By Richard Kew
Since I have been kicking around the church as a priest on both sides of the Atlantic for more than fifty years, I was recently asked if I had a few tips when searching for another call. I came up with this rag-tag selection of ideas. When he read them, my friend suggested these might be helpful to others at a transition point in their ordained life. So I offer them to that end.
I make these suggestions based on one or two good moves, but there are others that have been indifferent or downright terrible. I guess that makes me an expert!
- Unless you are brilliantly gifted or just happen to be in the right place at the right time, don’t expect your search to be over in a matter of a few weeks or even months. The right kind of ministry positions don’t generally come looking for you; you go looking for them.
- When looking for a move, give yourself adequate time to undertake the business of the search. If you are without a position then, for the time being, your fulltime job is looking for a job. Treat it as such.
- If you already have a position then this is the second most important task on your daily agenda. But for goodness sake don’t give short shrift to your present ministry because your eyes are on the horizon.
- All of us have networks of friends, colleagues, etc., so make sure your network knows what you are looking for. While a parish priest has to be careful not unsettle the present congregation, don’t be coy or secretive with your network about your desire to move. Your contacts are by far your greatest asset, especially those laity and clergy who themselves have wide networks of friends and colleagues in the Episcopal Church, who are likely to know of possible openings, and who are in a position to recommend you.
- Background research on a potential congregation is vital. The internet makes this far easier than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The more you know about a parish, its culture, where the potholes might be, and so forth, the more time, effort, and resources you’ll be able to save yourself and others by being able to shake your head and say, “This isn’t for me.”
- I was a naive 20-something when I was ordained, believing the Lord would miraculously lead me to the right place. He does guide us, but requires us to throw ourselves into the search. This is where your research comes in, because only with that knowledge can you ask the right questions, pick up on inconsistencies, or see the red flags for the warnings they are.
- Search committees are usually honorable folks struggling to be honest and do the right thing for the parish they love. They might be so eager to find the right person that they become economical with the truth about their church, much like rosy-eyed parents eager for their son or daughter to bring home the potential spouse of their dreams!
- Ask serious and difficult questions about whether you would fit there, and then listen assiduously to the answers. There is one parish I served where I always regretted I never did this.
- Get some understanding of the history of the parish — in some cases, the parish DNA marks them as priest-killers. When priests are in such situations it could spell the permanent end of their ministry. The marriage of more than one pastor I know ended on the rocks because of the parish.
- See what you can discover about the character and ministry of previous rectors, and if they are in any way available, ask these men and women about their years there.
- Look for outsiders who might know that parish as outsiders, and see if they are able to assess it more objectively than the members who are trying to “sell” the place to you.
- In some ways the financials are more important than the profile, attendance figures, etc. Carefully analyzed they will tell you a great deal more than the nature of the stewardship challenge; they should tell you something about commitment, understanding of mission, and so forth.
- I raise the issue of stewardship because I am convinced that the senior pastor is the one ultimately responsible for seeing that the congregation is financially able to fund its mission, ministry, outreach, and infrastructure. A rector who is stewardship leader must lead by example, by teaching, by being willing to talk honestly about money, and by being at least a tither. Episcopalians, alas, often have the same reticence about money as the English.
- While this may go against Anglo-Catholic instincts, my observation from half a century of Episcopal ministry is that parishes are more interested in how the priest preaches than how he or she celebrates the Eucharist. The biggest number of parish profiles I received through the Church Deployment Office put that at the top of the list of expectations of the new rector, regardless of theology or churchmanship.
- Explore the demographics of the location in which the church is situated, check this against the demographics of the congregation. That will give you a pretty good idea of the work that you would have to do. A while back, I was interim rector of a fine parish whose core membership was significantly older than that of new families moving into the area. The challenge in this situation was providing a threshold over which younger folk will willingly come.
- These days it is politically incorrect for a congregation to say they want the priest’s spouse to be engaged in its life. Certainly, the spouse, unless he or she desires it, should not be expected to be an unpaid staff person – and may well have a career of his or her own, but just about every congregation I know wants a spouse engaged in church life and thoroughly supportive of the spouse’s ministry. The historic memory of the traditional pastor’s wife since the time of the Reformation dies hard.
- When looking at a place, the question must be asked whether you are willing to stay there for the rest of your life. Do you want to raise kids there? Do you want this to be your friendship base? Is this somewhere you can grow old?
- It is necessary to assess your own gifts and skills as well as the point in the cycle of congregational life where that parish is. The honest question must be “Do I have what it takes to be the pastoral leader of this congregation?” Some congregations are in the midst of or are recovering from a crisis, others are in a rut. Some are lackadaisical, while others still might be very alive, but what they believe is all over the place. What do you have to bring to the mix at St. Swithin’s – or should this be someone else’s job? There is nothing worse than being stuck in the wrong place, so this is a crucial question to answer honestly together with your spouse, family, etc.
- I have been ordained for over fifty years, but it wasn’t until halfway through my ordained life that I was in a diocese where the bishop shared my theological orthodoxy. Yet despite differences with my earlier bishops, I came to respect and appreciate the pastoral care almost all of them offered. Things are more polarized today, but there is no reason why a biblical and/or traditional Anglican should not bear witness to the received gospel in a progressive/liberal diocese. Yet it is far less stressful to be part of a diocese that is basically heading in the same direction as you. Thus, the nature of the diocese comes into any equation.
- What I have not said is what is implied from the beginning. A good chunk of the search is undertaken on your knees and in the company of spouses and children who might share your life.
There are probably a dozen other concerns, but these come to a mind whose ordained ministry began a little before Woodstock. I am grateful for all who have walked with me through these years, and while I am more on the sidelines now, I have this conviction that the Lord still has more for those of us who serve him in the Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Richard Kew is priest associate at St. George’s Church, Nashville.