Visit our new site at

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ask the Matriach - Can I Get a Reference Edition

The Pastoral Call Process in many of our denominations will generate questions your first or fifteenth time through it. Today, the question concerns the identification of persons who might serve as references.

Dear Matriarchs,
After four years in my first call, I'm beginning the process of discerning where God is calling me to serve next. As I prepare the documents to begin the search, my question is about how to handle references. Three colleagues are willing to be references. Will a search committee also be expecting to talk with one or two parishioners from the congregation I'm currently serving? If so, how does one handle that given the fact that - at least in my tradition - it is not customary for a pastor to alert her current congregation that she is searching for another call? There are one or two people whom I believe I can trust to be confidential; the difficulty there being that they also serve on the governing board, and I fear that asking them to keep this in confidence would be putting them in an uncomfortable position with the other elders with whom they are serving. There are potentially a couple of other people in the congregation whom I could ask; but knowing how the grapevine works in this small congregation, I'm worried about whether confidentiality will in fact be kept. Is it an option not to provide references from one's current call? A friend of mine served on a search committee, and when they asked the pastor they ended up calling for references from the current call, none were given because the pastor didn't want the current congregation to know about the search. My friend says that looking back, it was a mistake not to talk with anyone from the congregation.
I've thought this through from so many angles it seems as if there isn't a perfect solution. I'm grateful for any guidance and wisdom from the Matriarchs!

Our matriarchs offer you blessings on your search!

Mompriest, who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice speaks from experience:
Having done this a few is what I did: sent the search committee (or contact person) a cover letter with my resume. I stated that references would be supplied upon request. Only once did a committee want references early on - and for that occasion I did not use a contact from the parish.
Usually committees wanted references when I was a finalist. At that point I would approach one person from the parish who was previously on the vestry/board - but not currently serving on the vestry/board. It seemed to me that this was a good compromise and would eliminate any kind of anxiety on the current board/vestry. I sent the person a link to the church website, and my responses to the written essays asked of me by the search committee - not because I wanted to supply their answer - only to help them think through where the line of questioning might go. I also asked this person to not tell anyone, not even their spouse. In my case the person was capable and comfortable with this request. I do think it is important to have one person, preferrably one who has shared in leadership with you, who is available from the parish to speak about their knowledge of you from the "inside." Choosing someone with whom you have a good working relationship and trust is a given. Choosing someone who is unlikely to get anxious, but rather have a desire to support you, is great, if you have such a person.

Sue, who blogs at Inner Dorothy , comes at this from the perspective of serving on a search committee:
I've been on several search committees in the past several years, and I've never had a candidate offer a referral from a current congregation member, for exactly the reason that you mentioned - the search process is confidential. My experience of search committees is that they want a variety of views of the candidate. That may involve a few referrals from colleagues and one or two from people in the community who are not connected with your church at all.

My best character reference when I was called to my current charge was a friend who is entirely "un-churched" and knew me long before I ever entered ministry. I know that family is off limits, but perhaps you have a friend in town who might offer a referral if asked. If that doesn't work, how about a lay person from another denomination? Honestly, I think if you ask anyone in the congregation, trustworthy or otherwise, it will fly through the church like brush-fire. That sounds negative, I know, but I've been around long enough to believe that it's true!

You don't have to be a "matriarch" to have helpful advice. Please use the Comment function to offer your insights and suggestions to our sister entering the call process.


  1. I'm in the United Church of Christ, and we would never be able to offer references upon request. Our ministerial profiles will not be circulated until we have 7-8 written references, and the names and contact information of 3 phone references (who may or may not be the same). I think it's very difficult to come up with 8 references and not include members of your local church. My best suggestion for that is to tell the church member(s) that the Conference/Diocese/Presbytery, etc. recommends keeping profiles updated every so often, and you are doing that. It's bending the truth, yes, but so will it be if you go out to do a neutral pulpit or leave town for an interview without saying why.
    Phone references are becoming more and more important in the UCC because more than one Conference has outlined the process in such a way that phone references are checked even before a phone interview with the candidate takes place. You need people who can speak to what kind of pastor you are, and colleagues/friends/neighbors can't always do that.
    I would be concerned that offering NO references from your current call would be a red flag if it's typical in your denomination to include them. Have you checked with your denominational contact person? I would encourage you to do so.

  2. I wrestled with this earlier this year, when a church was given my name as a potential candidate by a friend of mine. I had my paperwork kinda sorta put together but was not actively searching.

    I really wrestled. In my tradition, references are required, right up front, as is a signature to the statement that references may be checked. I asked several trusted colleagues the same question you are asking. To a person, they all advised finding at least one trusted person in my congregation to be a reference, or having a darn good reason for not having one. One person suggested that if I don't have even one trusted colleague in my church, I may not be ready to move on, since my work here might not be finished. (Your mileage may vary on that philosophy.)

    I prayed about this for a long time, and in the end, was able to find one person who I thought had the maturity to not only be a solid reference, but to keep it to herself and not freak out. We even wrestled together with the question of whether she would tell her spouse, who is an anxious sort. In the end, it was her idea to not tell her spouse about it until there was some concrete reason to.

    By taking my time, and praying about it, I think The Spirit was able to help me choose wisely. I was able to say honestly to that person that I wasn't actively searching but was following the Spirit's lead in submitting this paperwork to this particular church.

    I wasn't called to that church, but that situation has opened up other possibilities, and now I have an reference from my congregation!

  3. I have been in active search mode for almost a year now (not that it gets disheartening to be in that mode for that long :( )and I have 3 trusted references from the congregation. THese are people currently and past on the BOard and one from the PErsonnel committee. THey are also people who I can trust to say nothing.

    Potentially, if I were not in my first charge I would use folks from a previous congregation. But since the last folks I served in ministry were at my internship site 9 years ago that seems a little odd....

  4. Hi,
    Long time lurker with a slightly different take. In my career I’ve been pastor and pastor’s spouse, currently I’m hospital chaplain and an elder serving on our Session/Council. A couple of years ago our pastor asked me to serve as a reference for him/her and I know he/she asked another elder with a history of elected public service to do the same.

    Both the other elder and myself felt honored to have been asked to be a part of our pastor’s discernment process and held the responsibility in sacred trust in the knowledge that, in the end, it would be the Spirit’s movement which would lead our pastor to the next phase of his/her journey in ministry. In a secular and more practical frame, both myself and the other elder understood that people need different things from their work at different points of their careers and if our pastor was exploring those possibilities we certainly understood.

    Our pastor is still with us and has decided to withdraw from active searching. He/she seems renewed, refocused and happier for the journey in discernment, we are blessed.

  5. I'm in the PC(USA) and kept my most recent search relatively secret from my congregation, and even my colleague, the senior pastor. I think the form asked for 4-5 references. Here's who I used:

    1. A pastor-friend who went to seminary with me and who was in a peer mentoring/support group funded by a Lilly grant, even though he lived several states away.

    2. An elder from another church in the presbytery who served with me on COM and also happened to be our congregation's liaison to COM.

    3. A retired pastor from our presbytery who worshiped in our congregation (probably the reference I considered the most valuable - knew my worship style, knew the search process, knew me personally, was able to coach me through the search process, too)

    4. A veteran minister-mentor from that mentoring/support group mentioned above.

    5. A friend/colleague on staff at the church, non-ordained, although, in this case she also happened to be a member of the church. She was, then, the only member who knew I was searching, but was someone I could trust COMPLETELY to keep this confidential.

    I would be cautious about using members/staff colleagues, but wouldn't rule them out altogether. You just have to know, and only you can know if anyone can, if this person can be trusted with the information you share. I like Cheesehead's take on the question for sure.

    A word of advice from my person experience in this last search, because you never know how small the denominational world is - - when you enter into a conversation with a congregation and maybe after the phone interview stage (maybe as part of your closing comments, maybe somewhere else if it seems more appropriate), it doesn't hurt to let the search committee know what they should probably already know - - Your search is confidential at this point in your current position. If they happen to know folks in your current church, could they please obtain permission before contacting anyone not on the reference list. Granted they should do that anyway, we all know that, but sometimes a little polite reminder doesn't hurt.

    A member of the search team in the call I ended up accepting had been a member of my last church like 20-30 years before, but still had good friends in the old church (in fact one of those friends served on my FIRST search committee). Anyway, even as a person STEEPED in our polity, he decided to call his old friend to "get the inside scoop." That friend did not know I was searching, and I am eternally thankful it was someone completely supportive of me, my ministry, and my needs. It could have been a disaster, but in this case it wasn't. Whew! Well-meaning people sometimes do stupid things!

  6. Oh yes, SheRev brings up an important point on secondary references: I assume any search committee will ask my primary references for secondary references, so I have had that conversation with each of my references already, and have "vetted" some names. They know to ask me before giving out any other names. I trust them to do that.

    My current slate of references includes

    Pastor who is a member of another presbytery but who has worked in my presbytery, and who was, ironically, the interim of the church where I was under care.

    A clergy colleague on the committee I moderate, also a member of my accountability/support group.

    Clergy pal who is the one who gets my name sent to other churches, and was my internship supervisor.

    The local Executive Presbyter. We work very closely together on Presbytery-level stuff.

    My mentor, who has known me since my "under care" days.

    Elder at my current church.

    My list is a little "clergy heavy", but is gender balanced, which may or may not be important but I did notice it.

  7. I was able to get around the question of the parishioner reference by asking someone who'd been a member of the church who had since moved away. Although she was still in contact with some members of the church I knew that her distance from the immediate situation would help keep things under wraps. This will not apply in all situations but it's something to think about.

    This doesn't answer the question per se, but a piece of advice I got from a fellow RevGal: particularly if you're making a leap to a position with a lot more responsibility, like from an associate to a head of staff at a big church, is to make sure the references include people who are currently serving in those kinds of positions, so they can share with the search committee why you have the experience and skills needed to do the job well.

    Good luck! It's all nerve-wracking, but it can be a fun process, too.

  8. I really appreciate today's topic because I was just asked to serve as a reference for a colleague. Thanks :-)

  9. Having served as a liaison between our governing body and numerous search committees, I would be very wary of someone who did NOT include a current parishioner as one of her references. That to me is a red flag saying there may be an undisclosed problem in that congregation, that the candidate may not play well with non-ministers, that the candidate may have difficulty establishing relationships of trust, etc., etc., etc. If there is absolutely no one in the current congregation a potential candidate can approach about this, then maybe there should be a little more reflection before the search begins. Dorontheos23's comments indicate how inviting a trusted member (or members) of your congregation can make this a more productive and enlightening experience - even if no future call develops. And I give a strong "amen" to the comments about secondary references!!

  10. Well, I guess I'm wrong again, huh? My first concern is always about boundaries and confidentiality and I'm discovering that my philosophy around that differs vastly from pretty much everyone but me and my therapist.

    Also, in the UCCan, things like the names of possible candidates for ministry and names of clergy who may or may not be seeking a new call are highly, highly confidential - unless (as in Gord's case) that particular clergy says otherwise.

    Just me on my little UCCan planet again....

  11. Sue, I don't think it is a matter of being right or wrong,just a difference in church culture, or denominational process.

    There is still a tradition of confidentiality in my denomination, but not total secrecy. More like sharing information on a "need to know" basis.

  12. I listed a pastor that I keep in touch with... in the area... who supervised me for a year. I listed a friend whose husband is a pastor and involved with the synod. I listed a teenager who is the son of a friend... who lives far away... but knows me.

    I don't list references from the congregation. I'm too private for that. If someone wants to check me out... then they can show up at worship like a visitor... and ask about me. If they get an awesome parishioner... great... if they get an alligator... that's OK too. Hopefully they are wise enough to ask more than one person... and if they aren't... we probably wouldn't hit it off anyway.

  13. I've always included one or two people from the congregation, folks I knew could keep a confidence and wouldn't freak out at the prospect of my possible departure. I do think it's important for a prospective congregation to hear from someone where I'm currently serving.

    A good friend of mine who is also a parish member is the director of a non-profit organization that does a lot of hiring. She has said that one of the first things she always looks at is who--specifically or by category--isn't included in the references. If she identifies a gap, she asks the candidate why that person or representative isn't on the list. I think that's a great approach, because it gives the candidate a chance to explain his or her reasoning, and it can be the starting point for some excellent discussion.

  14. In the Episcopal Church we fill out a "CDO Profile" that includes two refs (one clergy and one lay). For me, these were not people in my congregation. On my resume I put "references furnished upon request" and those refs would inculde some parishioners. Most search committees did not ask for refs until I was at least on a semi-short list or until they were ready to make a site visit. When they did make a site visit they always wanted to speak to parishioners whom I chose.

    Because I was the assistant and because people knew I was leaving I was not in such a sticky situation, but search committees and those they talked with were nonetheless aware of the need for discretion, and we discussed how much secrecy was necessary.

    As SB said, I think it might raise a red flag if no one in your current congregation were among your refs. Is there someone among your lay leadership you trust enough to confide in? In TEC I think it would be considered bad form not to let the Wardens know that you were searching, although I guess that depends on individual context.

  15. My comments are consistent with RDM's in particular. I am in search now. I am currently serving as an Interim. That does give me a certain amount of freedom, since my parishioners know my time with them is limited. That said, my references within the parish include laypersons for whom confidentiality is utterly ingrained - one is a psychotherapist, another a lawyer. I would suspect that if I were in a settled call, I would follow a similar path in finding in-house references. Having been on the layperson side of the search process, I wanted to hear a bit about how the priest operated in their present context by someone who used language with some care and precision.

    Another thought is that sometimes your lay leadership perceives you are looking even when it is not generally known in the parish...and if you get that kind of vibe from them, you may want to have a conversation with them.

    Just my .02...

  16. I think this all becomes more complicated if you are serving a congregation that is smaller and/or more blue-collar. In a large church, you simply have more people to consider asking to serve as a reference. And in a congregation with lots of professional people (even retired professional people), you stand a better chance of having parishioners who have (1) served as references for others and (2) understand the practice of maintaining confidentiality since it is more likely to be part of their own experience in job searches. Leaving my first call, which was in a church of just about 100 members, it was hard to know who to ask, but I ended up with four church members doing written references and one who served as a phone reference. Remember, I needed 7 or 8, and I had been warned that too many clergy or non-church members would look odd to search committees. If you have 100 church members, with an average Sunday attendance in the 50s or 60s, you are drawing from a small group.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.