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.

The Unexpected Pastor

When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago I did so proclaiming that I would never serve as a parish pastor. I, arrogantly I now see, proclaimed that “real ministry” wasn’t done in churches. It was done in hospitals, schools, battlefields, and the streets. I then headed off to a pediatric hospital where I spent the bulk of the next two years with the families of traumatically injured children.

But two years ago the winding course of my vocation brought me to the front doors of not one, but two churches nestled in a small community in the mountains of Vermont. Here I was, an urban, Southern, gay minister in my early 30’s whose most recent address had been Provincetown. I think my friends may have been taking bets on how long I would stay.

There was good reason. By the time I arrived in town I had been well Googled. Despite the fact I was met with a congregation of parishioners who are immensely good and fair people, there were plenty of occasions for self-doubt. One local clergy member refused to co-officiate at a service with me. A local supporter informed me of an angry Scripture-quoting man who had been yelling about the new gay minister in the 7-11. I began to wonder if my presence in the community was an unnecessary burden upon my congregations.

On the darkest nights I told myself, “I think I made a mistake.”

I didn’t leave, though. In the church we believe pastors are called, not hired, and we believe the process of uniting pastor and congregation is vastly different than a secular hiring process. By the time a pastor starts serving a congregation an intense period of discernment has taken place with the church, pastor, and denomination all affirming that it is God’s will for these parties to join together in ministry. I trusted that faith, and I stayed.

I’m glad I did. Because in the past two years I have seen God’s love become incarnate in more ways than I could have believed. And along the way I’ve learned that real ministry does in fact take place in the church too. The young seminarian who saw parishes as the territory of the privileged and comfortable is gone, replaced by a pastor who understands that crisis and pain know no boundaries. I’ve learned to look out on Sunday mornings and understand that everyone in the room is facing something they’d rather not. Doctors call with bad news. Loved ones die. Kids fight. Marriages get rocky. And in the midst all of these things, those who come and fill the pews on Sunday mornings look for God. Every week. The reality of that is sobering for a preacher who once thought they’d learned all there was to know about pain in a trauma bay.

I’ve learned about pain, but I’ve learned other things as well. I’ve learned that congregations are full of human people with human faults. The stained glass can hide the very real pain inside a church. And yet, they are also places of celebration and life. A few months after I arrived, I baptized a baby. During the service I felt joy welling up inside of me. I didn’t understand why it had affected me so much until later when I realized I’d never baptized a child who was not actively dying. That made sense. I figured that I’d find the pain when the funerals started coming. But to my great surprise, even in the midst of very real mourning and grief, I saw the promise of the Resurrection in families’ laughter and the triumph of goodness in the hope of friends. My parishioners have taught me to find joy even in the darkest places.

They’ve also taught me to find grace. I’ve learned over the past two years that no matter how deeply I may disagree with someone in the most fundamental of ways, there is always a place for us to connect. I’ve played golf with people whom I’m quite sure have never voted the same way as I do in November. I’ve learned to appreciate the self-sufficiency of hunters despite the fact I’ve never picked up a gun. I’ve come to respect the honesty of those who can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact a pastor is gay, yet who still love me and try to understand anyway.

I’ve even come to love Yankees fans.

But more than anything, I’ve learned this: being a pastor means finding the holy in the most unexpected places. I’ve done ministry at the counter of the local diner. I found grace while blessing a parishioner’s 900 lbs. pig who was about to be euthanized. I’ve witnessed new life in the stories of people in recovery. And I’ve seen resurrection happen in a town that was devastated by a flood and that, through the efforts of a community united, rose again.

It sounds cliche to say that being a pastor is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s true. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, I’m challenged everyday. The calling requires sacrifice in every sense of the word, and pastors are not immune from the proverbial “dark night of the soul”.

And yet, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Not because I couldn’t do anything else, (clergy generally do not embrace the calling due to lack of other options) but because I can’t imagine feeling right doing anything else. Two years ago I never imagined how hard parish ministry would be. And I never expected how much I would love it.

I suspect that if I went back in time and met that newly minted seminary grad from eleven years ago, they would never have believed they would end up a small-town pastor in Vermont. But that’s the beauty of calling. The holy is often found in the unpredictable. Every day I get to serve I’m thankful for the divine nudge that calls us out of the places we think we belong, and into the places that have already been prepared for us.