraments  and I'll throw in visit the sick with that.  There is no perfect congregation or pastor.  Too bad.  Learn to live with and love them anyway.  It's like having children.  You get what you get and you love them.  Period.

Yes I know.  People who live in a culture that offers 17 brands of cornflakes expect choice when it comes to their pastor as well.  And I suppose pastors get picky too.  I wouldn't know.  As a woman I've ALWAYS felt grateful that someone was willing to give me a try.  There were a couple of REALLY unhealthy situations that I ran away from.   But I never turned down a congregation because it wasn't a "good match" 

I think this is a situation where we need to go against culture.  I know the Methodists did this for years and have given it up because it lead to "mediocrity"  Supposedly.  I don't believe it.  I think the Bishops just got tired of hearing both pastors and congregations complain that they didn't have more cornflakes to choose from. 

So don't make it Law.  Just makes the forms simpler.  Talk more about grace, unconditional and sacrificial love, and less about strengths and "good matches".  I think we'd all be better for it.


  1. Methinks that it is not just congregations who think pastors should be doing all kinds of other stuff beyond Word and Sacrament, but that there are pastors, too, who want to do those things.

    I'm on the fence about this. I think that if we make the definition of pastor or Word and Sacrament ministry overly narrow we come up with a priestly model of ministry - do the liturgy, preach the Word, visit the sick. Certainly the ministry of Word and Sacrament is supported by small groups, teaching ministries, fellowship meals and so forth, and it certainly could be expected that the pastor would place a large role in seeing to it that these ministries take place ... At the same time, there are pastors who look more like CEOs than they do ministers of Word and Sacrament. But if they are seeing to it that the ministry of the Word and Sacrament is happening in ways that are faithful and effective, then more power to them, right?

  2. Before being called to my present location, I interviewed with another congregation in this Synod. The congregation kept me on their “short list,” but three months later, and more interviews, they chose not to call me. At a Synod gathering, I met the pastor the congregation had called. I didn’t say anything about my interviewing with that congregation, but I've often wondered why they chose this pastor over me? Since then, the congregation has gone through the Call Process three or four more times with one being under difficult circumstances. However, I have been in my Call for 20 years. Maybe the Holy Spirit is working in there somewhere, maybe not.

  3. Having been on call committees twice (the last two times here, with one pastor staying 10 years, the other, 5 years already) I have learned that the system varies by synod and current bishop. Maybe the bishops could learn from each other, not to "perfect" the system, but what to do to involve the Spirit more and human longings for the Perfect Pastor less.

    What happened here is that the church gets the names of three people to interview. Presumable, the synod people have prescreened these people based on the forms. Then, after the interviews, we pick from the three, or say none of these will work. Then, I guess, you'd get three more eventually. I would hope that if this goes on too long, the synod would intervene. We had some help from the interim pastor in getting ready for the call process.

    I can tell you that it is easier to figure out who NOT to call than who to call. With my first call committee process, we all knew that the first two we interviewed were not right. With the second process, we liked all three people equally, so we asked them if they were still interested. One said that our church would be too much work for her present situation. The one we did call blew us away with her attitude and interest in both the over all church setting and her ideas on how to approach our existing ministries. And she is wonderful. Her only hesitation involved her husband's job prospects, as his schooling was rather specialized. Who knew that he would be able to get a job exactly in his field, only 30 minutes away?

  4. What I'm saying is that ANY one of those three pastors would be just fine if everyone showed a little grace and humility.

  5. I completely agree. I could say a lot more, but I'll spare you my rant.

  6. When I served on a call committee before going to sem, I recall the synod staff person coming to a congregational info meeting. He handed us a list of 48 strengths / characteristics of a pastor. He told us to circle 10 that were important to us. And for everyone we circled, we had to cross off two. It got hard fast, but it was instructive about the fact that all pastors are limited human beings.

  7. You're on target here. The idea that pastors and parishes alike "need," "deserve," or even benefit from participation in our culture of endless choice is an illusion.

    I do believe there is such thing as a bad fit -- some pastors who just can't work with a certain congregation, or vice versa. A call process needs to be structured so that it reveals those before they happen. But I don't think there needs to be a lot more to it.

    As I understand it, there are two different mobility forms available in the ELCA, and synods can choose which ones they will use. (This may be outdated info, since I think they were revised a while back.) The ones my synod uses are comically long, and cost both pastors, councils and call committees and endless amount of worry over nothing. You know: "Pastor Bob gives ecumenical relationships a priority of 3, but we only gave it a 2." It creates a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

    Speaking of anxiety, here's something I wonder about. Real toxicity can occur in pastor/parish relationships, and a good look at American church records shows that it always has. (I know some wild stories from the 19th century, and a few good ones from the 17th). But the Alban Institute books, and other books like that, make it sound as though the rate has increased dramatically since the 1970s. If that's true -- and I'm not sure it is, but if -- then one or both of these things might be true:

    1. The explosion of our consumer culture -- from three TV networks to a billion, etc. -- has helped to create the illusion that if we simply interview a million parishes (or pastors) we'll inevitably find "the right one," and anything less is irresponsible or even a recipe for disaster.

    2. The fact, or even the impression, that toxic relationships are on the rise has made both pastors and parishes more skittish about the whole call process.

    Either way, I don't think this level of anxiety existed in call processes a couple of generations back.

  8. I like how much wisdom there is in this post. There is a danger I think in thinking there is something "perfect" with respect to our lives, and I don't know if I believe that God is that into micromanaging.

  9. great post, Joelle. Though I would go a little big wider than Word/Sacrament/visit the sick, you are fundamentally right, and especially about the "perfect pastor" stuff.

    anyway, there is a lot of food for thought here. I do think that there is some "consumer culture" in some parishes, but not in all. and yes, there are also "bad fits."