A Call Gone Wrong

There’s the kind of discernment that matches a pastor with a position that is so clearly right.  Spiritual Leader and Spiritually Led grapple and thrive together with mutual respect and support.  Stuff gets done.  Positive impact is obvious.  Conflict brings growth.  Jesus dances.

And then there is the kind of discernment that matches a pastor with a position that is all wrong. Maybe it looked right. Maybe it even felt right – at least for a while. But the Spiritual Leader and the Spiritually Led struggled with power issues, reality issues, and personality issues.  People got hurt. Negativity flourished.  Conflict was never resolved.  Jesus wept.

Yesterday’s post was about discerning our call to ministry. Today’s – at the suggestion of a smart person I admire – is about why some calls go terribly wrong.

Is it like a rushed marriage?  (I thought he was so fun but then I realized he was addicted to fun.)  Does it happen when we ignore red flags?  (It was a little weird that she was always borrowing money from me, but I thought she was just carefree.)  BSE always used to say:  It’s better to be alone than to wish you were.  The same is true for churches and other institutional ministries:  It’s better to have no pastor/no call than to wish you didn’t.

Here are some common mistakes in the Calls-Gone-Wrong department:

  • Committees lie to Pastoral Candidates.  Maybe First Presbyterian Church on the Hill doesn’t even have the money for a full-time pastor but they want one so badly that they just call a pastor anyway, only to have to admit a couple months down the road that they can’t make payroll.  Maybe the Pastor Search Committee really doesn’t want someone to come in and “bring change” but it sounded good on their position description.  Maybe the church’s understanding of themselves is aspirational rather than realistic.(“We love diversity!“) Maybe there are actually 50 people in worship on an average Sunday morning when their paperwork says that their average attendance is 150.
  • Pastors lie to themselves.  Maybe Pastor Naomi liked the idea of being the Head of Staff of a large church and it sure would make her parents proud, but actually – in her heart – she knows she’s happier in a small or medium sized congregation.  Maybe Pastor Ezekiel is so anxious to be ordained that he tells a search committee that he loves youth work when actually he does not.
  • Committees are more interested in pleasing their congregations than pleasing God.  They tell an impatient congregation that they “are sure they will be calling the new pastor by Easter.”  God laughs at this pronouncement.
  • Congregations had unresolved guilt/sorrow/anger that nobody addressed after the last pastor left.  New pastor didn’t have a chance. Maybe the Interim Pastor didn’t do her job, or there was no transition at all.
  • Pastor has unresolved guilt/sorrow/anger that wasn’t addressed before taking a new call.  The church didn’t have a chance.  The pastor forgot that Church is for broken people and therapy is our friend.
  • Everybody forgot to ask God what kind of person God was calling to lead them.  God wanted someone creative and different from anything they’ve ever had before.  The church called the proverbial Guy-With-A-Tie who has no idea how to be a 21st Century spiritual leader.  God led them to call a Woman of Color or a Gay Man or an Immigrant Pastor. But they were afraid what people might think.  
  • Somebody made this call about something other than mission and ministry.  Examples: Pastor A seeks call near the coast because he wants to retire there. Pastor B seeks call near his grandchildren. Pastor C seeks call in the church that comes with a palatial manse. Note: sometimes we are indeed called to places with convenient personal benefits. But not always. Call is first and foremost about God.
  • Somebody was desperate.  No explanation needed.

A time comes in even the best calls when moving on is necessary and good. But that moment when a church or a pastor realizes that This Match was a Big Mistake makes people and organizations splinter in pain.  We can avoid this.

This post is dedicated to all Pastoral Search Committees and to all those seeking new calls to professional ministry.  

5 responses to “A Call Gone Wrong

  1. Great post. While I totally agree that a call needs to be about matching expectations, skills, and gifts for mission, as a pastor who has deliberately moved closer to my aging parents, I believe God also works through our discernment of our life circumstances and personal desires. Those personal and practical needs/preferences are a part of the mix, and a candidate is wise to pay attention to them.

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  2. A poignant piece that hits the nail on the head. Listening between or behind one another’s words is important if we want to hear the truth that will set us free. I believe God tells us the truth whether listen or not. It our responsibility to work together and be willing to hear what God wants us to hear to help a congregation and ourselves.

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  3. >>Somebody was desperate.<< I've seen this one!

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  4. In the “somebody made the call about something other than mission and ministry” section, here are a couple of other examples: Congregation A wanted a pastor with a spouse who would solve the problem of getting a choir director or a property manager and/or with children to fill the Sunday School by magically making other children appear. Congregation B didn’t use the interim time to identify a mission because they wanted to get someone in place fast before the “strong givers” got impatient and left.

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  5. I would also add that sometimes there is a fit that becomes outgrown for congregation or leader indicating the need for change. If both parties recognize the shift transition can be gentle. Then again anyone can become stubborn and hard of hearing. Ah, to be human. God is beyond patient.

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