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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Handling Next Steps in the Call Process

The search process for a new call can be as fraught with anxiety and complexity as any dating relationship, and sometimes more so. How does a person know when to take the next step - and when not to? And how does a candidate handle things with the search committee when the candidate feels uncertain? Our question this week comes from a colleague grappling with these issues.

I'm in the middle of searching for a new call, and am wondering what to do when a church loves you but you're not entirely sure they're the right fit for you. If a search committee tells you that you are their top choice (or one of three), but you have hesitations, how do you proceed? It's so hard to get a good read on them only from written material or from phone conversations (especially if it's one where the committee passes the phone around the room to speak, so they're hard to hear too!), and I want there to be plenty of room for the Spirit to move...but do I agree to visit a church I have reservations about? 
And the follow up, of course: when a church wants you, but you don't feel called there, how do you let them down? What words are appropriate, how should it be handled, etc? 
(yes, this is my first search!!)


Martha, blogging at Reflectionary, writes:
A good friend went to an interview with a church he had some doubts about, and during the discussion he asked a question about church leadership that left the committee dumbfounded with its perspicacity. He had picked up on something that made them as uncomfortable as it made him curious.

He did not get the job. He really didn't want it. But he tells me he concluded he had been sent there to ask the question.

I think it's important to interview in person as many times as you can, especially when searching for a call is a new experience. We have no idea what work God might be doing in the process until it's over, and sometimes not even then.

I tell the story about my friend for a second reason: in searches at various points in his career, he talked to any church that wanted to talk to him. I think most male pastors do this. Many of them keep a profile (or whatever it might be called depending on your denomination) out there floating around all the time. I find women clergy more inclined to play for keeps, as if we're betraying some ideal of perfection just by having a conversation. I encourage you to have as many interviews and site visits as possible. The more churches you see, the more pulpits you stand in, the more towns you visit, the more church members you meet and get to know, the more you'll learn about the difference between existential hesitations, badly written church profiles and actual red flags -- and the better able you are to discern where God is calling you.

And Jennifer responds:
Dear Searching,
I think it’s necessary to visit with a search committee in person. Go, with your questions, and listen for the Spirit’s surprise or confirmation of the sense that you’re getting from afar. I don’t think a visit implies that you would accept the call, if offered.

If you get further along in the process, and still have reservations, be sure you voice them in such a way that the committee, or their references, can speak to them so that you can make the best choice.
Calls should be mutual. I think it’s appropriate to say that, to share what you like and appreciate about them, and also what it is in your life that is not confirming that sense of call. Genuine, faithful conversation should allow for such dialogue, so that the Spirit can truly speak in your midst and in the midst of the congregation.

And Muthah+ offers:
Dear Searcher:

I think that being very open with the congregation is very important.  If you do not feel called to a place, tell them that.  But be sure to tell them that it ISN'T about them.  However if it IS about them, such as you see real difficulties in the way that they run their church that is not in keeping with how you do, tell them.  Do it in a kind way.  They deserve to know if there are things that they are doing that do not proclaim God's message.

If there are issues that are particular to you, share that too.  They are not just trying to fill a place--they are trying to incorporate someone into their family.  Slowly we will be able to help congregations understand that they cannot use the business model of employment when they call a pastor.  

I am thankful that you have been able to recognize that this is NOT a place where you are being called and are saying so.  You aren't falling into that "I have to have a job" trap that so many of us often devolve into.  

You continue in my prayers as you discern your call.


Thank you, Matriarchs, for your wise words! What about the rest of you? What have you learned along the way about how to handle this? Please join the conversation in the comments section. And, as always, if you have a question for the matriarchs to respond to, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. when I finished my ministry training, I had an idea as to the geographic area I did and did not want to be in. Basically anywhere outside the metropolitan area was fine with me. the committee that looks at such things set up a conversation for me with a congregation in an outer suburb - still too close to the city life for me. anyway, after the first meeting I wasn't sure, some more e-mails, and visits, and it just seemed right - not sure how else to put it. and for 6 years it has been a good place for me, and I think a good match for the congregation as well, and still is.
    Having been on the other end of the process, as a lay person in a rural area, I found it very frustrating when Ministers would not even come and meet with us. We knew when inviting Ministers and their families to come and meet with us, that the conversation may not work out as a placement, and in this process the congregation pays for travel and arranges accommodation for the visit.
    If possible meet with the committee in person, and try and have enough time in the area to have some time to reflect and listen for the Spirit's leading.

    1. a pearl downunder, thank you for sharing what it's like from the congregation's experience!

  2. I think you need to follow your instincts...if you have doubts, but aren't sure, go on the visit and see what they are like in person. But if you are SURE that this call isn't for you, then end it(kindly as others have suggested) now. Just as a search committee is still "trying you on" when you visit, you should be trying them on too, and sometimes it takes meeting them in their own context.

    But don't be afraid to say no. I am in a call now that I took despite reservations in part because I felt unsure of asking for more time to consider it (the other and more overwhelming factor is that I REALLY needed a position b/c my previous one was ending). And all the reservations I had have borne out. It's not a terrible place, but it is not the best fit for me. And truth be known, they probably should have taken more time, too. So follow your gut in that sense, too.

    The other thing that I have learned, and this was true in academia as well, is that how well or how poorly a search committee conducts themselves reveals a lot about how the parish functions, at least in my experience. I pay much closer attention to that now than when in my first search.

  3. I always always go do an interview. Unless there has been a phone interview and they have to spend a lot of 't money to get me there for a face to face and I'm sure it's not a match, I withdraw my name. But if you aren't sure, go to the interview. It's good experience for you and them and it opens more room for the Spirit. I have never turned down a call but I have withdrawn my name after interviews by simply thanking them, but I don't feel I am the right one for them and I pray for God's blessings on their search and mission.

  4. Unless you are 100% sure you do not want the job, go to the site interview. You are not committing to take a call by committing to go see them in person. I had one interview in a place that I loved on paper, but had reservations that were magnified once I got there. I also had interviews in places I was lukewarm about that comfirmed that it was not the right place for me. In one case, the site visit was great and some of my reservations were dispelled by the in-person face to face contact. Once, I knew about 12 hours into the weekend that this was not the place for me. I did not say anything to them while I was there, and when they offered me the job at the end of the interview, I took some time to pray about it. The face to face time confirmed my reservations in a way that I was able to know, rather than guess, and by asking for some time afterwards, I could articulate my no in a way that was not (as) hurtful to them (who really likes being rejected?). However, if you know for sure that you will not accept the call, don't feel good about it, etc, then don't go.

  5. I'm a lay person who has served on three search committees and trained to advise churches in search. I'm an evangelist for using the Appreciative Inquiry method in the search process. Rather than seeking to fix problems, it emphasizes a church ask itself "What is working well?" and "What do we want more of?" Once it has answered those questions, then it should find a clergy person who is a good match for those responses.
    The gift of Appreciative Inquiry is that it helps us see each other at our best. Even if a church hasn't used the Appreciative method to construct its profile, a potential clergy hire could ask: "Tell me about a specific time when you felt the church was at its best- maybe doing outreach or in a difficult time." If they go off in a negative direction, try to re-direct them with "That must have been tough. Tell me what things you did to get through it."

  6. Years ago a friend described the interview experience HE had undergone prior to saying, "THanks, but no thanks" -- he was billetted with one of the members of the Search Committee, and when this gentleman, his host, at breakfast, snapped his fingers to summon his wife (the hostess) to bring more coffee, my friend had a DISCERNING MOMENT... in recollection he could laugh about it...

  7. Martha's advice is right on target. When women were first ordained, we couldn't even get an interview until in our denomination the bishops began to require the parishes to interview at least one woman in the process. I interviewed in parish after parish even when I knew I was not going to be called. But I was interviewed because we were very few in the diocese at that time. It was great practice. I interview now, VERY well. I also know what questions to ask to get the information that I need.

  8. Hi all. I just discovered a response from a matriarch that came in after I'd gathered responses. I'm sorry I missed it. This is from Terri/Mompriest:

    Having discerned a couple of calls, three of them fruitful and one of them, uhm, disastrous? (may not be too strong a word), I have some thoughts on this.

    I would wonder why they have let you know that you are their top choice? As a general rule I usually think that the discerning group is best served by being in discernment until the end of the process - a call is extended. Even if the committee feels strongly about a candidate it may not be wise to reveal that prematurely.

    - the one church, whose call I accepted but for whom details of their process were revealed to me prematurely is the one that ended up disastrous. Such information should have been my cue...but alas I overlooked these.

    - as a result I would encourage you to consider carefully what is causing you to hesitate and wonder about this call. Your intuition may be telling you everything.

    On the other hand - also consider whether your hesitation is about your own "stuff" - your worries and fears that may not be substantiated on their end. Some calls are scary but they may also be the prophetic call. Just ponder this.

    Then, if you still feel that this is not a good call for you, bow out sooner than later. I have bowed out of a process, one that was complicated by a change in the process - which indicated that the church had not done its homework - I grieved deeply over that decision to bow out - but in time it proved to be wise. Unlike the other decision where I took the call despite the gnawing that tried to pull me away from it....sigh. When it feels truly, deeply, profoundly right on your part - then it very well may be.

    Blessings as you pray and discern....


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