Five years ago, I was engaged in a process that would eventually lead me to accept a position as the Lead Pastor of a small church in Northern Michigan. I was following after a long-tenured pastor of thirty-three years, who was well-loved in our community, and who defined the idea of “the pastor” to most of our long-time parishioners.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Five years later, our church is a very different group of people, who occupy a very different church culture.
We’ve moved from a culture of comfort and predictability for Insiders, to a culture of invitation to Outsides, and change - by way of invitational transformation with God - for Insiders.
This has been one of the more painful experiences of my life. Second guessing myself constantly, not knowing if I have what it takes to lead this church, taking in the persistent disappointment of many of the people who call our church home, and not being nearly as successful in helping our church do the things we’ve set out to do that I hoped we would do just a few short years ago.
As I’ve waded through my own self-doubt, fear, insecurity, navel-gazing, ego bruising, and failures, I’ve come to develop a set of ideas that can amount to an approach for my past self, the church that hired me, and perhaps for your church or organization, as you move into a season of transition within your highest leadership position.
So, you want to hire a pastor?
Your church is looking for someone to help lead you to the preferred future God has for you?
You’re sensing change is on the horizon for your church, but you’re not sure what it will look like?
You’re trying to hear from God, but you’re not sure if you’re listening to the indigestion that burrito is giving you, or the Holy Spirit?
Here’s my singular thought to guide you through this weighty process:
Pastoral transitions provide the opportunity for you, and your entire congregation, to prioritize your own spiritual transformation over and above simply accomplishing a task.
Most search committees in the church world have an idea of what they want to see in their next pastor. Often, in the small church world, this is either a) young blood with new energy that will help us connect with younger people, or b) middle-age person who will love us, be a good chaplain, and maintain the status quo. Both of these are honest places to be, and express some measure of desire on the part of the church (hopefully), but both mostly miss the larger opportunity that a pastoral transition presents to the local body.
The boarder thing going on in the life of a church at the point where a pastor is leaving, and a church is discerning what will come next, is an opportunity for those within the church to create an environment to pursue their own spiritual transformation. This is not often the theme that moves things forward, but this is the deeper context that is available to the discerning team of people who are willing to pay attention through a pastoral transition.
When this opportunity is missed, it can have detrimental effects to the life of the church. Tod Bolsinger, in his brilliant book titled “Canoeing The Mountains” talks about this in terms of differentiating a Manager from a Leader. Bolsinger says:
“Leadership isn’t so much skillfully helping a group accomplish what they want to do (that is management). Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going. Leadership, as I have defined it, is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world. It’s about challenging, encouraging and equipping people to be transformed more and more into the kind of community that God can use to accomplish his plans in a particular locale. And often the very people who called us to lead them are disappointed when we [actually] do.”
In my experience, most church folks don’t want a pastoral leader. Most church folks want a pastoral manager. Someone who will love them, bless what they are already doing, have a good laugh with them, and a good cry when appropriate too. But most church folks don’t want to be challenged on their beliefs, or the way in which their church is not engaging the broader community with the love and hope of Jesus. That just feels crappy. It’s inherently vulnerable, and it exposes the self-deception that our church cultures have meticulously crafted, at times over several decades.
And, since many pastors simply want to be liked for who they are and what they do, it’s not surprising that many church cultures become theologically inbred with the very imagination that will keep them stuck, and most likely continue moving them steadily toward significant decline in their ability to partner with God in bringing about God’s Kingdom to earth, just as it is in heaven.
What we need then is a renewed vision and imagination for what pastoral leadership actually is. A pastoral leader is one who will love those they lead (and those they lead will trust this at the end of the day, although this takes time), but simultaneously recognizes that often love doesn’t feel good in the present moment. Often, a loving invitation to be all that God is inviting us to be and become - well, it’s painful.
For example, I began seeing a nutritionist a couple years ago, to work on my health, to address my weight, and to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between the food I consume and the way my body functions. My nutritionist follows my lead when it comes to my goals, my priorities, my symptoms, and how to address getting healthier. She never shames me. She listens, and encourages me to take specific actions. But she always invites me into deeper transformation when it comes to my physical health. She doesn’t simply bless my unhealthy choices as being neutral, nor does she shame me for choosing things that hurt my health. She listens, she encourages, she works with me to create a plan to address my symptoms, and she celebrates with me every time I’m ready to take an additional step toward my own health and wholeness. She doesn’t love what I’m currently doing, but she does encourage the steps I’m taking to become a more healthy person. Sometimes, she calls me on my BS, and tells me that my choices are really hurting my health.
To put it shortly, she pastors me well.
To live as a pastor in a community is to constantly live in the tension of loving those that you serve, while also desiring for them to make the changes to their life that will help them pursue their own spiritual transformation. It’s a constant tight-rope walking of encouraging those who remain where they are, while celebrating with those who can see their own darkness, and want a way out.
This is not work for the faint of heart. It takes a particular measure of patience to go at the speed of those you are serving. It takes a particular measure of hope to move through your own disappointment of not seeing people step into the future God has for them, but knowing they could begin that journey at any moment. It takes a particular measure of humility, knowing that you are only the seed planter, who cares for the soil you’ve been given to care for, and that God is responsible for producing any fruit that may come.
At the end of the day, faithful pastoral ministry is knowing one’s proper place in the world, and one’s church, and accepting that most of the spiritual transformation that may take place in your culture is entirely out of your control.
It’s both freeing, and maddening.
So, you want to hire a pastor? Here’s a few questions to help you begin the process:
What type of pastor do you want?
Why do you want that type of pastor?
What are your hopes for the next 2-3 years for your church ministry?
What spiritual practices are you cultivating, as a church leadership team, to help you discern and do the will of God?
Do you want a pastoral manager - someone who will largely maintain the status quo by running the church mostly like the previous pastor - or, are you willing and courageous enough to look for a pastoral leader - one who has the resilience to lead you to where you don’t want to go, but where you likely need to go, as a community?
As someone who is living through a pastoral transition - and who has made a lot of mistakes, I’m here to help you and your team through this process. Reach out if you’d like to talk about partnering with me down this road of preparing well for a pastoral transition.
I pray that you’re are willing and able to choose today to pursue your own spiritual transformation, and that of your community, for the life of the world that God loves, and has given to us to steward well.