Visit our new site at

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Requesting a Reference from the Senior Pastor

Today's question is a tricky one:

OK, this is a slightly ticklish situation, but I think others may have this problem...

I need a reference from my former boss The Senior Pastor. Problem is, when I resigned to finish my M.Div., SP told everyone I was "on leave to finish school." I am NOT on leave. I ainta goin back!!! No way! No how! I got my dignity and my pride and my sense of call back, and I know that God has other plans for me!

Every potential employer will wonder why I don't list SP. Some may even know SP. I know I need to have some kind of "gently censored" story on why SP isn't listed... but where do I go for a reference when I need a "denominational supervisor"?? They asked for seminary profs too, so I can't use them instead of SP.

I know SP would see this request for a reference as abandonment. (Did I mention SP has control issues?) My permanently leaving also makes SP look less than truthful. Can I go behind SP's back and ask another staff member, a peer, to do the reference? I can't go over SP's head because they are all chums, if you KWIM.


St. Casserole writes:

Dear Moving On,
Nothing will be gained now or for your future in ministry by playing with the truth. We want pastors who tell the truth, behave genuinely and who don't play games.
If you need to ask the former SP for a reference, ask him. Make clear what you want. It sounds to me as if he had a problem with your leaving and so used the excuse "on leave" to explain why you left. Perhaps he has a history of bad relationships with staff and was covering his trail or people were disappointed you left and he was reassuring them you would return. Whatever is going on, people understand people moving on to new jobs. We don't stay in one place in ministry forever.
I beg you not to begin a pattern of untruthfulness or caginess as you move into ministry. Won't do you any good and will harm you eventually. When I say this, I'm encouraging you to tell the truth and have good boundaries at the same time. For example, your work with SP at that Church may or may not have ended well. Don't bore people who interview you with details of how awfully you were treated. Instead, talk about what you did and what you learned. If asked about staff relationships, answer positively without going into details about how the Devil and the SP are first cousins.
How can I advise you to speak positively about SP when I've told you to tell the truth? Complaining about other staff gets you nowhere. You will appear like a difficult to please victim which will not enthuse the committee interviewing you. If you are a real victim, law enforcement must be notified.
One thing more, the SP may or may not have the power and authority in your religious community that you think he has. Newer clergy often overestimate what SP or denominational bigwigs can do to or for them. If the SP is a stinker, people know this. Your refusal to trash talk about him will earn you respect.
Best wishes to you and let us know how it goes.

Jennifer offers:
It sounds as though you do not wish to list the SP as a reference. Ideally, you’d want to have a conversation with the SP that sets the record straight about your resignation and clears the air, so that you don’t have to play any games now or every again. Is that possible? Is it possible to have that conversation with a mutually respected third party present, who can hear both of you and help create a conversation that will be healthy and helpful? That’s my suggestion, rather than trying to leave the SP out of the loop entirely.

And mompriest counsels:

Oh my...this is such a challenge. I do not think it is a good idea to go behind the back of Senior Pastor and ask another member of the staff. That will put the staff person in an awkward position and compromise you too (think, Triangulation). I think the only solution is, the difficult one, which nonetheless maintains your integrity - speak with Senior Pastor and share your desire to look for other employment. Be grateful for your time there but certain that its time for you move on to other challenges. It's difficult to feel resentment toward someone who is grateful and appreciative. After that conversation then you can use Senior Pastor AND someone else on staff so there is a balanced reference. Perhaps you will have an opportunity to tell the potential employer that Senior Pastor doesn't want you to leave so they have a context for what ever Sr. Pastor says.


The matriarchs have offered some good advice for this tricky situation. What about the rest of you? What thoughts and/or experiences do you have that might help our colleague out? Please share your comments!

And as always, we would love to receive your questions at .

- earthchick


  1. I would recommend a middle ground. First, ask SP for a reference. You're right. It will look odd if you do not include him. Have a heart to heart. Remind him why you left (finish MDiv) and tell him what you're looking for in your next job. Play to his ego, and tell him how much a reference from him would mean to your job search. Tell him how the work in seminary has made you more deeply aware of your sense of call which is to X. How the time at his church was important, but you're called in a new way now. You'd have to be a total slug to try to say that your will is more important than God's.

    BUT, there is nothing wrong with listing an additional reference who is another member of the staff. If SP gives you a less than glowing reference, it can be tempered with a positive one from a colleague. This will show that yes, you maybe had some conflicts with SP, but you did have other positive relationships on staff, too.

  2. I totally agree with what sko3 says.

    I left my previous position with a less than ideal relationship with my boss, the rector. I had my clergy mentor as my primary clergy reference, but I listed my boss as well, because it would've raised unnecessary flags not to.

    And I made it a point never to say anything negative about my boss or my position in interviews (or since I started my new position). Nothing to be gained and lots to lose.

    Good luck finding your next position.

  3. I also agree with sko3, and having been a fair way down that road myself, I'll also add that you may find that SP said you were "on leave" to save face--not be queried about driving you out etc.etc.--and may not have any problem at all with letting go of you once over that hurdle. Just be honest that you need to explore all options, and express gratitude for what you've learned (even if what you've learned is how you do not want to be treated in the future). And, do go the another reference route using another staff member or a lay leader as a corrective. One day you'll look back on this as an important learning experience too!

  4. What ever you do, do not do this:

    True story.

    We were having a 'preliminary' discussion with possible pastoral candidate. I asked about his internship, noting that he didn't list his internship pastor, but some one else on staff.

    "Oh, he was a a*h*l." Direct quote. You could have picked my jaw up off the floor. Needless to say, he didn't get our job.

    Watch out for TMI.

    Talk to SP to clarify that you aren't returning. Some time must have passed, which is always enough time for the Holy Spirit to speak to you about your vocation.

    Thank him and the church for what you've learned (and especially if you've received any financial aid - we have another story about a seminarian who appeared at Trust fund w/o a single gracious word, only 'where's the money for next year?' not impressive.)

    Ask for the reference. This is the beginning of creating your network, which is an important thing to do well.

  5. thank you so much... I ended up listing SP as a reference, but also listed another staff member too. Simply put, he tries to sabotage anyone who dares to leave on their own terms. Staff end up moving out of state to find jobs. Other ex-staff warned me, and sadly, I'm the third in a string of five (yes, 2 left after me) but the problem is I'm still local. The boys up the denominational foodchain like him because he makes them look good.

    I have practiced some carefully edited statements on what I have learned and what opportunities and experienced I gained. I will indeed accentuate the positive.

    thank you all sooooo much.

    Moving on...

  6. Oh... forgot to mention...

    Tithing and giving are way down and SP has lost street cred with long timers because of the recent staff turnover. It's a case where I don't play the game, (i.e. lie like a rug), but I also need to be aware of the blame game this guy plays. I sat in enough staff meetings and public forums where he bashed former leaders...

    My spouse says SP is a conniving SOB and doesn't trust him. It takes a lot to get "Mr. Mellow" that mad, and we've been married many, MANY years...

    I'm just trying to walk in integrity and not be sabotaged. He really is "that bad."


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.