Searching for the called: six months in

I have completed the first third of my search committee research project, which to this point has entailed a lot of reading, the distribution of the survey, and an initial round of interviews. It seems like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned, adjust my lens, and fill you in on how you can still influence the end product.

Abraham sat on his front porch, fanning feverishly to break up the thick heat. The sudden appearance in his yard of three men brought him out of his reverie. Spry for a 99-year-old, he hurried over to them. Friendly faces were hard to come by, even around Abraham’s own home. There had, after all, been many an argument with his wife Sarah about his son by another mother. “You must be tired from travel. Please, take a load off, and I’ll bring you a snack.” Abraham didn’t just dump some pretzels on a napkin, though. He raced inside and asked Sarah to make bread. He ran out back and threw a few very fresh steaks on the grill.

As the mystery men devoured their feast under the shade of a tree, they asked, “Where’s your lovely bride? We’ve got some news for you both.” Sarah was stuck in the kitchen, and she had the hearing of an 89-year-old, but she could still make out the conversation over the clanging of pots. When the guests said that they’d be eager to play with Abraham and Sarah’s newborn when they came back this way a year later, she not only received the message, her laughter strained her obliques. The whole visit had an air of mystery, if not absurdity. And yet…in the hospitality Abraham and Sarah offered to three complete strangers, they received a blessing: the confirmation of a divine promise and – finally! – a concrete timetable for its fulfillment.

Hospitality is a central theme in scripture. Because Abraham and Sarah, because Moses and the Hebrew people, because Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were all once strangers in strange lands, we as their theological descendants are responsible for welcoming all who wander. And in a vocational sense, some of the most nomadic people are congregational ministers, looking not just for a job but also a place to fulfill a calling, to label home, and perhaps to nurture a family. Yet I don’t believe that most search committees think to approach their essential work as hosts.

If hospitality is a foundational virtue for Christians, what would it look like for search committees to create space for welcoming fully the gifts and the challenges of ministerial candidates – people who are just names on a page at the outset? What if search committees asked themselves how they could not just give a nod of acknowledgment to the Holy Spirit, but invite the Spirit into their conversations, listen for her wisdom, and wait for a blessing? What if search committees took ample time to build trust among committee members so that they could bring the fullness of their talents and faith and doubts – even their incredulous laughter – to the search process? What if search committees greeted their candidates with outstretched arms – including the ones who seem a bit mysterious, if not downright strange – and asked them questions that really got at their stories, passions, and capabilities? What if search committees engaged their churches and their communities ‘round the tree, giving them appropriate means for input into the process? What if search committees and congregations, instead of handing their candidates of choice a cup of pretzels and some tap water, killed the calf and baked a cake and really celebrated the start of a new relationship?

As Christians we tend to love hospitality as a concept, but putting feet to the ideal is scary because it involves welcoming the unknown. There’s no way to predict what danger awaits. Hospitality in search & call is no different. Maybe the Holy Spirit will prompt us to do something hard or unexpected. Maybe we’ll disagree about whom to call or how to go about it. Maybe we’ll fall in love with a candidate who will really stretch the expectations of our congregation. Maybe our church members will want to unearth skeletons or our community will say they need something from us that we’re not ready to provide. Maybe our minister’s worth and needs will strain our budget.

While there’s no way to anticipate the dangers in hospitality – though goodness knows we try – there’s also no way to predict blessing. As Abraham and Sarah found out, in God all things are possible, even a woman of very advanced maternal age giving birth to her long-awaited joy. In God a congregation’s self-study in preparation for a search can help it understand itself anew. In God intensive spiritual work done by the search committee can generate seeds for discernment that are then blown and take root across the whole of the church. In God the arrival of a new minister can breed needed energy and excitement. In God a good pastor-parish match can lay the groundwork for fruitful mutual ministry, one that is focused on living toward a divinely-given vision instead of on playing whack-a-mole with various conflicts.

Blessings beyond that which we dare hope for await those churches who take hospitality seriously. I believe this deep in my bones. Now, I did not start out this project with hospitality as my lens, but as I read and interview and survey all parties involved in searches, the recurring pitfalls keep pointing in that direction. The problems I hear about are rarely intentional; search committees often don’t know how to seek out the Holy Spirit’s counsel throughout the process. How to meet candidates’ disclosures with their own compelling, truthful narrative about their church. How to communicate effectively with candidates and with their own congregation. How to welcome a variety of candidates, then decide well which ones remain friends and which one becomes family. How to ask useful questions of the ministers they interview. How to have hard but needed conversations about the expectations of everyone involved in the process. How to compensate ministers in ways that honor their professionalism and personhood. How to formalize new calls in covenantal language. How to help the called pastor become “one of us.”

Search committees are made up of extremely capable, faithful people. They have the wisdom of judicatory leaders, theological school partners, and parachurch organizations at their disposal. The foundation is there. Here’s the contribution I hope to make. One year from now, I want to be able to offer to search committees and the folks who counsel them an approach to the call process that is grounded in practices of hospitality. I do not envision this approach as do this, then this, then this. My project is an ecumenical one, and call processes vary across denominational lines. And in free church traditions, searches look very different from congregation to congregation.

Instead, this work aims to be a tool for teaching search committee members how to ask each other, their church, their candidates, and the Holy Spirit questions that remove the barriers keeping each party from appropriately sharing with and fully listening to one another. These may be nuts-and-bolts questions like, “what do our by-laws say about how to handle this part of the process?” But more often they will be questions such as, “What does the Spirit have to say about this direction we’re leaning toward?” “What do our candidates need from us?” “What has not yet been said that must be said?” “What’s causing us to feel this way?” When search committee members are able to discuss these deeper-level concerns, hospitality, with all its short- and long-term blessings for congregation and minister, can more fully take root.

This project is not a solo effort. It would not be very hospitable of me to hide away in my study and come up with something on my own! This work depends on your wisdom and your experiences. I have a survey still open that I would love for you to take and forward to others. If you are willing, let’s schedule a phone or Skype interview during which you can share your expertise. If you know of a search committee that could benefit from some coaching and might be willing to be a test case, please let me know. And definitely, when I put up a new website in a year’s time, with all of the findings available free of charge, do share the link with the churches you guide and support. Together, we can help our faithful people prepare to entertain angels unaware, resulting in healthier congregations that are more on mission for God.

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