This week's question concerns discernment of call and our openness about the process...
I'm an Associate Pastor and have been serving the same congregation (my first call) for just over five years. Some things have changed recently among the staff and the direction of the congregation, as well as some changes in my own understanding of ministry and my sense of call, and I'm just beginning to think about the possibility of being called somewhere else. I've sent an application to one other church, and I have a few others on my radar, but I'm not in all-out search mode yet (ie, I'm not using our denominational online-dating process yet, nor am I perusing the available positions every day...only once a week or so).
My question is about my responsibility as an Associate RE the secrecy of the search process. Is it better to continue doing my job here with no hint of my looking-around activities until something more serious comes up, and what qualifies as more serious--deciding to enter the matching process? an interview? a call? Or is it better to tell the head of staff now that I'm thinking of and looking at possibilities? I don't want people to think I'm leaving them (especially since that's not true right now!), or to act weird or prematurely decide I'm finished--I want to be able to control, as much as I can (which I know is not much), the leaving process when it's time for that. This is still really early. So--at what point do I need to come clean with the Head of Staff or with other staff? And then, if something changes again and I either don't get another call or my own call here is somehow reaffirmed, how would that work?
From Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart
Dear sister in ministry,
I think you’ve answered your own question…you’re in a process of discernment, you don’t want to act weird, and you don’t know where God may be leading you.
Perhaps you will feel reaffirmed in your own sense of call to where you’re currently serving. Perhaps you will sense you’re being called to something new.
I’m thinking that you may be part of the denominational call system with which I’m most familiar. In that case, I think discretion is the watchword, not because it’s a dating process (because it’s not; it’s a call process. I think the dating/relationship/marriage analogies don’t serve us well in the church and make many moments in professional church life unnecessarily muddy. But that’s another topic for another day.) Your calling is from God, but it’s also a professional relationship. In other words, I don’t believe that you’re “cheating” on your current partner by exploring if God is calling you elsewhere. You are discerning the work of the Spirit in your own life and for the congregation with which you serve.
And for any process, I think the following is good advice: Don’t list anyone as a reference without asking them to serve as a reference for you. Be clear with any search committee/PNC that you’re conducting a quiet search and that you have not informed your current staff/congregation that you’re searching. (Who knows—you may be their number one candidate, but you may not be the successful candidate in a particular search.) Be clear with your higher governing body representatives that you’re quietly searching, so that the word doesn’t leak back to your current setting.
If and when you discover that you’re a final candidate or have moved forward in the process far enough that you believe you’re going to be called to a new setting, give your head of staff and your personnel committee chair first warning on that information with the clear understanding of when you would wish the congregation to be informed. In other words, be very thoughtful about who you tell and how soon. Not everyone handles confidential information as we wish they would, especially when that information affects their lives and planning. Do your best to give as much solid information to the need-to-know people, but no sooner than they need to know it.
Hope this makes sense! Please know that I will be keeping you in my prayers.
From Muthah+, at Stone of Witness
Five years as an associate is a good ministry and probably the right time to look for a new position. In these beginning days, I would suggest that you keep your search under your hat. But there will come a time when you will need to tell your lead pastor of your intentions. I believe that you will know when that time is. It is when your personal integrity will get in the way of doing what you are presently doing. The last people you tell is your congregation and that is with the advice of your sr. pastor.
In my tradition the search commitee often comes to your parish to hear you preach. By that time your congregation should be aware that you are looking and can help their search committee by answering their questions. Most congregations want to help the assistant to further their career even if they don't want to lose you.
You are right about not wanting to rush into 'search mode'. Go at it slowly testing the waters as you go along. But there will come a "tipping point" in which you will WANT to leave and that cannot be hidden. Your congregation will know it and you will know it. That is when being open about your search is necessary. You will want to have discussed this with your sr. pastor BEFORE the tipping point if possible. It will depend upon the relationship you have with your pastor and the staff, but it is better to err on the prepared side.
I so appreciate this question! And let's celebrate that you are being stirred by the Spirit to be open to a new call!
Short answer to your question: Tell no one in your current congregation and be very careful about the select others you might choose to advise you along the way.
Longer answer: For me, the hardest part about leaving a congregation has been the secrecy that often can feel like outright deception. You don't want to deceive, and you want to be fair and open, but keeping this part of your journey private is a necessary act of secrecy for everyone's sake. You are being kind to your congregation and your staff is to exclude them from the uncertainty of what you are going through. You can shield them from premature speculation about all sorts of things. It will also keep open -- and clean -- your option to stay there longer.
My approach has been to withhold all information until the new call has been extended and I am ready to offer my resignation. Before that, if there is a question, I answer it honestly with as little pertinent information as I can or with another question. I have also decided that, if someone asks me a direct question point-blank that I can't get out of answering, I won't lie to them. Think up some possible responses that work for you. Congregations will forgive secrecy and avoidance behavior; outright lies leave wounds.
When the time comes to tell them that you are leaving, tell your Head of Staff first, and then other staff and a few key leaders and other people you want to hear the news from you rather than in a letter. There will be some pain in sharing this news, no doubt. It will dawn on them that there was a period of time when you were not telling them the whole truth about what you were up to, and they will have some feelings about that. But it will be much easier to address amid the certainty that you are leaving.
May God bless you with clarity and courage for the journey!
Have you been where ~ newly looking ~ is? How have you navigated this process? Share your thoughts and experiences by posting a comment below.
And if you have a question for the matriarchs, please send it to us here.
May you live in God's amazing grace+