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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — The Better Part of Valor

Two questions in the pipeline this week on nearly the same topic: You might be discerning (or at least open to) a new call, but you don’t want to pursue it in such a way that it alarms your congregation. Question one: How do you ask for references without making it sound like you have one foot out the door? Question two: If a search committee is paying you a visit, how do you handle it without letting everyone in on the fact that you’re under consideration?

Reference or Reality Check writes:
I'm not about to leave my current church--at least I don't think I am, but I'm wondering: when the time comes, how does one go about getting references from within the church where one is pastor without needlessly alarming people?

The first time I had to do this, the types of people to ask were a no-brainer. I was in seminary, so our placement office advised asking somebody who knows me in an academic setting, somebody from my home Presbytery, somebody from my home church, somebody on my care committee, somebody from internship, etc. I even had one person from another faith (Jewish). I'm just not sure where to start this time! What makes a good mix of references in a subsequent call?

Jan says:
This is tricky because sometimes even the trustworthiest church friends find themselves a tad shaken when they think their pastor might be leaving. They might pull away,accidentally-on-purpose let the proverbial cat out of that bag, etc. You could consider a person or family that recently left the church under good conditions—for instance, someone who moved out of the area.

If that’s not possible, you can let the committee know that you hesitate to share a current parishioner's name with them until it becomes clear that this might really be a match. In the meantime, maybe there are others who can attest to your skills and gifts who are not parishioners (people from other congregations with whom you serve on committees, other local pastors, judicatory leaders, etc.) Way to think ahead.

St. Casserole says:
When the time comes, ask the church member who knows you well and is discreet. Asking Presbytery staff along with a person in the community who knows your service work is good, too.

The Personal Information Form (PIF) guidelines may offer suggestions for references, too. Often search committees place phone calls to references, so find out if your reference can receive non-business calls at work and when is a good time for them to be called. It will help you if your references are personable on the phone and adore you.

Not Yelling Fire in a Crowded Theater writes:
I anticipate having members of one or more search committees come to the parish I currently serve. While I had search committees come when I was serving as an assistant, I've never had them come while I am the rector and only priest. Only a few key people in the parish know that they are coming.

To keep the anxiety of the parish low, I am not planning to tell the rest. Is that a good idea? And, how does one best organize the day to welcome the search committee, maintain confidentiality of the process (assuming I don't tell the whole parish), and act normal when there is an "audition" under way? Any thoughts or experience with this will be appreciated. Thanks!

Karen writes:
How big is your congregation? In smaller churches, there is almost no way for a visiting search committee to be inconspicuous. In the end, there's not much you can do to prevent some folks from figuring out what is going on. But you can work with the search committee to prevent “major leaks,” so to speak.

Some things that you’ll want to consider:
  • Ask them not to sit all together. Six or seven visitors walking in en masse and sitting together is a dead giveaway for anyone paying even a little bit of attention.
  • Ask them in advance if they have an idea of how they will introduce themselves if one of your members approaches them, because, hey—you've been training your people to be open and hospitable to visitors, right?
  • Are they from far away, or from near enough that some of your folks might know and recognize them. (Hey! That's my brother-in-law's boss from Nearbysville! What the heck is he doing here?)
  • Will they be going out for lunch afterwards to discuss their search? If might be better if they don't go to the same restaurant that half your congregation is in the habit of frequenting for Sunday brunch.
  • (This one from Jan): Encourage them to split up, because five strangers sitting together would definitely be noticed, especially if it’s a small congregation.

Blogger Bleahs
We among the matriarchs are having a grand ol’ time figuring out this Blogger conversion thing, so bear with us when it delays our posts. I just discovered that many of you commented to a post I made in the Lounge at the beginning of January, so I just wanted to send belated thanks, and note briefly that the reason I’ve been so quiet over there is that I decided to look into that opportunity. We’ve codenamed it Operation Hogwarts.

We got some great questions last week but we could use a few more, particularly with regard to your problem parishioners and balancing your personal life (Dating? Marriage? Kids?). So send those along to our wise ones (as you’re so fond of calling them—aren’t they AWESOME?) at All queries are kept confidential.


  1. I was in a search once where I had to use a parishioner for a reference. Luckily, and thankfully, the one I chose was so discrete he didn't even tell his wife. It is tricky to have members of the congregation be a reference for you. On the one hand search committees really want to know how the existing congregation experiences the pastor, priest, minister. On the other, it always raises some anxiety.

    Good points about the search committee site visit too...

  2. In our denomination (ELCA), we're expected to keep our "mobility forms" current, even if we're not looking for a call. In other words, we need to review them every year or so, and that includes listing references. I have asked some parishoners to serve as references and told them that it is simply part of keeping my paperwork current (which is true). Whenever I am ready to leave, I will need to let them know that they might be getting a phone call. But for now, I can use the "oh, that synod paperwork is just a mandatory thing" excuse.

  3. Great that you advised suggesting that the visiting team do not sit all together and discuss in the local diner :)

    What really hit home to me was that as the one under investigation it IS ok to ask the team some very direct questions (e.g. how they will answer if asked who they are and why they are visiting the church)

    maybe things are done a bit differently in Europe but I wouldn't even have thought to ask !!!

  4. I've been through this recently. The UCC ministerial profile includes 7-8 written references and 3 names given as phone references. I wish we were required to keep these up-to-date, because that would lessen the anxiety of asking for them when you want them.
    I used 3 church members, three colleagues, and one layperson/friend who has known me in other settings but also ran a program at my church, so we've had a variety of interactions. One church member I asked was clearly upset, and never sent the reference in, which was odd. Another was fine with it until I told her there might be a phone call; then she became upset. Even a person who sees that the time is right for moving on may begin to take it "personally" when it's really going to happen.
    I've been both the visitor and the visited, and it really depends on the setting how you might want to handle things. In a larger church, the chances are no one will even ask! But if you are the solo pastor in a smaller church, anxiety can arise simply from a phone call asking for directions to get there. When two couples from my Interim church showed up at Small Church two weeks in a row, the first couple drew little notice, but the second raised eyebrows. They just looked different enough from our people to be a curiosity.
    Last advice: don't invite them to sign the guest book!
    Don't your denominations use a neutral pulpit? And if so, how do you arrange for it?

  5. Our denomination uses a neutral pulpit. The Prebytery on the calling end arranges it, but the job left up to the pastor is to figure out a good enough story for why she is gone from her own church that Sunday.

    I'm hoping that when this becomes an issue for me, my Parish Associate is still around and willing to step in for me on short notice. I feel as if I could be honest with him about it, and that he would keep his mouth shut.


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