Monday, August 11, 2014

An Irreverent look at our pastor search process: part 2

The second of two parts on the perpetually discussed topic of pastor/staff search committees.

You can't trust the committee and they can't trust you

Let's see. A pastor/staff or prospective pastor/staff is a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, called into a lifetime of vocational Christian service, willing to follow Him wherever He calls. And a church search committee is presumably a group of highly dedicated Christians who are active in their local congregation giving generously of their time and money to worship and serve Christ.

Right? You bet. Let's be idealistic and make that presumption even though I have heard my colleagues describe some committee members as straight from Gehenna and church members occasionally say the same about some pastor or staff.

So, if parties to the search process cannot trust each other, how Christian is this business?

It's not that either of you are evil but it is a given that the church search committee is only going to tell you part of what you would like to know about their church. They are going to give you some degree of an idealized and sanitized version of their wonderful congregation.

Don't get huffy about the fact that you will not receive full disclosure, no personal or group interaction practices this. And be honest. You're only going to give them an idealized, sanitized version of your personality, gifts, experience and skills. You're doggone certain not going to give them all they might want to know about you. When they ask you about your weaknesses, a diagnostic question put forth to get beyond your sparking resume and primary references, you're going to respond with, "Well, I admit that I'm not perfect all of the time" or "I sometimes work too hard." Stuff like that.

So, both of you have to turn to third parties for necessary information about each other.

If they are thorough they will get secondary references from your chosen ones and find out what your three BFF references aren't going to tell them about you. I've yet to meet the candidate who will say, "I like to play a lot of golf" or "Sometimes I lose my temper" or "I don't have any experience with many of the things you are expecting your next pastor to do." You will answer all their questions in what you believe to be an honest and forthright manner. You will also practice the art of ministerial finesse so that you look better than you actually do.

When you meet with the committee, you will listen politely, ask all the right questions about their church, community, ministry, and visions for the future. You will pray together and both go home. But then you will take what they have told you and go to the Associational Missionary, a pastor colleague in the area who might be familiar with the church, friend of a friend knows the church and community, or even a former pastor of the church and do some ecclesiastical due diligence. Any of these third parties is more likely to speak candidly about the church than the committee members. These are the ones more likely to say, "Oh, that church. Did they tell you what they did to the last pastor?" or "That church needs a chaplain, not an aggressive leader." Stuff like that.

Whatever you learn, you can pray through and sift. Whatever salient facts about the church you do not learn because of your failure to do your homework,  you cannot sift through and pray about. You get to be unpleasantly surprised. Avoid that if you can.

Mystic is a city in Connecticut, not an acceptable approach to making decisions

"I drove by the church and through the community and just felt like this was the place." Yeah. That's what Latter Day Saint Brigham Young said when he gazed over the Salt Lake area in 1847. You and Brig share a common mystical approach to decisions, do you?

Ah, the sudden, unexpected eruption of highly subjective emotions and feelings. Bane or blessing. A guide to utter destruction or wonderful bliss.

Absolutely seek the Lord's will and, since our emotions are an integral part of how we receive God's will, expect to feel and sense things not expressed; however, Mr. Mystical, you will be better served if you avoid a complete reliance on vague impressions and strange feelings and have a heavy dose of information. At the very least filter those emotional feelings through the sieve of cold, hard facts.

Sure, lots of high powered SBC leaders do a lot of "God told me" stuff and "God's man" talk. Ignore them. I don't discount that God can speak to you about your decision but chances are He will use sober, solid facts and principles to do so.

If the church isn't a good 'fit' for you, if your gifts and skills never line up with their needs, then quit the process and look elsewhere. If you are more of a maintenance guy (nothing wrong with that) and what the church obviously needs is an aggressive pastor, maybe God is telling you to pass on that opportunity.

If you know yourself and learn enough about the church, you will find God's will easily enough.

Your state convention, seminary, and other entities aren't going to help you much. Deal with it.

Yeah, we pour lots of money into these and they have placement offices, Church-Minister Relations staff, and all that but your best help will come from people you know who know you. Take time when you're in seminary, when you're doing summer projects, when you are an intern or other staff to build relationships, find mentors, and show a genuine interest in the people around you. It is surprising how God uses connections and relationships in your behalf that you are ignorant of or have forgotten about. SBC ministers of all groups have recognized the need to get "linked in" long before there was a nifty professional networking outfit by that name.

Maybe I'm  out of touch but my impression is that the SBC institutional people are good for advice, assessment, and counsel but not so much for placement. I gather it is not because they don't want to help but more because they are limited in what they can do. Liability issues will only cause denominational entities to do less and less recommending of candidates. But you can get your resume online with these people so that it will be readily available. Some of these people will pray for you, give you good advice, and genuinely show an interest in your search. Some will buy your lunch. Spend time with these. Such may not help in the short run but will in the long haul.

Maintain some dignity. You don't have to put up with committee nonsense.

I once had a church in an initial contact ask for IRS Form 1040s for several recent years. Fahgeddabout that. If we were far enough along, they could do a credit check on me. Doing a background check on me is perfectly legit. But my income tax forms are nobody's business but mine. If that sort of intrusive request is a deal breaker for them, thank God for it. You wouldn't want to pastor that church anyway.

Some churches create an elaborate questionnaire for candidates to answer in an early phase of their search. I never much cared for this, especially if the church was looking for dissertation length responses. You can deflect this request with short answers and references to the BFM or other faith statement and save long answers for later. It is inappropriate for a committee to expect a thesis in reply to their screening tool. Your resume ought to cover the basic stuff anyway.

I judge deep probing about a candidate's wife and family to be completely inappropriate committee nonsense as well. If you are going to insulate your wife from being considered an unpaid employee of the church then you might as well start doing that in the search process. You can be diplomatic about it easily enough.

If they don't take care of their facilities they probably will not take care of you and your family.

Take a road trip, unannounced and incognito, to their place. Take your wife. Look the church over. If they have a pastorium, give it a windshield survey. Check every now and then to see if your wife is shaking her head. That will tell you all you need to know.

I did this once for a prospective church and what we saw was a run down sanctuary where, literally, about half of the windows were cracked. We both shook our heads. I was going to ask about this but they brought it up. Seems they had a considerable sum saved for a new or renovated building. That one worked out. Most probably will not.

Look at the committee as fellow followers of Christ and get to know them.

You aren't adversaries, you know, neither are they mere tools in your career path. You have been given an opportunity to build relationships with other Christians. Take advantage of it in the most positive way. Show an interest in them personally. Ask questions that aren't on all those long lists some of the experts have given you. You may find that you learn more in casual conversation than in the formal sit-down meetings with them.

And here's a novel thought - you might be their pastor one day, so act pastoral. If you have to be told this then you might reconsider your calling.

Consider that God might slam this door but use you to to help the next guy.

I'm a get-along kind of guy but once had an initial conversation with a search committee where one of the members was unexpectedly brusque and combative.

"Hey, we just met and you're chewing on me already? How about filling me in on why you have a chip on your shoulder?"

To be honest, the church with the kick-butt search committee member was also the church that had a railroad track about a hundred feet outside the back door of the parsonage. My wife had instant visions of our three little kids having great fun playing on them, so we essentially knew we weren't moving to this place anyway. I felt a little freer being blunt with them.

If some committee members offer a troubling personal demeanor, after you've given it some thought, tell them kindly but candidly what you see. It may be that they are in deep conflict among themselves and it really has nothing to do with you personally. Perhaps they have never been told that how they are presenting themselves is out of line. You're the man to do this and you'll never be in a better position to do this. While it might end the process, it will probably help the next guy. Chances are, committee members aren't going to act better once you are on their payroll an in their field.

If you are too spiritual to talk frankly about money, you're an idiot.

Please, brethren, don't get so spiritual about money to the point that you take pains to show the committee how you are so sold out to the Lord that you will not ask and don't care one whit about what they pay. That little exercise will cost you, my friend. Besides, there's nothing spiritual about willful ignorance.

In most circumstances you shouldn't make money the deal breaker neither should you be too eager to talk salary and benefits (and, please, try not to drool when they offer you more than you're making now). If you are some steps into the process you should have already found out about what their total budget is. You should also know where to go to find average SBC salaries and benefits for a church of their size and budget. There are tools where you can do all this. This information gives you something to talk about. Are they less than average? Why? Maybe they had a series of passive pastors who never complained so they figured he was well compensated.

Oh yeah, have any salary and benefits agreed upon put in writing. If you don't, you're an idiot again.

Don't listen to too many war stories about nightmare committees.

It's not very entertaining to hear a colleague say, "The committee was wonderful. The process was a blessing. I have no complaints." It is entertaining to hear one say, "They were devils. They lied. They were devious. They didn't tell me everything." OK, so search committee nightmare stories are a staple of pastor's conferences and casual meetings. Please, don't have a steady diet of this stuff. It's counterproductive, unhealthy, and harmful.

God is good. Jesus is wonderful. Serving him as pastor or staff in an SBC is a blessing. God bless you in your search.

Monday, August 4, 2014

No invitation? No problem.

The church I have been attending lately does not give a traditional invitation. More accurately, they do not issue any altar call for congregants to come forward at the close of the service to acknowledge or indicate a desire to make some spiritual decision.'s that working for the church?

Evidently, it's working well. The church is baptizing folks often and is a leader in the association in such things. To be clear about this, the church has a method by which individuals can indicate a decision. Each Sunday the pastor directs people to a card in the bulletin that is used for this purpose. Nothing new about that. We might oxymoronically label it a "new tradition."

My Traditionalist friends tout the altar call as Biblical and traditional in SBC churches. I will not argue but would caution them not to declaim that a church cannot be Biblical yet never use one in a service.

About one quarter of SBC churches baptized no one in the last reported year. That would be about 12,000 congregations. Let's assume that they all met every single Sunday of the year, had a single service each week, and always issued an altar call. That means that for 624,000 services no one responded for baptism (there are other assumptions here, I realize).

On the one hand no one is harmed by so many responseless worship services but on the other hand it is discouraging and depressing to a pastor to rely on the same routine with predictable non-results.

Here's my hacker and plodder question: If one preaches to pretty much the same crowd week after week, and that's describes most SBC congregations, how much sense does it make to issue an altar call for salvation each and every service? I suppose it makes plenty of sense if that is all the congregation has ever experienced and they would be critical if a new pastor proposed dropping it in favor of other methods of response.

BU, if we are attempting to reach a crowd that is not familiar with this routine (and it is a routine, sometimes a mindless routine) must we convey to them the expectation that if they wish to join us then they are to first learn our routines and traditions?

Sounds like an unnecessary step to me.

I've heard some pastors be quite insistent about how every service...every preaching service, every cantata, every cute kid service, every Uncle Sam-centered patriotic service, every syrupy-sentimental Mother's Day service...must end with an invitation to be saved. It's unbecoming to criticize such. After all, who wants to be seen as not wanting people to be saved? Not me, brethren.

But it looks to me like a methodology that is flawed in many cases. Is it proper to append a salvation invitation to a service that has nothing to do with the Gospel? Do we presume the understanding of the Gospel and go forward from there? Do we acknowledge the lack of explanation of the Gospel and modify our altar call accordingly?

Of course, we've long since made adjustments to the reality that in a given worship service there will be no salvation decisions. We just add a panoply of other options to be sure someone feels like they can come forward for some vague reason...and we all feel better about the service. Some pastors and especially evangelists are experts at this.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An irreverent look at our pastor search process, Part 1

I had a guy in one of my churches who was a sausage maker and I made a pastoral visit to him while he was hard at work. There they sat, pans and pans of blood, guts, and porcine body parts I had never seen and didn't recognize. I don't recall eating his sausage. I'll have the sausage in the nice, tidy package, thank you.

Our SBC pastor/staff search process is like making sausage. It's often ugly, some would say inherently ugly. While I could live without eating my member's sausage, most pastors and staff cannot stay in the pastoral ministry without participating in a pastor search process that involves a group of people from a church looking for a pastor.

I will admit that my experience is more limited here than many of my colleagues. I served only three churches as pastor and those for longer than normal tenure, an average of about ten years each. Nonetheless, I offer an irreverent look at our process with the understanding that some of my brethren may supplement or correct my conclusions and recommendations.

Hey Einstein, you have to deal with the process we have, not the one you wish we had.

Most of the roughly 47,000 SBC churches are single staff with attendance averaging around 100 in worship each Lord's Day. This means that most who pastor or aspire to pastor these churches will spend their career in average-sized, single staff churches, ones where they relate personally to every member. Those churches will likely have traditions and processes that preceded the pastor and that will succeed him as well and the pastor search system that they use is the most important of these.

Seems that many of my colleagues think that a church establishing a committee to interview pastor candidates and bring one to the church for a vote is not just unwieldy and messy but also unbiblical.
I'll agree with two-thirds of that but would argue that there is no "biblical" search process specified in Scripture.

I met with a search committee once and was informed that they had decided to require a 90% affirmative vote on a pastor candidate. Then one guy on the committee said that they decided to add one additional percent for God the Father, one for God the Son, and one for God the Holy Spirit, making a total of 93% required to call a pastor. I appreciated the affirmation of the Trinity but thought this line of reasoning was bizarre and wondered what other odd stuff I would find. If I had gone for a vote at the church, three or four votes could have deep-sixed my chances and undone all the committee's work.

It doesn't matter if you think churches have ecclesiology all wrong. It doesn't matter if you think the process is unbiblical. You could approach every search committee by informing them that they are unbiblical and see how far that gets you. You might also be prepared to never land a pastor position and to make plans to do your preaching, gratis, on any street corner to random pedestrians.

I feel your pain about the process but suggest that you spend all the time you wish deploring it but then spend double, triple the time acquiring the knowledge and skills to help you navigate the process we have. The former will profit you little; the latter will prove invaluable.

If you're desperate, you're toast.

You say you have bills, student loans, car payments, and a family and desperately need to land a church staff position? Why not just announce to a church committee that you've got to get some paychecks coming, and soon, so could they step on it and take your word for it that you would be a super pastor?

Money screws up everything in church life but probably does more harm to pastors or prospective pastors who have put themselves in a position of having to move, having to get a church, having to get on someone's payroll. Desperate people think they hear God's voice where there is silence and make terrible decisions. When you are desperate in this way, it is understandable that you drop kick reason, prayer, wisdom and discernment into the stratosphere and hunger and thirst after anything that will remedy your present situation.

What if you had a life skill, trade, or vocation that gave you the option of having some income independent of church income? Your congregation can fire you any time they wish. Most will be gracious, patient, kind, and considerate of your financial needs and that of your family but some will sadistically fire you regardless of the consequences to you or your family. It is a very uncomfortable position in which to be where your income as a pastor is all that stands between you and abject poverty.

You aren't helpless. There are more alternative income streams available to ministers now than ever. Some write, some easily find substitute teaching jobs, some have online businesses, some take second jobs. If you are in a desperate situation, have a plan that involves working for a living until the Lord opens the right doors.

Of course, some of the brethren have a plan that consists entirely of asking other people to give them money and some are quite successful at this. I'd bet buckets of fried chicken that any SBC minister who has been in vocational ministry for any length of time could name several colleagues who are known to fish for money from family and friends. I suggest that it is more honorable to earn your own way and not beg. Just because you are ordained it doesn't mean that others are obligated to pay your bills. Put the financial fishing tackle away and let God handle it. You go to work.

You're not Miss America, so don't enter any beauty contests

It's not surprising that some of the thousands of SBC churches have a search process that involves a parade of preachers and the church picking the one they like the best. I don't run into this so much these days as I did earlier but if you find that a church follows such a practice, be kind but say, "No, thanks." You might win the contest but lose in the long run.

You don't have the 'right stuff' so don't act like a fighter ace.

The church that has contacted you has known problems. They've disclosed some of them and you've researched it enough to recognize that they have some hisory of being hard on a pastor and some difficult people; however, you, Red Baron, think that unlike previous pastors, you have the right stuff to handle all that and lead the church to glorious harmony and new heights. You think you are bulletproof. You, alone among the brethren, have just the right combination of irresistible personal charisma, rare pastoral skills, and overwhelming pulpit presence to be highly successful in this church.

Think again, my ministerial megalomaniacal friend. You are more likely to crash and burn. God will be with you but problem churches have ruined many a minister who ignored the signs, signals, and warnings.

Sure, some pastor is God's man for such a task but think long and hard, pray longer and harder, before you drag your wife and kids into such a situation. The best person for one problem church I knew about was a semi-retired, crusty, curmudgeonly pastor who had grown kids and a wife that didn't get too involved in church business. He carried around a letter of resignation in his pocket and was known to pull it out and wave it around when presented with some church nonsense. Come to think of it, I fit the profile these days - bah, humbug.

Keep pulpit committees out of your worship service.

The crack cocaine of the Southern Baptist ministry is having another church who finds you desirable, whose job is to convince you how great a pastor you would be in their church, what a good fit you would be, how riveting and compelling your sermons are...and how much more money you would make. That siren song is often represented by the search committee who shows up in your church and sits about two-thirds of the way back.

There they sit.You spot them. Synapses fire. Dopamine flows. You're high, brother.

It is probably better for all of those involved if the old committee visit system was retired. Maybe you could put up a sign, "No soliciting" or "Pastor Search Committees Go Away," on your sanctuary front door. Maybe not. Even if you are a pastor and are open to a church change, you can request churches not just show up unless you are very serious and pretty far along. While it is important to see and hear a prospective pastor in the environment of his normal Sunday worship service, I hear you can put your sermons online these days for anyone to listen, huh? It's simple to put video online and make that accessible as well.

If you have a few committees show up at your place your church thinks you are unhappy, they conclude that you have already checked out or are done with them. Maybe you are but you don't have to disrespect the only church God has given you to pastor. It's a delicate matter but some degree of openness with church leaders about a possible change is probably appropriate in most situations.

I'm a Georgia native and was serving in South Carolina a few years back. I had a wonderful, leather-lunged church member who was attuned to committees showing up to hear me preach. Once a committee, one that eventually called me, was present. True to form, they sat about two-thirds of the way back. Sure, everyone knew who they were and I had informed a few church leaders that they would be present, just not Deacon Bombast.

After the service, when about half of the congregation was still milling around the sanctuary he hollered, "Preacher! They are from Georgia, huh?"

I had to just laugh. It was just his personality. "Yeah, Claude. Georgia."

I guess he could have said, "Go Dawgs!" but that would have stirred up the Clemson and Carolina people.

There's no reason today for pulpit committees to just show up and probably no compelling reason for a formal committee visit to your worship service. Maybe you could provide all the committee needs and not go through this...unless you need to feed your addiction.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

You cannot afford to trust your church secretary

If you are the pastor or a church leader and your church secretary handles the church's money, makes deposits, pays bills, has some degree of control over invoices, payments, or church credit cards you cannot trust him or her. Better put, you should not act as if you trust him or her and would be foolish and negligent to do so.

Former church secretary indicted for theft.

This is a sad story on several levels. The lifelong member of an Alabama Baptist church who was the church secretary and who had control over the church's credit card is alleged to have stolen $129,000 from the church over the past 33 months. The amount of theft might be greater, since the statute of limitations on such crimes only goes back to 2011. Authorities are reported to have said that the fraudulent charges may go back another four years to 2007. From July 2011 through April 2014 the secretary made 2,200 transactions on the credit card many of which were determined to be fraudulent. That number of transactions is about three every single working day. The secretary, a mother, grandmother, and widow apparently used the card to pay her personal bills - utilities, gas, travel, etc.

There's no mystery about trusted people stealing - happens all the time. If the opportunity is present Christians who are otherwise perfectly respectable followers of Christ, beloved friends and family, valuable church members and servants of the Lord will shamelessly steal from the church. Apparently, the woman had absolutely no accountability for the credit card. The pastor, deacons, finance committee all of whom are to be held secondarily responsible for the loss, failed the church by not having sufficient financial controls in place. The woman merely shifted around some budget figures to cover herself but every credit card transaction has a record and appears on some statement. Evidently, no one checked the statement, ever, to verify the transactions were for church business. A handful of questionable transactions might be buried in a statement that wasn't checked too closely, but thousands? Utter failure on the part of church leadership.

To its credit, the pastor and leaders of the church decided to press charges. The woman was stealing from every church member who worked hard to earn money part of which they gave to the Lord's work through the church. Whatever sympathy one might have for the alleged thief should be tempered with the sober thought that hardly a day passed when she didn't deliberately steal from her friends, family, and neighbors.

Most SBC churches probably do not have a business credit card for the church. Those that do should have regular audits no matter how trusted the church financial secretary is or how long they have been around. A sensible financial secretary would insist on regular audits of some sort. This isn't brain surgery.

Money is important. There are around 46,000 SBC churches which handle tens of billions of contributions. In the great majority of these churches employ only one clergy staff, the pastor. It is his job to see to it that there are sufficient and proper money handling policies and procedures. The church involved in this case, depressingly similar to many others, was a large, multiple staff church. It is shocking that such a church failed to have control over its finances.

There are this very Lord's Day probably dozens if not hundreds of SBC churches where some trusted individual is stealing from the church. This sort of thing is so common I don't even look to blog about a case of such theft unless it gets into six figures.

Hey you, Spurgeon! You might spend less time preaching on stealing from God, the standard approach to preaching on tithing, and more time ensuring that proper financial controls are in place. It's your responsibility.

Need more?

Woman steals $130,000 from Baptist association (Nice round figure, $130,000, and in Alabama also.)