I have never really been a fan of the process used by most churches in the Presbyterian Church USA for selecting new pastors. It is long, generally impersonal, given to mis-impressions, overly analytical, not prayer oriented enough, too secretive, and in the end not very effective. Most congregations are not satisfied with the pastor they have chosen, and most pastors are not particularly thrilled with their congregation. While the 2000 plus ministers seeking a new call partly indicates this, I am very aware that most pastors when they gather without their parishioners present commence to complain about their charges. Rarely in almost 30 years of ministry have I heard a minister speak about their church with fondness and respect. When I have, it has stood out clearly and refreshingly. I resolved years ago to not kvetch about the people I serve, even if there was good justification (as I saw things) for doing so.
Anyway, the PCUSA selection process is geared to the candidate who can present the best appearance in a limited, short-term process --- kind of like going on a date and then deciding whether or not to get married! O yes there are references, which, while helpful, are obviously going to be favorable since they were selected by the candidate. The weekend interview is very illuminating, but only the few on the pastor nominating committee get to meet with the potential new leader of their congregation, and most any minister can muster a pleasant personality and decent sermon for one 2 to 3 day encounter.
Personally, I'm getting tired of the PCUSA selection process. Of course, I've been stuck in these ecclesiastical doldrums for nigh on to 2 years now, so my inability to escape this process has certainly colored my perspective. But after interview after interview, conversation after conversation, phone call after phone call, and being told for the umpteenth time that I was the next choice after the one who was called, I'm ready for a whole new approach to selecting a pastor in the PCUSA. Here are my suggestions for a new approach that I think would make for better matches and more lively ministries. Of course, I know no one will take any of these seriously, but permit me to indulge this cathartic rant.
First, get rid of the matching services of the PCUSA offices in Louisville. Let pastors freely contact pastor nominating committees and pastor nominating committees freely contact pastors --- even those pastors who are not actively seeking another call. Most of the churches I have been matched with are far from what I am seeking and I am usually far from what they are seeking. In fact, I, an ardent biblical conservative who makes my evangelical orientation very clear in my Personal Information Form, have been matched at times with liberal More Light congregations! Let's save the waste of paper when these congregations send out their "Dear Pastor" letters to all the matched candidates who they would never consider in this age or the age to come.
Second, ban phone interviews! They are useless, and no one can really get a read on another person just through listening to a person speak to the air from miles away. All interviews should be face-to-face. Computers make it very easy to set up face-to-face encounters, and if possible, do an interview in person. Give each candidate the opportunity to come and meet the pastor nominating committee in person. Since those who do this would do so at their own expense, the committee would get an idea of how sincere the candidate's interest really is. So what if this gives an advantage to local candidates. It all evens out because it is also far easier for the committee to do more in depth research on a local candidate's ministry and character.
Third, take away the secrecy. Yeah, yeah, yeah, this will create complications for candidates who currently are serving churches. But what is so bad about a minister being open and honest about the possibility that they may be moving on? This can be a great opportunity for a pastor and their church to deal with issues, understand one another better, and maybe even make the need to move unnecessary. And what if it does still happen? At least then the congregation losing a pastor can be more prepared, and will have dealt with the leaving in some fashion directly with the departing pastor, thus lessening the grief issues in the interim period. Genuineness and authenticity among ministers and churches --- what a concept!
Fourth, make the on site interview at least a week long with the involvement of the whole congregation. Have the candidate start the week on Sunday with a sermon, and then meet with people throughout the week in a variety of situations, from question and answer meetings to one-on-one conversations. Make sure the candidate does a teaching series during the week, maybe even a "revival" week. When the next Sunday comes around, do the worship service according to the ideas of the candidate, thus revealing the emphases and preferences this minister would bring to the church if they were called to be the "permanent" pastor.
After this week, the people would have a far more authentic and reliable experience of the style, personality, skills, and character of the candidate. Sure, there may be some disagreement among the people regarding which candidate would be best, but at least the disagreements would be based on a truer and more complete knowledge rather than just illusionary impressions. Plus, this kind of disagreement happens anyway in the present "neutral pulpit" process, except that there isn't any opportunity to process the disagreements in reconciling, maturing ways that increase the spiritual health of the congregation.
Fifth, never ever under any circumstances even begin to entertain the slightest possibility of interviewing a candidate who has not personally shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with at least 5 people in the last 3 months! And give priority consideration to those who have actually led someone to Christ in these same months! Our PCUSA congregations are literally held back by the ineptitude of pastors who either don't or won't do personal evangelism. If a pastor doesn't share the Gospel on a regular basis, there is no way on God's earth that this same pastor can lead a church in healthy spiritual growth!
And sixth, don't ever continue considering a pastor who doesn't pray with the search team. I don't mean some mealy mouthed recitation of some nice platitudes, but the heartfelt passion that comes from a soul who is in constant and intense communion with God as friend, lover, and sovereign Master! We are talking "deep calling to deep" kind of praying. If a pastor is not a person who "walks with the Lord in the cool of the evening," then they are not the kind of pastor who will be able to walk with a parishioner or a whole congregation in their time of trial. As the prospective pastor prays, the nominating committee members need to ask themselves if this sounds like a professional clergy person who is seeking a hired position, or a loving shepherd who will serve the sheep with a servant's heart!
Well, there it is. I feel a little better. Now, back to preparing for this evening's phone interview....