During the education that was supposed to prepare me for ministry, one of the most valuable things I learned was to always ask for the job description when I was interviewing for a pastoral position. When you’re being hired to be a pastor you might think you know what that means, or at least have a general idea of the expectations for that role. You would be wrong.
I once saw a cartoon about a new pastor being shown around the church office. In one corner was a file cabinet with a sign that read, “Hidden Agenda.” The caption was the board member speaking to the new pastor, “When you’ve been here for 3 years we’ll give you the key for this.”
The agenda isn’t always hidden but the expectations can be genuinely challenging to suss out.
Even with a job description.
One of the suggestions I’ve made to people new to pastoring a church who are engaging in the search process: ask the church to tell you their story. Where have they come from? How did they start? How has the church developed? Where do they see themselves going? What has their relationship to the pastor(s) been like? When have they felt really well pastored? When have they felt disappointed with their pastor(s)? Ask for stories.
Our stories tend to reveal what our job descriptions are cleverly written enough to disguise.
My other suggestion is that the pastor engaged in the search then considers their own story, their journey of pastoral formation, what being a pastor means to them and sort out whether their story is complimentary to or in conflict with the story of the church looking to hire them.
But never assume you know what a church means when they say, “We’re looking to hire a new pastor.” Or what someone means when they say, “I’d like to be a pastor.”
There’s a meme out there, maybe you’ve seen it, about a pastor and it includes 4 dramatically different pictures with these captions: what my friends think I do, what my church thinks I do, what I think I do and what my mom thinks I do. Meant for laughs, it illustrates how strikingly dissimilar our ideas about “what a pastor does” can be.
A friend was hired by a small church in Kansas and would give a monthly report to his board about his activities in ministry from the previous month. The board was mostly happy with him but after 3 months they let him know they were deeply disappointed with the number of calls he was making on people in the small hospital in their town.
He was slacking.
Their previous pastor had recorded at least 80 hospital visits every month. My friend pointed out that their church barely had 80 people and only one or two of the elderly members were in the hospital regularly. They couldn’t tell him how their previous pastor had done it, just that he had and they expected him to earn his pay.
The next day my friend visited the hospital and asked the staff about his predecessor. Everyone there knew who his predecessor was and they told him that once a week he would come by the small hospital, get on their PA system and say a prayer for everyone in the hospital, patients, doctors, nurses and staff. After his prayer he would ask for the exact number of people inside the building who could have heard his prayer. It turned out that was the number he recorded as his weekly hospital visitations.
The thing is, sometimes the people who hire pastors don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do.
We have come to depend on “unreliable narrators” to tell us what a pastor ought to be doing. The person who preceded us may have used half their paycheck to buy church supplies and that precedent establishes a norm that becomes an expectation.
I was a youth pastor in another life. It never occurred to me when I was being interviewed to ask why the church office area had a shower built into the office bathroom. A year in, I finally asked. A previous and beloved youth pastor, whose shadow I was living in – despite being the replacement for his replacement – had asked it be installed because some days he worked at the office late into the night, went to sleep on his office couch, and then woke up, showered and started his day in the office all over again in order to get ‘er done.
Yes, he was married.
If I had asked about it and heard that story during the interview process I probably would have given serious thought (I was young so yes, just ‘probably’) to whether my story was a match to theirs. But if my wife had heard that story…
The reality was that in that church I would never measure up because I would never be the guy who worked all night at the office, showered and started over again the next morning.
The only way most people know what a pastor ought to do is the story they have been in, written by what the pastors they have known have done or by the culture of the expectation of the board of the church of which they have been a part or from TV and movies. And it’s hard, as the pastor, to live up to expectations you might never imagine. Expectations that in no way fit the story you know.
Part of the complication of all this is…well, let me just tell you that I collect books about pastoring. I have bookcases full of books about church leadership and what a pastor’s job is really supposed to be. The definitive descriptions.
And they don’t agree with each other.
None of them. Other than the those written by the same author.
It’s probably true that in every vocation there are a number of perspectives on how that vocation is best carried out. Whether it’s a teacher, a doctor, a plumber or a pastor, there plenty of opinions.
In most of those cases you have a single boss or manager or maybe a board or HR department, but pastors of small churches have 60 or 80 individuals who have their own hot take on what and how a pastor should be fulfilling their vocation. Mega-church pastors get to multiply that by hundreds or thousands and then include the internet trolls who offer their critique from a distance.
And imagine going to church and for every church you visit there’s some disagreement on exactly what the pastor is there for. Imagine a vocation so subjective that academics and practitioners have not been able to agree on a common definition for about 1600 years.
You might wonder, “Surely they agree on the broad strokes, even if they vary in the minutiae?” It would be nice, wouldn’t it? People out of the same school might, people from a small denomination or a small geographical slice of a denomination might. But mostly no. Not really. I can share a reading list. I can post some blog links.
It’s no wonder then, when pastors today are trying to sort out whether or not they’re living it right, they turn to the modern metrics, they turn to our culture and we lean our ladders against the same walls as everyone else in the hope of getting some validation for the choices we’ve made. “How many people are coming? A lot? I must be doing it right.” “Only a small number? I must be doing something wrong – we all know healthy things grow…and cancer. Cancer grows too. At an alarming rate actually.
Anyway, what was I talking about…?”
When I planted a church, I had the opportunity to write my own job description. Which sounds pretty great. And it was. But over 11 years of life in a new church what I discovered was that every Christian who joined our church came with a job description for “pastor” already written in their hearts. John Ortberg once shared that “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” That pretty well sums up my experience with Christians and pastoral ministry.
What’s your story? That’s what I would encourage everyone to figure out.
Here are questions for everyone thinking about what comes next…
What kind of story are you in?
Is it a pastoral formation story?
Is it an entrepreneurial story?
Is it a CEO story?
Is it an administrator story?
A counselor story?
A camp counselor story?
Is it a king of Israel story?
Are you in a solo story? A duet? An ensemble or a symphony story?
What has your story been working into you? What has it been working out of you? What kind of vocation has it been leading you towards? Does your story play nicely with the story of the church you’re considering pastoring?
Give me some tips on what practices have helped you figure out what kind of story you are in.