Pastoral Transitions 6
In the first set of posts in this series we discussed how to decide whether to leave your current ministry or to stay and continue serving the Lord right where you are at. Go or stay, basically. If you have decided to stay then there is no immediate point in continuing to read this series. I am sincerely happy for you, and I trust the Lord will give you grace, mercy, and peace as you continue to labor in your familiar portion of the vineyard. On the other hand, if you have decided it is time to go, the question that then immediately follows is, “What do I do now?” Assuming your intention is to continue in the ministry, albeit at another location, it is this question our blog post today purports to answer.
Let me begin by saying the overarching principle that governs your approach here is two-fold: 1) you must totally depend upon God, and 2) you must work at this project with all your of your might. Unfortunately, much of the advice you will receive in this scenario revolves more around the first than the second, and often revolves around the first to the exclusion of the second. Such an approach – that we ought to sit still while we wait for God to send the next ministry opportunity wafting down to us out of Heaven – is unscriptural and unbalanced. Yes, I realize it is possible to take all the responsibility upon yourself, to fallow the field of prayer, and to work away at it hammer and tongs ignoring the plan, purpose, and provision of God all the while. But, honestly, how many men in ministry do you know like that? Especially about this particular question? I know none. More often, the course now presented as advisable to the man seeking his next ministry is to essentially do nothing while waiting on God to do something. By implication if not suggestion, actively turning something up is a lack of faith combined with an abundance of presumption. Emphatically, I reject such counsel.
In Psalm 104, while discussing the animal kingdom, the psalmist informs us that God provides them with the food they need to live, but in the very next breath he informs us that they have to work at obtaining that which God has provided. These wait all upon thee; That thou mayest give them their meat in due season. That thou givest them they gather: Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good (Psalm 104.27-28). The psalmist illustrates this with the lion. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God (Psalm 104.21). God gives the lion his food but he must go get it. In other words, God will provide food for even those in the animal kingdom, but He will not rain it down on their lazy head. They have to get up and actively pursue it. They must roar after their prey if they are going to receive what God has for them.
In truth, the animal kingdom is only a facet of the universal application of this principle. For example, in II Kings 3 Israel, while invading Moab, found its horses dying of thirst. Elisha told them that God would send them water – if the people would dig all kinds of ditches. In the very next chapter, God promised the prophet’s widow He would provide oil for her but she had to go get the vessels to put it in. In Genesis 3.19 and II Thessalonians 3.10 we are explicitly commanded to work at obtaining our provision. Proverbs 18.24 tells us that the way to obtain friends is to be friendly, to work at befriending others. If I want to fill my church auditorium full to bursting Luke 14.23 implies I should go find people and bring them in. And I could go and on and on. If God is leading you from one ministry to the next, He will provide the next, but you cannot just sit there waiting for it to appear. You must work at finding it all the while you are completely depending upon the Lord to provide it.
“Ok, Bro. Brennan, you have convinced me. What I still don’t know is how to do that. I’ve decided to go, like Abraham, I know not where. I understand I need to work at it. What do I do next?”
“But you just got done telling me not to sit and wait on God to magically furnish something. Now you are telling me to ask Him to magically furnish something.” No, I am not. I am counseling you to take your burdens to the Lord. Tell Him what He already knows. Pour out your heart at His feet. Tell Him your need and your family’s need and your church’s need. Beg for guidance, for protection from yourself, for His perfect will. Lay your will at His feet. And do it again and again and again, week after week, month after month, year after year for as long as it takes. I am eminently for the practical in these matters but the spiritual must ever take precedence. Pray.
The most obvious next step is to tell others that you are looking for what comes next, but prior even to that immediate step you must decide whom to tell. It is precisely here that we find our first sticky wicket. Should you or should you not inform your current church that you are planning to leave? There are those who say you should. They assert that not to do so is to be deceptive and dishonest. After all, if you are really trusting God you should be as aboveboard as possible. You should go the extra mile, remove any possible question, and be a man of open integrity.
To put it simply, I absolutely disagree, not with the fact we should be men of integrity but that this integrity demands we be immediately public about our current thinking and plans. I say that for several reasons. First, there are many other areas of pastoring to which we would never apply this thinking. There are numerous aspects of ministry that we keep private for the time being and yet still manage to maintain our integrity while doing so. Additionally, in my judgment, you will paralyze your ability to lead your current church if they realize you are contemplating leaving. The phrase “lame duck” is in our political vocabulary for a reason. They will interpret every decision you make through the lens of your pursuit of another ministry and your soon coming absence. Their confidence in your judgment and their willingness to accede to your scriptural authority will both erode. “Listen, Pastor, I know you think our church should do such and such but you aren’t even planning on staying. How can you possibly make decisions for us when you won’t be here to see them through?” And that is the polite form of that conversation. It only gets uglier. The followship spirit of a church will be ruined if they know you plan to leave. And as that followship spirit deteriorates you will feel more and more pressure to find your next situation soonest, which pressure is disastrous for careful, prayerful, patient consideration of the next situation. There may come a time when you need to fire that bullet, to mix metaphors, but hold it for the last bullet in your gun. Do not rush to inform your current church of your plans; only do that as a last resort.
I would counsel then that while you ought to inform some people of your decision that circle should be kept rather narrow. Choose men whom you know well and whom you trust. Preachers are networkers by default, for the most part. They often hear through the grapevine of some pastor leaving or some church looking for a pastor. If they know you well and trust you, they will pass that information along to you. At the same time, they will keep the knowledge of your desire for a different ministry in complete confidence. That confidence is essential. Loose lips sink ships, so to speak. If you think it wisest not to inform your current ministry of your search for what comes next, but some pastor of your acquaintance carelessly lets that fact slip to others it could very easily make its way back to your congregation by the back door. This may well cause even more harm by its arrival in that manner than if you had informed your church yourself.
In my case, when I made the decision to leave my pastorate in Chicago I combed through my pastor friends and chose those I wanted to inform of my decision. I then wrote a letter informing them of my desire. In that letter, I explained the thinking that had led me to that point so they could understand I was not just running from something or dissatisfied with my current arrangement. You will recall, we talked about this a few weeks ago. In that letter to those pastors I then discussed in broad parameters what kind of situation I was open to next. (We will discuss this in a future post.) I closed by asking them to keep this information in confidence, and to kindly inform me if and when they became aware of anything that fit those parameters. In the end, this approach led directly to my current pastorate, though much water would flow under the bridge in the intervening time period.
Along with informing a select circle of your friends, there are a number of different places online where such information is archived. For example, there are several Facebook groups that actively seek to connect men looking for a pastorate with churches looking for a pastor. Join those groups, read each post, and follow up with those churches that initially seem a good fit. In addition to social media, there are also a number of websites that attempt to list every independent Baptist church in the United States, or even some foreign countries. These websites will list each church they find, that church’s website, address, phone number, and current pastor. Since there are always some churches without a pastor, they will often categorize those in some searchable database. Often that information is incorrect, but occasionally it is correct. Combing through those databases will produce leads for you. Besides social media groups and online church databases, there are several independent Baptist evangelists who actively maintain lists of churches looking for pastors. Indeed, there are actually some ministries dedicated entirely to this. When you come across such men or ministries, communicate in simple terms your desire to access that information and they will tell you how to do so.
Understanding the philosophical and practical approach I have given you thus far what I am going to say next should be no surprise. Work at it. Set aside some time every week to work on looking for your next ministry opportunity. Read the posts in those Facebook groups. Search the online databases. Read the communications from the evangelists and placement ministries. Do not do it every day, by any means. Doing so will pull your attention away from your current ministry in an unhealthy way. But do it regularly. Do it even when it seems like nothing new ever pops up. Do it even when you are frustrated and weary with it. Do it even when you are discouraged. Just like any other job, show up and work hard even when you do not feel like it.
In so doing, from time to time, a position that intrigues you will cross your path. Do not immediately call them. Before you do that, spend some time researching the opportunity. Try to find everything about the church in question you possibly can. Learn how to dig. See if you have any friends in common who might know something about that church. If you do, call them. Ask them how well they know the church, and press them for any specifics as to its immediately prior and current situation. Obviously, you will want to read every word written on the church’s website. In my case, depending on my level of interest, I would also read every post on the church’s Facebook or Twitter page. I wanted to gather as much information about that church as I possibly could to inform my decision as to whether to pursue the opportunity or not. Even the absence of available information tells you something.
In addition to in-depth research on the church in question, examine in some detail the city in which the church is located. Read the Wikipedia articles about the town and the county. Access the town’s website. Find the tourist websites for the area and read what they have to say, always keeping in mind their slant. Type the town’s name or the church’s zip code into City-data. This website gives you detailed demographic, crime, housing, education, and employment information. City-data also hosts forums where people discuss what real life is like in these cities and neighborhoods. Search them for information on the town or area in question and read the threads that come up. Gather as much information as you can.
“Tom, that sounds like a whole lot of work.” Truer words were never spoken. I am not exaggerating when I say that the time I spent looking for my next church included hundreds of hours doing such tasks. My family was too important to trust to some hap-hazard, seat-of-the-pants approach. I did my homework, massive amounts of it. In so doing, I ruled out many more churches than I ruled in. Conservatively, I examined hundreds of such pastorates but I only took the next step with less than twenty. It is not spray and pray. It is selectively target based on lots of research and pray.
Once you have ruled in an opportunity what do you do next? I would counsel you to send the church your resume along with a cover letter written specifically for that church. I am not going to patronize you with advice about how to write a resume other than to say it should include your personal information, your family information, your ministry experience, your doctrinal statement, and perhaps some of your ministry philosophy. You may also choose to include references. But the cover letter is just as important as the resume. It says to the church that you are personally invested in them, that you have taken some time to research, think, and pray about their situation. You can also use it to briefly explain why you think you may be a good fit for their specific situation.
In some cases, if you know of someone who has a direct connection to the church you can ask them to hand deliver it. That carries more impact than a letter showing up in the mail from someone they have never heard of. Regardless, send the resume. If several weeks go by without a response follow up with a kind phone call to the church. Simply ask them to confirm that they received the resume.
In a future post we will discuss what comes next, but for the moment let me offer you one more vital thought for your consideration at this point. The importance of this concept is outsize to the space I have to devote to it. Having done all of this research and sent your resume, do your best to forget the church entirely. This is both tremendously difficult and vitally necessary. All that work will attach your heart to the possibilities inherent in this ministry but it is not your ministry to lead at this point. You already have one of those. And you cannot lead the one you have effectively if you are constantly thinking about another one. So forget it. Not only that, but the sad truth is the average church you send your resume to will not even bother to respond. They do not understand how much you have already invested in them, and no one has taught them the simple courtesy of a response. Your resume will probably vanish into the ether never to be seen again. Consequently, you must move on to the next research project. It just has to be done.
You will be tempted to constantly check your phone and your email and your mailbox for messages from said church. Do not. You will be repeatedly tempted to pull up their Facebook page to see if there is any news about their pastoral search. Do not. Their live feed will beckon you. Ignore it. You have done your due diligence. You have fulfilled God’s intention for you to work hard at obtaining His provision. Now leave the response in His hands.They are wonderfully beneficent hands.