What Does It Take for a First-Time Pastor to be Called to a Church Today?

I was reading Thomas Friedman’s article here about “working hard and playing by the rules” or –  what it takes to land a good job today.  It moved me to think about what it takes to get a call to a church today.  Believe me, it takes more than working hard and playing by the rules.

It’s – first of all – of course, about God’s call.

God moves us and God moves search committees towards each other.  But there are many good candidates for ordination to professional ministry who work hard and play by the (seemingly countless) rules.

It used to be true that seminarians had a call waiting for them upon graduation, but those were the days when churches were large enough to have associate pastors or even “assistant pastors.”  Some of us will remember those days.

Today it takes an average of 2-3 years to find that first call out of seminary.  Why?

  • Sometimes it’s because the candidate still has required preparation to complete: Clinical Pastoral Education or an internship or more time to take/pass ordination exams.
  • Sometimes it’s because there are simply not enough positions for first-time calls.  As I write this, there are 327 people seeking their first call and there are 140 openings.
  • Sometimes it’s because we have second career pastors who already have FT careers and they can take their time looking for a first pastoral call, waiting for just the right one.
  • Sometimes those deemed ready to be ordained to their first call have spouses or other family members to accommodate.  Finding two positions in a certain geographic area is at least twice as hard as finding one.

So what about working hard and playing by the rules?  Those things are basic.

And it’s true that some Search Committees are looking for a certain age demographic that does not describe you.  But honestly, I’m finding that there are  committees looking pastors of every age group, depending upon the job description.

For the 21st Century Church (and maybe this was true for previous centuries to a point) churches seem to be looking for:

  • An authentic pastor leader – someone who can articulate a vision based on the leading of the Spirit that matches the real context of that congregation.  (Example:  don’t call someone who says he can draw in lots of new members who look just like them when the neighborhood no longer looks like them.)
  • Someone who will love you enough to tell you the difficult truth (“Our church is not a big deal in town any longer.”)
  • Someone who will love you even when you freak out over cultural changes.  (e.g. You just noticed that even Church Culture needs to change and this is both Biblical and faithful.)
  • Someone you will follow.  One phenomenon I’ve seen is the “older member” church who calls a young pastor with the intention of controlling her/him.  Don’t do this.
  • Someone who is teachable.  Don’t call the woman/man who doesn’t care to learn who you are, what you are about, what new things God is pointing out.  Beware of wise fools.
  • Someone who knows how to interpret the Word of God in live action.  Every academic person can do a book report.  But it takes a pastor to interpret how Scripture relates to our real life – and not only from the pulpit.  [Note: Loved reading this morning that my friend MK’s church in Chicago opened their doors to striking Chicago teachers who needed to use the facilities.  A small but teachable moment.]

New pastors will need to do more than work hard and follow the rules.  The unique thing about seminary training as opposed to other professional training is that you can jump through all the hoops, take all professional exams, and complete all academic requirements and STILL not be called to professional ministry.  It doesn’t mean you aren’t called to ministry.  It means you aren’t called to this particular ministry.  This is Good News if you understand that God does the calling and speaks to us through a variety of human beings and life circumstances.


One response to “What Does It Take for a First-Time Pastor to be Called to a Church Today?

  1. Jan, this was a very thoughtful piece on finding a call. I appreciate how you’ve identified a number of concerns related to ministry, but I’ve gotta say that waiting 2-3 years for a call is not so much about the ability of the pastor or readiness of a church. It’s a sociological issue. We just don’t have that many calls that offer “professional ministry” and it’s only going to get tougher. Theological education is wonderful, but I’ve met too many wonderfully equipped pastors and would-be pastors who are without a sustainable call to believe things are going to improve. This saddens me because of the investment of time and money and energy, but I see no solution that will address the situation. From COMs to Seminary leaders and faculty, to the local church, there’s a persistent denial of the challenge. And launching 1,000 new faith communities is laudatory, but I’d settle right now for 50. Heck, I’d settle for just one in my current presbytery.

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