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.

Doing the Best We Can

TBC is my extremely wise thirty year old daughter, and she and I were recently comparing notes on my parenting skills and the skills of other parents in terms of how well we parents have taught our children sex education, life skills, etc. Like every parent, I fell short in countless ways and yet TBC is gracious and said, “Mom you did the best you could.” In the course of four years, I had 3 kids, lost both parents, was pastoring a church. It was a lot. And I did the best I could. And it was fine.

Grace abounds, thanks be to God.

This is an excellent article (thanks MTB) about mental health trends in teenage girls and it states – basically – that social media is not helping. We all know people living their best lives on Instagram and their “best” involves perfectly curated vacations and toned abs after eating made-from-scratch empanadas. It’s easy to feel less than.

Consider this from the linked article by Jon Haidt:

By 2015, it was becoming normal for 12-year-old girls to spend hours each day taking selfies, editing selfies, and posting them for friends, enemies, and strangers to comment on, while also spending hours each day scrolling through photos of other girls and fabulously wealthy female celebrities with (seemingly) vastly superior bodies and lives. The hours girls spent each day on Instagram were taken from sleep, exercise, and time with friends and family. What did we think would happen to them?

There seems to be a cultural lack of grace in 2023. Grace for ourselves. Grace for our children. Grace for our parents. Grace for each other.

A young woman I know recently told me that she doesn’t believe in grace. If you hurt her, she is done with you. This feels like a really hard way to live.

Each of us has our own experiences bringing joy, trauma, bitterness, inspiration and deep grief. A treasured friend of mine was literally hit by a car while on a run a few years ago and her body continues to suffer consequences. And yet, she said to me today that everybody has something like being hit by a car. For some it could simply be a really bad broken leg. For others, it could be infertility or betrayal or crushing debt. And everybody’s doing the best they can.

I write a lot about racism, white supremacy, Church World, leadership, things Jesus did and did not die for, growing older, and random other things. Sometimes I get comments that say more about the commenter than me and that’s okay. We are doing the best we can.

To the person who texted me from an unknown number last week that they would bash my face in if they ever met me: I hope you are okay. I don’t know what you need, but I hope you receive it and find peace.

Monday, March 20 is Mr. Rogers Day and read the comments to learn what that is. I’m grateful that he was an instrument of grace in this world. His calm wisdom continues to bring healing and inspiration. Have a wonderful week.

A More Beautiful Pipeline

 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” John 6:9

HH was told in the fourth grade by a pastor that he has gifts for ministry. Unfortunately, when I was in the fourth grade, it never would have occurred to my pastor or any pastor to identify my gifts as a sign that I might be called into professional ministry. (The first woman I ever saw in a pulpit was in seminary in 1980.)

Pipelines are generally not beautiful. They mar scenic vistas and often trespass – albeit “legally” – on holy land. I don’t know much about transporting oil but this post is about human pipelines. Human pipelines are quite beautiful.

It used to be true that most African American Presbyterian Pastors – in my part of the world – came through the ordination process via the Johnson C. Smith Seminary. JCS no longer graduates students with Masters of Divinity degrees.

It used to be true that the college to seminary pipeline – in my part of the world – stretched from Davidson College in North Carolina to Union Seminary in Virginia. This was the expected road map for White Male Pastors in the Southeast.

It used to be true that most of our seminary graduates – much less – new pastors – never included humans who were non-binary, queer, or non-White. Today we need everybody God calls to transform the Church for good in the name of Jesus Christ. But the pipeline has diminished to a trickle. It’s certainly not clogged. It’s a little dry.

There are gifted leaders in the pipeline to be sure. And yet many (most?) of those in seminary do not plan to seek ordination to parish ministry. They are pondering calls to chaplaincy positions or other validated ministries in interesting places near coffee shops. (Note: I’m writing this while serving in an interesting ministry in a coffee shop.)

We need to work on our congregational-leader-to-pastor pipeline. Here are some of the cracks in that pipeline:

  • Churches are slow to call pastors who don’t look or sound like every other pastor they’ve ever had in the past.
  • People are graduating from seminary with clear ideas about what they don’t want to do (i.e. serve in rural areas, serve in small congregations, serve in churches unlike the congregations where they grew up) which might be in conflict with what the Spirit is preparing them to do.
  • Churches are afraid to tell the truth about who they are to pastoral candidates (“We love each other but we also drive each other a little crazy when we discuss worship preferences.” “COVID was hard for us and too many have not returned to active participation.” “Our last pastor stayed a little too long and we are in a time of figuring out who God is calling us to be.“)
  • Churches want a full-time pastor but can’t afford one yet they expect their part-time pastor to serve them and only them full-time, which 1) prevents a pastor from serving a second congregation so that a liveable income is possible and 2) prevents rich partnerships between congregations who are geographically near each other and could share that pastor.
  • Pastors and other leaders have stopped telling young leaders that God might be calling them to serve in the Church. It’s possible that young liturgists, high school leaders, preschoolers who clearly love Bible stories, and that kid in Confirmation who wasn’t ready to join the church at age 13 but their questions led to a deeper commitment to Jesus at the age of 17 – are meant to be in the pipeline. It’s possible that we are the ones to plant seeds.

There are all kinds of people in and outside of the Church at this moment whom God is preparing to serve in unexpected ways. It’s fun to look out for those people and wonder, along with them, “could God be calling you to serve in a particular way in professional ministry?”

Most of Us are Nepo Babies

Loved Maya Hawk (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawk) in Stranger Things. Regret missing John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington) on Broadway in The Piano Lesson. Congratulations to Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) who won an Oscar last night. Are these talented people? Definitely. Did they get any breaks based on their family connections? Definitely.

Imagine what life might be like for the children of Jann Wenner (whose son Gus is now CEO of Rolling Stone) or Phil Collins (whose daughter Lily is Emily in Paris) or Steve Harvey (whose daughter Lori is a model) or Quincy Jones (whose daughter Rashida was so wonderful in Parks and Rec). Would we have ever heard of Lachlan Murdoch, Laura Dern, or Angelina Jolie without nepotism?

It’s possible to reach extraordinary success without famous parents (see Jenna Ortega, Zendaya, Daniel Kaluuya, Donald Glover) and yet each of those people had geography or genetic blessings or education on their side as a result of their parentage.

My parents were not famous or rich but I benefited from being their daughter by growing up in a college town (good public schools and friends whose parents were professors from all over) in a prominent church (with a confirmation teacher who showed us actual pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls from his personal research), with enough money to afford vacations and college (with manageable debt.) The nepotism in my life helped me get summer jobs (a friend’s dad owned a cute shoe store) and my second church call (my aunt had a house at Montreat near the Pastoral Nominating Committee Chair’s house.) My privileged friend connections have resulted in invitations to join clergy groups and leadership positions.

I got excellent UNC basketball tickets all through high school and college because I walked Goldie, the head of ticket operations’ labrador retriever who lived in my neighborhood whose son was a year ahead of me in school but didn’t want to walk the dog. This too is privilege.

All of us have privilege who read this blog post. And the hope is that we use our privilege for good – whether it comes from having rich and famous parents or it comes from proximity to other people’s privilege or it comes from randomly winning the lottery.

The conversation about seminary exams last week touched on privilege, both in terms of who has access to mental health care and who gets to be ordained in the first place. In my denomination, we pastors do not get to call ourselves to professional ministry. It’s a three-legged stool:

  • Individuals sense a calling from God.
  • Calling is affirmed by the Church (meaning a home congregation and then a higher judicatory.)
  • There is a calling body (meaning a congregation or a hospital or an educational institution issuing “a call”).

I mention this because I know people who feel called to professional ministry and yet the Church and/or a Calling Institution do not affirm their calling. This is very painful. It doesn’t mean a person is not “called by God” to serve. But it could mean that a person is not called to a particular ministry. (We are all called to ministry by virtue of our baptisms in my theological tradition.)

I also know pastors who have been called to positions because of nepotism and so do you. And I know people who were noticed by Pastor Nominating Committees because someone like me contacted them and suggested they take a closer look at Candidate X. It’s extremely rare to be called to a position without some – even nominal – connection.

I’m inviting you to connect with me and I hope I can connect with you. If there’s anything I can do to share my own privilege, let me know. What I can also say is that the inability to be ordained or receive a pastoral call might be related to other real and true factors.

Yes, it’s true that incompetent people still get called to serve in plum positions because of nepotism, sexism, racism, etc. while exceptional leaders get passed over. And yet there is less of this in 2023 than in 1973.

Every day I see excellent candidates without the usual connections and/or profile (at least the profile of most leaders 50 years ago) be called to serve as ordained pastors. And I also see excellent candidates who are not considered because someone with better connections prevailed.

Again, it’s true that most of us have life connections that have helped us. And it’s also true that we can be those life connections to people who could be helped. We are all in this life together.

Image source of British Media Nepo Babies.

Thank You

Re: today’s controversial post, I want to thank all who offered comments. I really appreciate the back and forth.

Clearly we can all do better listening to each other and supporting each other. I’m grateful to be serving alongside you.

Especially for those of us who are pastors and other church leaders, we have the power to make some of the suggestions from today’s comments possible for those coming through the ordination process now and in the future: write thoughtful exams, provide financial support, walk alongside, grant permission, hold each other accountable.

Again, thanks.

Scripture Is Triggering

[This post will make some readers unhappy.]

A Big Issue in my denomination over the past several weeks has been the decision to use this question on the Senior Biblical Exegesis Ordination Exam:

“In your role as the Associate Pastor for Christian Formation, you are leading a Bible study for your congregation’s UKirk college-age ministry exploring unsettling passages in the scriptures. The final story you will be studying is ‘the Levite’s Concubine’ (Judges 19:1-30).”

Judges 19:1-30 is one of Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror. It’s one of those passages that Margaret Atwood was thinking about when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Violence against women is both an ancient and current sin. As Atwood has said many times in explaining how she came up with the ideas for her famous dystopian novel, everything that happens to women in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened or is now happening in human history. Some of it happened in the Bible.

Seminarians are outraged about this ordination exam question. College Chaplains are outraged. Congregational Pastors are outraged.

At the risk of offending most of my friends, I am not outraged. Yes, this question is absolutely triggering for anyone who has experienced violence – particularly sexual violence. It was a poor choice of scripture. And also: Scripture is triggering. Life is triggering.

To all Pastors, Chaplains, Counselors, and Seminarians: we will be triggered in our ministry. And we will trigger others in our ministry.

This means we need therapy before we go out there and deal with people whose tragedies might resemble our own. We need to be prepared when we inadvertently trigger someone else.

I can’t say it enough: every pastor or soon-to-be-pastor must have therapy so that when we are expected to sit with those whose trauma resembles our own, we don’t . . .

  • Make it about ourselves.
  • Find ourselves re-traumatized.
  • Say something harmful.

I remember preaching about the healing of Jairus’ daughter when I looked into the congregation and saw the parents of a four year old who had died on Mothers’ Day that year. It was the first time they had felt strong enough to return to worship and I was preaching about a little daughter who had been healed to people whose little daughter had not been healed.

Dear God.

It’s going to happen. Someone who’s been sexually assaulted will turn to those of us who have also been sexually assaulted. The lectionary is going to land on Matthew 5:21-27 and there will be worshippers present who will have experienced violence, adultery, or divorce. Someone with fertility issues will be triggered when we preach about Hannah. We must be prepared for this.

I agree with those who say, “Of all the passages to use for an exegesis sermon – why not pick John 3:16-17? Why would you pick one that’s not included in the lectionary and will probably not be chosen for a sermon or Bible study in most ministry contexts?” Again, it was not a good choice for an exegesis exam.

And yet: we need to be prepared to talk about/ask questions about/exegete what’s in the entirety of the Bible. Are some passages more essential than others? Absolutely.

Still, we must prepare ourselves for real life. If it was too triggering for a seminarian to answer that particular question, then it would have been okay not to answer it with an explanation why. That response would have helped the writers of ordination exams in the future. It doesn’t help, though, to accuse the exam writers of many of the things they’ve being accused of.

Scripture is triggering. In some instances, we need to be triggered. And life is certainly triggering. And part of spiritual maturity involves learning how to move forward in our own grief and terror so we can sit with others in their’s.

Image is from an actual YouTube video telling the story of Judges 19 and, frankly, it’s creepy. Trigger warning.

March 13

March 13th is my birthday and – as it often happens – world events can impact what certain dates mean to us. I feel for those with birthdays on September 11 or December 7. I remember looking at the July 1988 calendar with HH and realizing that there was a date that month that would be changed forever when our FBC was born.

On March 13, 2020 my birthday was altered by a terrible event in Louisville, Kentucky.

Breonna Taylor, a 26 year old Emergency Room Technician was sleeping in her own bed in Louisville when at least seven police officers entered her apartment in search of a former boyfriend and/or his controlled substances. Three of the officers fired 32 shots into the apartment in response to one shot from her then current boyfriend who thought the officers were intruders. There were no controlled substances. The former boyfriend was ten miles away. And Ms. Taylor was killed.

Although some of the officers were indicted, nobody was found guilty until civil charges were filed by the family. Last summer, Officer Kelly Goodlett was the first officer convicted of a crime after confessing to conspiracy. As of this date, no one has been found guilty of killing her.

She wanted to be a nurse.

Most of you aren’t planning to give me a gift on my birthday in a few days, and I’m not asking you to give me anything (except maybe a prayer that God will continue to use me.)

And yet I am asking you to make a donation to The University of Louisville School of Nursing here in memory of an innocent woman who wanted to help people. There are other young women and men out there who could use our financial support in Breonna Taylor’s name. You can read about this scholarship here in an article that was published on what would have been her 27th birthday.

Remember her birthday: June 5. This June 5th would have been her 30th birthday.

It would be lovely to inundate this scholarship fund with gifts in memorial of Breonna Taylor. Thank you.

Image is a portrait of Breonna Taylor by the great Amy Sherald (2020).

Who’s On the Faculty?

I remember a college meal just after class registration in which friends were sharing their schedules for that semester. When asked, “What are you taking?” we all answered by faculty name, not by course name. Other graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 70s will recognize these professors: Jim Leutze. Grant Wacker. Kimball King. I never would have considered taking military history classes except that Dr. Leutze was teaching them. I easily remember the feast of sitting at the feet (or in the lecture hall) of these amazing men whose words stirred my imagination and prompted all of us to take what we learned to dinner conversations and late night gatherings.

I can hardly believe I was fortunate enough to learn from Krister Stendhal or Walter Brueggemann or Horace Allen in seminary. I remember it like I remember certain desserts I’ve relished.

And notice how all those teachers were white men. Today, I actually have friends who’ve been taught by Cain Hope Felder, Anna Carter Florence, and Yolanda Pierce. (Note Nora Tubbs – my high school Bible Study leader while she was in college – would one day to become the great preaching professor Nora Tubbs Tisdale.)

We are called to be lifelong learners and it matters who’s doing the teaching. Just last weekend, I learned from Aisha Brooks-Johnston about Flourishing in an Unpredictable World. I would have listened to her talk about banana bread. In a few weeks, I’ll be listening to Harvey Gantt and Hugh McColl talk about legacy. Yes, please.

Continuing education is essential for spiritual growth and maturity. It sparks our imagination and our dreams.

But here’s my point: it matters who’s on the faculty. I’ve also attended educational events with faculty who have not been successful at the very thing they are teaching. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman and it’s not true – usually. But sometimes it’s true.

Do yourselves a favor and take any opportunity to learn from Amy Jill Levine, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Marthame Sanders, Matt Epperson, William Yoo, Nick Epley, Leidy Klotz, Nicholas Pierce, Scott Lumsden, Yolanda Pierce, Michelle Thomas-Bush, Yancey Strickler, Eboo Patel, Rodney Sadler, Shawna Bowman, Ashley-Anne Masters, Lisa Koons, Kate Murphy, Gail Henderson-Belsito and Jessica Vazquez Torres. Each is an exceptional teacher in particular topics.

Even if the class is called something like “Becoming the Best Poet/Pastor/Baker/Writer/Barista Ever” don’t take the class from people who are not themselves effective in those things. Always ask before signing up: “Who’s on the faculty?”

Image of Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Dean of Howard University Divinity School, teaching at Chautauqua Institute in 2022. Source.

Are You Retiring Soon? Pro Tip: Leave Some Things Dangling

With every good intention, some of my retired colleagues waited to retire until the church roof was paid off or The Family Life Center was completed. But yesterday, a not-retired colleague lauded the decision of a newly retired pastor who left “while leaving some things dangling.” This afforded a transition team to take ownership of a project. This gave the next leaders a piece of the story.

I’m not telling you to leave things a mess. Don’t wait to retire until there’s no money left to call another pastor. Don’t leave after kicking back for so long that there is no mission infrastructure. Plant seeds. Set up those who will come after you.

(Note: I continue to be profoundly grateful to BM for leaving me with a healthy ministry.)

We like to imagine tying everything into a neat bow before moving to our next thing. I know couples who are looking for the perfect moment to get married, have a baby, start a business. I have friends imagining the perfect time to retire.

Not sure there is always a perfect time for life transitions. Sometimes, maybe, but not always.

It’s not in our nature to leave some things unfinished and we recall – at the end of Lent – that among Jesus’ last words were “It is finished.” Sure there would have been more people to heal, more wisdom to convey, more lessons to learn. But he stopped. And he left some things dangling.

That’s where we come in.

Friends: don’t wait until “everything is done” to retire. The energy you think you are saving the church by “tying up loose ends” might actually be keeping them from growing and moving forward.

At this point in my life, it’s a regular question I ask of trusted colleagues: Is it time for me to retire? (Soon but not quite yet, I’m told.) I look forward to that day when I retire with all kinds of exciting possibilities dangling out there for the Church I love to choose.

The Last of Us

No, it’s not about Presbyterians or The Institutional Church in general.

The Last of Us is an HBO drama based on a video game about what happens on earth when a human fungus exacerbated by global warming causes a pandemic that creates zombie killers. Maybe it doesn’t sound like your kind of entertainment, but it’s actually quite excellent. We see what – not surprisingly – happens when there are lots of guns and terror. There’s desperation. There’s heroism.

A Last of Us fan told me that this show verifies his belief that there is no hope for the world. I’m also a fan but I have a different perspective. I’ve never played the video game, so I don’t know what happens in the end, but my personal faith in what happens “in the end” of human life is fairly hopeful. I could not be part of The Church without the daily signs of hope I am privileged to witness – even in the throes of pandemic/environmental/corporate greed-tinged human life.

Every day I see people who choose to do the right thing. Every day I watch leaders decide to lift others before they lift up themselves. Every day I observe colleagues whose own lives are heavy with grief yet they sit with others in theirs.

And it’s also true that we have congregations that will close in the next 3-6 years. The last of their members are passing away. And the question is how will they exist as the last of that particular congregation?

  • Will the last of these members continue to make efforts to serve their neighbors?
  • Will the last of these members turn inward and serve only each other?
  • Will the last of these members look forward to leaving a legacy of hope and faith?
  • Will the last of these members remember that we are promised resurrection – and it happens on earth as it happens in heaven?

There is great beauty and hope we can offer even if we are the last – the last sibling, the last neighbor, the last church member. The God who creates us to be in community with each other promises that – with resurrection – comes community again.

Image from the HBO drama The Last of Us. Nick Offerman plays the role of a lifetime in Episode 3 as a Massachusetts survivalist.