What Kind of a Pastor Does Your Church Really Want?

About six months ago I started a new call as the senior pastor of a church in New Hampshire. I truly loved the congregation I previously served, but with a wife who had just graduated from seminary herself, and a feeling that God was nudging me to something new, I began the long discernment that comes with a pastoral search process.

Unlike my first search process, where I sent my profile (the UCC version of a pastor’s resume) to just about every church that was searching, I was more selective this time. I wasn’t willing to move for anything less than the right call, which is a great luxury for a searching pastor. But it also meant that I ended up saying “no” a lot. I love a challenge, but I did not feel called to a place where my understanding of ministry, and the church’s, were so radically different that we were in fundamentally different places.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The biggest thing I learned is that everyone says they want a pastor, but not everyone means the same thing when they say that. Here are just some of the understandings of what it meant to be a pastor that I encountered in my search:

Chaplain – No disrespect meant to chaplains (I was one for eight years) but the role of a parish pastor and that of a chaplain are very different. And yet, over and over I met parishes who wanted someone to spend most of their time “doing home and hospital visits”.

I’m always glad to visit, but the first question I had for churches who wanted this was “Who does this now?” Most of the time the answer was “no one…that’s the pastor’s job”. This was always a huge red flag for me because the work of visitation is supposed to be done by all Christians, not just the pastor. In fact, having a strong and vibrant network of lay visitors is a great sign of church vitality. You don’t have to go to seminary to make a visit, after all; you just need to love the people of your church.

Fundraiser – In my interviews when the time came for me to ask questions I asked “What’s the biggest crisis facing this church right now?” More times then not I was told “money”. Churches said they didn’t have enough of it, or people weren’t pledging like they used to, or expenses were too high. Then they often asked me, “How can you help us fix that?”

The reality is that I like talking about stewardship in the church. I think it’s a key part of the Christian life. But, the pastor can’t be your church’s “fundraiser”. The pastor can help to set the tone for the conversation, but they cannot control the bottom line. The money has to come from the congregation itself, and the stewardship campaign itself needs to be run by faithful and creative lay leaders. A new pastor will not be the magic bullet that balances your church’s budget.

Complaint Box – This works two ways. First, people complain to the pastor about everything that they think is wrong with the church, and expect them to immediately fix it. Later, when they don’t, people complain to the pastor about everything that is wrong with the pastor.

Some of the churches I talked to spent their interview complaining about everything from the fact not as many people came to church anymore to the fact their last pastor was “terrible” (a red flag for interviewing pastors if ever there was one). Those were the churches that I knew were ready to blame everyone else for what wasn’t going right. And every pastor knows that it only takes so long until they will become the sacrificial lamb in a church like that.

Entertainer – I will be the first to say that pastors need to do their best to not preach boring, lifeless, irrelevant sermons. And yet, so many churches I talked to wanted someone who would be “funny”, or “tell us stories” in the pulpit. A few even noted that they loved when their pastor sang solos on Sunday mornings. They wanted a pastor who would entertain them!

But that’s not the role of a pastor in the pulpit. The pastor’s job in preaching is to present the text in a way that is faithful to Scripture and relatable to the congregation. Hopefully they won’t do that in a way that puts everyone to sleep, but at the end of the day the church would do better with more faithful preachers than more “entertaining” ones.

Recruiter – “What will you do to increase our membership?” It’s the question candidates get all the time from churches. The expectation is that a new pastor needs to come in and build up Sunday attendance and church membership. In this way the pastor becomes the church recruiter, and is even seen as a sort of potential savior. (That should be a red flag, if it’s not.)

But while a new pastor might draw a few more visitors, they can’t be the person responsible for building church membership up. Even if they go door to door to invite new people to church, if those people come to church and don’t feel welcomed by the congregation they will not stay. Instead, every church member needs to be responsible for inviting others, welcoming them on Sunday, and then helping to make them part of the congregation.

Kept sheep – My go-to “softball” question for search committees was a no-brainer: Do you want a pastor who is involved in your community? Usually search committees jumped on this and said “yes, of course!” But in one interview I asked the committee this question and, instead of hearing “yes”, I instead heard “well…maybe”. The committee then went on to say that they thought their pastor would have enough to do just serving them. They didn’t want their pastor to get involved in local organizations, to hold drop-in hours out in the community, or to do much in the wider church.

This interview reminded me of a question I heard someone ask a church years ago: “Do you want a shepherd? Or a kept sheep?” Of course almost every church will say the former but, the egregious example above aside, how many mean it? Do you really want a pastor who will serve your community and the wider church? Or do you just want a pastor who will serve the people who are already in your church? Healthy congregations don’t just “allow” their clergy to engage the world beyond the church’s four walls; they encourage it.

Pastor and Teacher – This is the one I was looking for, and the one I found. The Letter to the Ephesians talks about how Christ has given each of us different gifts and graces. The author writes, “The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

For most of us in the United Church of Christ our call agreements state that we are becoming “pastor and teacher” of a local church. At the end of the day, that’s what I believe a clergy person is called to be. We are called to faithfully shepherd a congregation in their life together, and to teach that congregation about Christ’s love for all.

Signing the pastor making me "pastor and teacher" of my current church.

Signing the pastoral contract making me “pastor and teacher” of my current church.

What that entails can look different for each congregation, but at the end of the day your pastor should be doing the ministry that they have been prepared for through calling and training. And they can’t do that ministry well if they are also taking on the responsibilities that belong to, and can and should be carried out by, all members of your congregation.

So, what kind of pastor does your church really want? If you are a congregation in search, or even just a congregation trying to figure out where it wants to go, take the time to ask yourself this question. And then, if necessary, adjust expectations. If you do, you will free your pastor to do the ministry God has equipped them to do best. And, more importantly, you will see the people of your church stepping up to do the ministry God has equipped them to do as well.

12 thoughts on “What Kind of a Pastor Does Your Church Really Want?

  1. Of these, the one that most mystifies me is Fundraiser, especially when written:

    “We want our next pastor to increase our giving.”

    Sometimes I yell at my screen “No you don’t. If you wanted to increase your giving, you would give more.”

    What I’m hearing is “we want our next pastor to get those others – those who don’t give enough – to increase THEIR giving.” And if that’s the case, I’ve identified a growing edge for the congregation.

    • Exactly. That’s a huge thing. I love working with congregations on stewardship, but the lay leaders need to lead stewardship campaigns. I’m so grateful for the outstanding stewardship committee we have at Exeter.

  2. I think that there is definitely a difference between a church called by Christ and one that is merely a social club. You make some very important distinctions.

    • I’ve seen so many friends try to help their churches to become disciples. Too often they not only are not listened too, but are quietly pushed out. I knew Exeter was the right call for me when I talked about wanted to do work around discipleship and they agreed that’s what they needed.

      • Unfortunately, too many churches these days are good at making converts but not so good at making disciples. And then we wonder where everybody went. Living the Christian life is not easy. Jesus never said it would be easy. Only a true disciple can come close to doing it. Converts will leave when it becomes hard and something new and cool comes along. Disciples stick around when things get tough.

  3. Emily, thank you so much for this. You really hit the nail on the head. The issue I have, however, is that if all pastors made such judgements of the congregations with whom they interviewed, those congregations who struggle with these questions would never find a way out of their unhealthy place. I realize you wrote this for members of congregations (and boy do I appreciate that!) but as pastors I think we ought to realize a call, not only to churches who are healthy but also (more so) to churches who fail to value themselves and their pastor as you’ve mentioned. By God’s love we can serve to transition them into a place of a more faith inspired self image. Especially today, as churches are facing the “sink or swim” question, some of the most challenging work we pastors do is church revisioning.

    • That’s a good question. I think for me, as a candidate, I might try to gauge how aware the church is of their issues. If they know they have some (even if they don’t know what they are) and they are willing to change I’d be willing to take the call. But if a church is stuck in the “it’s always someone else’s responsibility/fault” stage, I wonder if they’d be better with a specially trained interim for a while?

  4. Interesting article. However I would like us to not that these churches described above were made what they are by us pastors.
    We shaped them through the way we did ministry.
    Blaming congregations for what we have made them to be is trying to escape on the questions how we have been shaping the ministry of the church over the years.
    It is what we taught, what we preached and how we shifted the theology of the church, that has given us what we have today.
    Unsteady of fixing the problem we are looking for those few places where others are been faithfully making disciples.
    The congregation you are going to was being shepherded by someone who drove it that direction over a period of years.
    It is good to always ask yourself is what you are searching for what you are leaving behind.
    As ministers we may want to blame congregations, yes there are communities that are hard but Christ send us to make disciples. Look here disciples are made, they are not born. So everyone has a potential to become a disciple and a discipler. But us minister we should not run away from the fact we are called to lead and leadership we must provide.
    Just a though I am still learning about ministry in this part of the world 🌎.

  5. My ministry has been in the appointive system (United Methodist) and one hopes and prays that those individuals responsible for decisions have some insights into some of the issues raised here. In only one appointment did I feel that there was no forethought into the match. I was appointed to a church controlled by conservatives and after one year, three families left the church. Fortunately, we recovered in one more year and started growing. How conservative? One of the unhappy members helped finance James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” ministry when it became more right-wing in its focus. At least the leader of the dissidents listened to my preaching, took notes and clarified with me if he was hearing me correctly. Then he left. I admired that. The majority in the congregation were progressive, but they would not confront the conservatives. They seemed grateful when I did. I saw no evidence that I was appointed there for this reason, but who knows? In my 7th year of ministry there, with an average attendance of 150, 40 new members joined. Then I had to retire because of age limitations. I attempted to tease the leadership about how ineffective I was, but they didn’t rise to my bait.

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