This Could Change Everything (in the PCUSA)

Note:  This brilliant idea comes from a colleague who doesn’t want to be identified.  You know who you are, my friend.  Thank you.  I will refer to you as The Ingenious One. (TIO)

Time for Change clockIn my pontiff-less, Cupich-less denomination, pastors seeking new calls complete a Personal Information Form (a PIF) and congregations seeking new pastors complete a Ministry Information Form (a MIF).  It’s not exactly e-Harmony for church but that’s the basic idea.

Here’s the gaping, sabotage-creating problem:  pastors express their hopes of serving a congregation that wants to make a difference in their communities and in their souls.  They have energy for “growth” and “change.”  And maybe the congregation says that they, too, want “growth” and “change” but there is no evidence that the congregation has ever made the effort to do so. They say it, but in their heart of hearts, they don’t really mean it either consciously or unconsciously.  It could be that they don’t know how or it’s too painful or it’s too much work or they simply cannot imagine a different way or they have forgotten that the church is about Jesus.

But this will become the flash point in their future ministry with their new pastor.

One of the questions a pastor is required to answer in the PIF is this:  Describe a moment in your recent ministry that you recognize as one of success and fulfillment.

My friend TIO wants to know why this question is not also asked in the MIF.  The answer would tell all potential candidates a slice of the real story about that congregation.  For example, consider these answers.

Describe a moment in your recent ministry that you recognize as one of success
and fulfillment.

  • We redecorated the parlor two years ago after receiving funds from the estate of one of our beloved members.
  • We celebrated the 17th anniversary of our Christmas Elves program last December.
  • We had several cottage meetings about worship and selected a new hymnal.
  • We added a new Sunday School class called The Newspaper Class.
  • We installed a screen in the sanctuary which we use occasionally for praise songs.
  • After talking with local school officials about the issue of teenage depression in our community, we partnered with a cafe near the school last summer to offer a gathering space for high school students after school and on Monday nights. A committed group of our members offer presence, mentoring, and a weekly informal God Talk which offers the opportunity to discuss Meaning of Life topics. The God Talks have connected 8-15 students each week and it seems to be making a difference.

See what I mean?  The answer to this question would speak volumes on where the congregation truly is and what their DNA might be.

Too often congregations seeking “growth” and “change” call a young pastor, let’s say, imagining that all they need to do is have a younger presence in the pulpit.  “Other young people will flock to us.”  Or they believe that calling a young pastor with young children will attract other young families.

Note to all churches who have ever thought this was The Plan:  it does not work that way.  It’s not about appearances.  It’s about the energy and will of the congregation to commit to loving neighbors and making disciples – the marks of true growth and change.

The pastor – of any age – cannot be expected to be the only one who can “Describe a moment in your recent ministry that you recognize as one of success and fulfillment.”  Not asking the congregations this question perpetuates the notion that the pastor – and only the pastor – is responsible for “success and fulfillment.”

And so – if the MIF doesn’t ask it – maybe candidates should ask it:

“What has this church done to make changes and growth in the past year?”  The answer will tell a deeper story.

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19 responses to “This Could Change Everything (in the PCUSA)

  1. Absolutely Brilliant….

    One question I like to ask churches I work with is: “Imagine your community as a wall of bricks. If your church is a brick in that wall, which brick would you say you are? Which brick would the community consider you? Which brick would you like to be?”

    It takes a little while for them sometimes, but it throws them off because it’s not a question they normally get asked. And it makes them think.

  2. As a person who served on a search committee and who recently served as Presbytery liaison to another search committee, I think this is a great idea.

  3. Sarah Schmidt-Lee

    This is a great idea! Has it been proposed to the CLC, yet? How can we advocate for this change?

  4. Or rather than asking generic corporate interview questions:

    “Describe a time when someone accepted Jesus Christ as their a Savior.” “When did someone leave everything in order to follow Jesus Christ?”
    “How are you all bearing every aspect of the fruit of the Spirit?”
    “Tell me how your gatherings a spurring one another on towards love and good deeds, or are you no longer getting together as some are in the habit of doing.”

    You know, questions based on scripture that would be different than the social agency down the road (where they are more successful at helping the poor and needy anyway).

    BTW–don’t even get me started on the fact that the PIF does not ask for an explicit faith story. That needs to be the first question of every search committee–“when did you accept Jesus as your Savior?”

  5. Esperanza/Monica

    I’ve also asked “What would be hardest to change here in this congregation?” Very revealing.

  6. I like this. By the way, though, I also think many pastors in our denomination are as misguided about growth as our congregations. The church might think if that new parlor looks nicer, people will come in to enjoy it. The pastor might think if they preach really nicely, people will come in to enjoy it. Both need to be more committed to evangelism that is consistent with our theology: how to spread the good news beyond our doors, *not* only with service, but also with words, prayer, symbols, and heightened attention to visitor follow-up.

  7. I was one of the staff on the design group for the “new” call system in the mid 90’s. What you want was part of the design. All that remains that I see is that the congregation gives references from the community. We wanted a matching declaration from the congregation for every one that the candidate has to give. There was a much beloved GA moderator who did everything she could to kill it.

  8. Surely, a great idea; as a matter of fact, it’s a good self-evaluation question for Session members and the Session. And, a good question for each of us in the Church family. It will preach!

  9. That will preach!

  10. not a part of your fellowship (to my knowledge!), but i recently asked a similar question of a church while in the search process. it caught them off guard. RED FLAG! RED FLAG! if they can’t think of something – watch out! Great post!

  11. Our congregation just celebrated the 10th anniversary of hosting a group of young “starving artists” who have now become our main mission. Ten years ago we turned 20 unused classrooms into artist studios and gave them to these artists, who have created a community in which ideas and critiques are shared, young artists have made strides in their field, and most recently, ex-convicts are now employed by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to assist in mural painting going on in the Church Studios. (Can you imagine: a church involved in the redemption business!)
    We have 20-25 mostly older people in worship, and have not had any success in attracting younger folks. The artists are Christians but not members of our congregation, although we think of them as our “young congregation” and they do all kinds of chores (like snow shoveling!) and are willing to do just about anything to help around the building.
    We are now in the beginning stages of leasing worship space to a PCA congregation, which will help with our finances. Our church, led by a woman pastor, no less, has been partnering in various ways with this PCA congregation for the last couple of years, trying to find ways to do mission together in our upscale Philadelphia neighborhood. Thankfully, our presbytery is supporting our efforts to do ministry “outside of the box.”
    We have also given one of our rooms to a young Jewish woman who survived a traumatic brain injury and is so thankful to be alive that she created a non-profit in a desire to “give something back.” She collects new and gently used baby clothing and goods and gives it to families in need.
    All this is to say, that I really think our little congregation has really tried to do new and different things to reach out to our community, and we are truly humbled to think that God is using us to be the hands and feet of Jesus, who is transforming lives through us. The big question is, “How long can so few of us support and maintain our 120-year-old building?” We can go and be the church in someone’s living room, but our young artists won’t easily find shared studio space, genuine community, and Christian love and generosity anywhere else.
    What we need is a new PCUSA worshiping community meeting in our building who could become the new congregation that will continue this very special ministry long after we’re gone. Are there any takers out there?
    –Linda Jaymes

  12. Our PCUSA church currently seeks a new pastor. Since our last pastor left, the members have started a new outreach to children and free monthly community dinners, just because we want to demonstrate to our town that we love them. We seek a pastor who wants to win souls to Christ and who will stand for orthodox biblical truth. Sometimes truth isn’t politically correct, you know. If you’re interested, send your PIF to chicory111@yahoo.com

  13. Great article, thanks. One issue that doesn’t get discussed; what happens when the new pastor doesn’t make all the wonderful things happen? Somehow the partnership between congregation, pastor, and God gets lost and all the responsiblity fall on the pastor. When searching we all want to put our best foot forward but perhaps some honest assessment about where we are and where we can realistically go would be really helpful.

  14. Our church recently completed a Pastor search. That kind of question could easily be asked/answered during an interview, where it would receive a more honest response. A skilled wordsmith could make even “repainting the parlor” look good in a document; conversation will bring out a more accurate depiction of the life of the church.

    • Of course that also implies that the question is better asked of the pastor in an interview, not in writing. If the pastor is required to answer written questions about change or about success/fulfillment, but the congregation is not, it sets up an implicit assumption that those things are the pastor’s responsibility.

  15. YES!!!! Now if only the denomination could get the message. And if only our churches would hear and act on this challenge.

  16. Perfect. Love this idea. “We have been blessed with 6 different pastors over the last decade”

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