Unsuccessful Pastoral Calls (and what they do to our souls)

A bad fit chips away at our souls too.

One of the profound joys of the kind of ministry I do involves witnessing the Holy Spirit match pastors and congregations. It’s a beautiful thing. When the vision of a passionate leader aligns with the vision of a passionate congregation, it fills my heart with joy.

But sometimes it’s not a good match. It’s better not to have a pastor than to wish you didn’t have one. It’s better not to have a pastoral call than to wish you didn’t have one. Bad fits are not the end of the world, but it’s best to avoid them.

Here are the top reasons why pastoral calls fail and Jesus weeps:

  • The Pastor Search Committee (PNC) was in a rush and didn’t do their homework.
  • The pastor was in a rush to be ordained/find a new position and didn’t do their homework.
  • The church was desperately looking for a pastor – any pastor – and the pastor was desperately looking for a church – any church.
  • The PNC lied to the pastor during the interview process. Actually there are conflicts. Actually there is financial instability. Actually we don’t want to serve our neighbors.
  • The pastor lied during the interview process. Actually I don’t like pastoral care. Actually I loathe traditional music. Actually I have no idea how to talk to children.
  • The candidate who interviewed so effectively didn’t show up for the real work.
  • The candidate looks great on paper (degrees from great colleges and seminaries) but had weak personal skills.
  • The church looks great on paper (wealthy suburb, lots of programming) but has more fear than faith.
  • The pastor is a bully and it wasn’t evident until they moved into the position.
  • The congregation has bullies and they seemed so helpful until the pastor challenged them.

It damages us – spiritually, emotionally, and physically – when pastoral calls don’t work out. We might lose our faith, our self-confidence, and our joy. I know pastors who have never had a happy/successful call and it shows. They are often bitter.

Sometimes it’s just not a good fit. The church is truly wonderful. The pastor is truly gifted. But authentic expectations were not expressed and it was a battle from day one. When a pastor has a single “bad fit” experience, it doesn’t preclude future success. It could be a one off.

And sometimes pastoral ministry in general is not a good fit even if we have seminary degrees. Unlike the fields of medicine and law when finishing up all the required courses and exams automatically makes you a doctor or lawyer, the field of pastoral ministry is not like that. It’s not a certification process. Finishing all the required courses and exams doesn’t make someone a pastor. It makes it possible to become a pastor if the community sees you as a pastor and affirms your calling.

How do you tell someone “You are not called to this ministry?” Sometimes it’s simply not a good fit. And that’s okay.

Not aligning with a specific field of ministry, much less with a specific congregation doesn’t mean we are failures to the universe (although it will feel like that.) In the timeless words of Regina George, “Stop trying to make fetch happen.”

A parable:

A candidate for ordination who had made excellent grades and fulfilled all the requirements for ordination could not find a church call for over two years. They were sure that being female and queer was the reason why no church would call them. They were angry.

The denominational leader invited this candidate to get together to talk about the situation. They met in a denominational office. When the candidate showed up for the meeting, they were wearing this hoodie and flip flops.

Maybe it’s possible that someone can’t get a call for reasons we are missing.

Are PNCs sometimes sexist or homophobic or ageist or racist? Definitely. Does God make holy things happen even when PNCs are sexist or homophobic or ageist or racist? Definitely. And sometimes we are simply not a good fit.

A good fit is holy. It’s worth the wait to discern one.

4 responses to “Unsuccessful Pastoral Calls (and what they do to our souls)

  1. Our PNC has said “discerning” so often that we almost can’t say it with a straight face. I’ll send this along to the committee. We are listening! I shared this one in February: https://achurchforstarvingartists.blog/2023/02/12/if-you-are-seeking-a-new-pastor/

    One of the members sent it out AGAIN recently as a reminder. I shared yesterday’s “Doing the best we can” with my daughter and dil who are bringing up teenaged girls and got a big thanks this morning. Thanks for sharing your perspectives. Always gives me food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kitty Hahn-Campanella

    Perfectly said. Thank you, Jan.


  3. We arrived at the church AFTER it had all happened–the new pastor had hoped to hide the beginnings of dementia and just finished out a course of years for retirement. The dementia created untold problems and schisms that have still not healed.

    AND, no one knew of the dementia until that retired pastor died this past year and the family revealed it.


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