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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - A Discussion about Discernment

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?

~newly looking~

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

Dear looking,
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. 

And from 
Sharon, who blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy
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+


  1. Hi.
    My apologies for not responding when the question was sent out.

    My thoughts:
    Unless you have an absolute disastrous relationship with your Head of Staff - and maybe even then - I would tell them. The truth is that the moment you are no longer looking at churchs' info, but actually contacting them, then your HoS could find out from someone other than you. That is a slap on their face you cannot afford. You will need your HoS's recommendation.

    If he/she is not listed as your reference, a good Committee is going to want to know why.

    IF after telling your HoS and asking for confidentiality you find out that other staff know or members of the congregation know, then your answer to your discernment prayer is, "Yes, leave."

    When I was in the beginning stages of discerning it was time to move, I realized the first point of attack was to do the job I currently had to the best of my ability. I looked at what churches who had the kind of position I was looking for listed as important to them, and if I wasn't doing it - I did it. If I was already doing it - I did it better.

    This helped me be better prepared for what was next and the interview process. It also helped me remain a strong presence in my current church until it was time to announce my departure.

    It's an exciting time, and also a stressful time. Looking for another Call is adding a part-time job to your busy schedule. Prayers for you and your current and future congregations as you discern where God is leading you.

  2. Kathryn, a follow up: if the Head of Staff is new, would you still list them as a reference, as opposed to a combination of previous HoS (who worked with you longer) and an elder (not currently serving but still active in the congregation)?

  3. I don't know what kind of wisdom you can glean from this, but here is how I handled things. I had been at the church about 5 years (is it some kind of magic number??) and decided it was time to move on. I told the HoS immediately, as I thought honesty would be the best policy and my talents at deception are--ahem--quite limited. She honored my desire for confidentiality initially, though I think she did later tell some of the church staff. I wanted to list her as a reference, and I believed I owed it to our relationship to let her know.

    Due to some geographic limitations, I knew the process of finding a new call would be even longer than "normal," and thought I was prepared for that. As the year-mark passed, though, I was becoming increasingly unhappy and was eventually asked to resign by the HoS.

    Would that have happened even if I hadn't told her? Who knows. It did feel like once I had shared the news that I wanted to leave, she started to want me to leave, too. I felt a significant change in our relationship, though neither of us took responsibility to discuss it openly.

    I have lots of regrets about how I left that call, but I think I would have done the same as far as telling the HoS. I don't think I would advise telling anyone else, if you can avoid it for reference purposes.

    Blessings to you on your next steps.

  4. My time to leave my first all, also associate ministry, was also at the 5 year mark. I had planned to start the discernment process, either way, at that point, but circumstances in the congregation lead me very clearly to decision it was time to start the process about 6 months before that. Due to the relationships in that setting I in no way could tell the HoS or Personnel Committee. I had a (non-ordained) colleague on the staff who was also a member of the church that knew and was listed as a reference, but she and her husband were the only people I told in the congregation. A retired minister in town/presbytery who had been worshiping with us for a year or so was another reference.

    Circumstances worked out in such a way that I did not ever tell that church I was looking while working there - - for financial reasons the position closed when I went on a maternity leave and I started my new call toward the end of my severance period - - but I also would not have shared my participation in the process until I had a call in hand.

    Where this gets difficult in my
    process, and I'm guessing yours, is when/if you get to the stage of needing to make visits to the new church. I did a couple of those before I left my last position and had to walk that fine line of not being deceptive, but not rendering my ministry ineffective by showing all my cards. I think the "lame duck" phenomenon is real in ministry as well as politics. I was able to discreetly take time off by saving my vacation the year of the search, making sure my duties were well organized and lay leaders well informed for quick hand offs as needed, and simply asking for vacation time with 3-4 weeks notice with a plan in hand of how things could be covered while I was gone.

    I discovered after I came to my current call that one person on the search committee actually broke usual protocol and on their own contacted someone in my previous church that they knew from years before. That person had no idea I was in the search process, but was one of my biggest supporters and never mentioned it to me ever. That could have gone badly, but thankfully, it did not.

    Most search committees didn't seem to blink at all about that fact that I did not have my current HoS as a reference and if they asked (I don't really even remember), I'm sure I simply said, "My current church isn't aware that I'm discerning a new call at this point." It also made it easier that my HoS at the time hadn't been there too long, so I could point to other people who knew me much better, even as a co-worker.

  5. A lay perspective, feel free to ignore:

    I keep going back and forth about whether to comment or not, but we just had this situation in our church and I'm left feeling pretty sore. Just asking you to think about how your timing effects the people who have been trying to faithfully serve with you.

    Our AP started his search on the down-low in the Spring. In August he was pretty sure he was going to receive a call. He told the Head of Staff (She kept his confidentiality absolutely). In October he received and accepted the call. At the end of November, he told leadership and then the church. His last service is Christmas Eve.

    Pretty much, he gave us Advent, the busiest time of the year, to plan this transition. It feels to me as if he went from fair (if iffy) to dishonest when he waited another month to tell us after accepting the call. If we had had November and December, I think I would have a really different feeling about things.

    Just a note: On a personal level, I really like him. This week, he lent me his Kindle to read a book and then we discussed it. We worked closely together in committee and with a very small group developing our church website. His daughter and mine are the same age and have been in preschool together. This isn't going to necessarily color future interactions we have with him. But right now, it feels pretty lousy and really stressful. And I don't think it had to.


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