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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - From Church Member to Pastor

This week's question is bound to have responses that vary depending on denomination. While some traditions have firm guidelines against ministers seeking the pastorate of congregations in which they are currently members, other traditions are much freer. If you come from a tradition that is open to this possibility, have you seen it done successfully? If so, what advice would you have for our colleague? Here is her question:

I currently am not a pastor, though I have been in the past. I am involved in my church and currently serve as board chair and my pastor is retiring next summer. With the support of my husband, I have recently realized that God is guiding me to apply to be the next pastor. I have told the executive committee (chairs of all committees) and we are discussing how to be ethical in all of this – most likely resulting in stepping down from the board asap.

But frankly, all of this is really scary. Does any one have advice on how to go from a church member to pastor? Not to mention, what happens if the congregation, these people who care mightly for my family now, reject me? When I used to do church interviews it was okay if they rejected me because I a) didn’t know them and 2) could justify it wasn’t a fit, but this time might not be so easy. Help! God is speaking but I am scared!

Jennifer responds:
I think it’s important to give those scary voices some due, but to balance them with the sense of call that you’re feeling.

I don’t know how your congregation/denomination conducts a search, nor the size of the congregation, but if there is a higher governing body involved, I’d certainly check in with them to discover if they have any concerns or any conflict of interest policies you may need to know about.

Back at home, I think it might make sense for you to share discreetly, but not broadly, your reasons for stepping down from your currently leadership role. Others really don’t need to know, which might keep the conversation/gossip to a minimum. I’d also suggesting finding someone to reflect with, whether it’s a spiritual director or a trusted mentor, during this process. It’s complicated and woven with family ties and member/pastor differences.

I have a family member who served his “home church”, although 20 years had passed before returning to serve the church as a pastor. There were still folks who remembered him as a young person, but only some. His service there was not without its interesting boundary issues, but he and the church navigated them quite well. If you end up being called to be the next pastor of the church, I’d strongly suggest inviting a consultant to help the congregation to think about appropriate boundaries with a pastor who has served in another role with them. Do invite someone else, and heed their advice. It’s a much more professional thing to have others help you and the congregation with learning new roles.

One of our Episcopalian matriarchs has this to say:
This way of calling a pastor is not part of my tradition and is not part of my experience. In my own tradition (Episcopal), small parishes have a process for raising up a person from the congregation but it takes many years with the parish being a part of the formation of the person they have called. The established wisdom in my church says it is not the best thing to try to serve in a parish where you have been a member.
You already understand that the process of calling a pastor is one which is delicate. And your participation in the congregation’s decision making body really compromises your situation. But God’s call can make all things new, if it is what the congregation wants too. The important thing is that you try to keep your own feelings out of this as much as you can.

I would suggest this: Talk to the chair of your board. Present him/her with what you have been getting from your prayer. Offer to resign from the board if that is necessary. Be as frank and transparent as you possibly can be about your gifts and talents. Then let HIM/HER take it to the board, rather than you. The board will tell you if you need to resign or whether they are ready for you to put your hat into the ring. Allow them to talk this over by leaving the meeting so that they can discuss it freely.
The important thing is for you is to offer why you believe this is a call from God. The board and eventually the congregation will be able to confirm that call or help discern the Holy Spirit. But the most important thing for you to do is to recognize that IF they reject that call, they are not rejecting YOU or your family. They are discerning a CALL. Give them the permission to reject you as pastor but not as a person. This is crucial if you are going to stay in the parish—and it sounds that you want to do that.

And Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's coming, offers this:
As a pastor in a Reformed church, I am big on talk about call – and use the language of seeking a call from God through a congregation – but I recognise that when you put yourself “up” for a job it is intensely scary and can be hard to discern the call and to trust the church to seek discernment rather than play power games.

I hope my experience of “getting” the job I’m now in might help. On paper this did not look like a dream job but it was in the geographical area that I was looking for. So I approached the call process as an exercise in consultancy – it was my job to help the church to discern whether they should call this minister I knew so well - me! I found this released me from feeling over-anxious about “getting the job” and instead helped me to focus on what God was wanting for me and for them. The good news is that I received a unanimous call from the four congregations – the even better news is that having been here for three years now I can honestly say I feel I am exactly where God wants me to be.

I hope you can take the risk and feel yourself as securely held by God’s love in the process and as lead into the right place – whether it is where you are now or another place.
God be with you.


Great thoughts from a variety of perspectives here. What wisdom might the rest of you have to offer our friend? Please share in the comments section. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to address, please email is to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.



  1. It's really important to be clear about your denomination's polity in a situation like this. In mine, we would consider this situation a field of red flags, almost a palace coup. I realize those sound like hard words when the questioner has described feeling called by God in this direction. But I would waste no time speaking to the appropriate people at the judicatory level, long before I made any changes of my role in the local church or discussed my sense of call with anyone in that body. There are so many pieces to consider here. Get the help of someone (Bishop, Presbytery Exec, COM chair, Conference Minister, I assume not a D.S. since that tradition has very different placement) who is experienced in the complexities of Search and Call in your particular tradition. You may be feeling a resurgence of your call to active ministry because there is an opening arising in your local church, but it's important to consider that God works through the polity of your denomination, too. There's a reason we have rules. I'm UCC, and we are not exactly the champions of order, but we do have understandings about who can be considered for a job, and they have been developed through hard experience about what does not work well.

  2. I come from a tradition where this situation wouldn't apply. The closest thing I've seen is a seminary intern who ends up being called as pastor by the same congregation where he/she served as intern. And, honestly, I have never seen one of those situations work out well.

    I think people generally have a very hard time making the transition to seeing someone as their pastor when they have known them in another context. Personally, I don't think the idea presented in the question is very wise. But I may be overly influenced by the fact that my denomination frowns on this kind of thing.

    God's peace to you in your decision-making.

  3. Remember that even Jesus wasn't accepted kindly in his home town.
    Matthew 13:57b ...But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor."
    Be careful and pray, pray, pray!

  4. I had a somewhat similar situation: I was provided casual pulpit supply for a congregation seeking a pastor (with a CIF that included credentials I didn't have), and over the course of weeks that stretched into months, we all came to discern that I was the one called to that church.

    Overall, I think you're right to find it scary. The congregation cannot simultaneously seek the best pastor for the job and protect its relationship with you. That's the very definition of a conflict of interest. You don't want anyone to be left with the belief that you weren't the best candidate, just the path of least resistance.

    To echo someone above, God can do whatever God wants, and we ought not to stand in the way. But we ought to stand firm until we're very, very sure that God really does intend to act outside of our well-developed polity.

  5. Thanks for the input, y'all. I'm fairly certain that our questioner is from a non-mainline tradition that has a far looser structure than my own (and mine is loose!), and I want to encourage her not to be discouraged by our responses. Just because many of us haven't seen this in our tradition doesn't mean that it can't be successfully done, and in a healthy way.

    My husband reminded me tonight that we do know a church, in our own tradition, that called a church member to serve as pastor. They are a year into this pastorate and it appears to be working all right. And of course there is plenty of precedent in many Black church traditions where the child (usually a son) of a long-term pastor eventually becomes the pastor, after having been reared in the church. Context shapes our expectations, and what may feel dangerous and/or unhealthy in one context might in fact be perfectly acceptable and/or expected in another.

    Songbird's suggestion is a good one. Is there someone in your denomination, experienced with Search and Call, who can help guide you and the congregation in this?

    Also, might you consider taking a little break from church involvement (for your family too) during the call process? It might help you and the congregation get some emotional distance before proceeding.

    Every call is a risk. You never know how it might turn out for you or for them. I wish you every grace as you continue to discern your calling, and as the congregation discerns theirs.

  6. Thanks for all your helpful consideration - I am the one with the question.

    I just returned from a church retreat working on the questions of what is next after our pastor's retirement. It was a wonderful time of reflection, that of course I took the time to listen instead of talk.

    I should say that it is acceptable to do this sort of thing in my tradition and attend a multi-cultural church that allows us/demands us to think of the backgrounds of all before deciding on a way - so yes, in someways we would be blazing a trail and yet following the ways of some traditions before us.

    I have talked to all those above me that I can - and they have asked me not to resign from anything (I am board chair) currently. As someone mentioned, it might create more gossip than anything else.

    My husband and I have talked about leaving for awhile, but if done before applying - that would most likely do more harm than good.

    Thanks for your advice about a spiritual director and continued reflection. I will continue both.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts.


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