General CBF

Searching for the called

By Laura Stephens-Reed 

laurastephensreedI first became interested in the intricacies of the ministerial search & call process when I was a junior in high school. That year I was asked to participate in the bi-annual hunt for a settled youth minister. (Yes, you read that correctly.) As a member of the committee, I read through stacks of resumes, then listened to others around the table share what they did or didn’t like about each candidate. Generally, the positives were tied to how said candidate was different from the previous youth minister. The inverse was true as well.

The minister that our committee recommended and that the congregation called managed to hold on for two turbulent years. He was then replaced by his polar opposite, and the cycle began again. Meanwhile, my peers and I were confused, divided and wounded.

Many youth and their families disappeared, uninterested in enduring the drama when what we all sought was a place to worship, grow and serve. It was gut-wrenching, and I wanted to understand. I deeply loved my church and the people in it, but something was amiss, and it was keeping a youth ministry with great promise continually churned up.

I began to get a better grasp on the complexity of search and call when I started interviewing with search committees and serving as an interim in churches looking for settled ministers. There is potential for derailment at every stage of the calling process if, for example, the search committee does its work before the congregation has healed from fresh wounds and assessed its priorities; if the committee doesn’t accurately represent the expectations of the congregation as whole; if the committee’s filters prevent the most pertinent information about candidates from floating to the top; if communication breaks down within the committee, between the committee and the congregation, or between the committee and the candidates; if no one knows who is supposed to help the called minister transition in well, and as a result, no one does. And these are just a few examples of the hiccups that can happen during the transition time.

And yet, despite the landmines, the work of a ministerial search committee has the potential to set the congregation’s trajectory for years to come. If the search committee takes its time, tunes in to the real needs and gifts of the congregation and community and listens deeply for the Holy Spirit, it will usually recommend a leader that fits well with the mission and culture of the church. It will also pave the way for the called minister’s smooth start. Clergy and laity can then work fruitfully together to fulfill God’s yearnings for them. And the seeds of discernment sown by the search committee can carry and plant new life, new spiritual practices, in the church as a whole.

Despite the crucial task that search committees take on, the enthusiastic, faithful, and capable people who comprise them rarely receive much guidance on how calling a minister is different from hiring an employee or on how to design and conduct the process. And so, with the help of generous funding from the Louisville Institute, I am studying search committee best practices, resources currently available to search committees and gaps in materials, training and support.

I then hope to develop an easily-customizable approach to search committee work that draws primarily on the fields of coaching and spiritual direction. My prayer is that this approach will invite the Holy Spirit into every stage of the process, avoid common pitfalls and model healthy leadership for the congregation.

Toward this end I welcome the wisdom of settled and interim clergy, past and present search committee chairs and state coordinators:

  • If you would be willing to take a survey, please click here.
  • If you would be willing to participate in an interview, please click here.
  • If you would be willing to participate in a focus group at General Assembly, please click here.

Thank you in advance for your assistance with this undertaking. I believe that together we can better resource search committees for their essential work, with positive ripple effects throughout congregations, communities and CBF life as a whole.

Laura Stephens-Reed is CBF Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. She is also a clergy coach and blogs at laurastephensreed.com.

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