A year ago today, I announced to all my friends that my days of searching for a church were over (at least for the extended future, anyway). After nearly a year of editing resumes, filling out questionnaires, meeting with search committees, falling in and out of love with churches, and starting back over again, I finally found the place where both the church and I felt confident that God called us to serve together.
The day came with a mixture of relief and anxiety, joy and grief, hope and despair. For nearly a full year, my life revolved around finding a job. I grew more and more adept at praising myself, crafting the art of charming search committees. I became accustomed to waiting – for a phone call, e-mail, you name it. Every three months, I would start packing boxes, confident that a call would come from one of the multiple churches interviewing me. And weeks later, I’d hang another picture on the wall, a visible reminder that it hadn’t, and I would continue to spend the foreseeable future in Atlanta.
You see, the church search process is much different from your typical job search. Where a business might have one or two people responsible for collecting resumes and conducting interviews, churches (of the Baptist ilk anyway) have committees of people, most of whom have full-time jobs, who meet on a semi-regular basis (read: monthly if you’re lucky) to sort through resumes, conduct interviews, and eventually call a minister. Where a business is basically just looking to fill a position, churches believe they are hiring a person chosen by God to serve their church, making for a slow and arduous process (read: prayerful). Where a business can interview multiple people in one day or week, churches generally only have the capacity to bring one person a week in for interviews. So, if you’re the first person to come, you’re waiting a while for your answer.
During my search process, I averaged four months of engagement with a church from the time I (or a friend/agency) sent my resume to the time I received my final communication from the church (the average search process for secular jobs is four months from first resume sent to job offer). Some were shorter, some longer. As the months rolled over, a cycle began in which I was applying for the positions of the people who got a “yes” where I had heard “no.” You can imagine how discouraging that was!
Another major difference between the church search process and a “normal” job is just how intensely personal the whole thing is. When you’re applying for a ministry position, interview questions revolve around your family, how you came to know Christ, when you felt the call to ministry, what your walk with God is like, among others. Over the course of multiple conversations, a search committee finds out more about you than some of your dearest friends. And at the end of the day, the most common answer you hear from them is, “no.”
Now, there are all kinds of reasons why churches will issue a negative verdict, the least of which being that they think the candidate is a terrible human being or inadequate Christian. But, how many times can you bare your soul before a group of people, hear the word, “no,” start all over again, and not walk straight into “the depths of despair” (to quote my favorite theologian, Anne Shirley)?
By the time you come around the final turn of the search process, you might even be too drained to realize it until you’re literally driving home from a church thinking, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to get that job.” The reality you’ve been living in for (at least) a year now is coming to a close and you’ve barely had time to think about how you will respond to a “yes” rather than preparing your heart to jump back up from another “no.” If you’re really “lucky,” you might have two “yes’s” slapping you in the face before you’ve even had time to process one.
Over the past week alone, I’ve had multiple friends ask me for advice or prayer as they are going through their own search processes. Some are still caught in the vicious cycle of “no’s,” while others are trying to decide if a church’s “yes” is also God’s “yes” for them. My friends are scared, conflicted, grieved, hopeful, and heavy-hearted. They’ve heard all the trite sayings about doors opening and how “they will just know” when a church is right, but their experience proves little clarity in the end of a search process.
Personally, I am thankful that I am not them today. Saying “yes” to a church is a huge leap, and the peace of mind often doesn’t come until afterward. There will always be pros and cons. There will always be unanswered questions. Someone will always be disappointed – whether it’s the search committee that didn’t hear you say, “yes,” or the friend that didn’t get the job, there’s not a way to make this process 100% joyful.
But, a year after my own search process came to a close, as I watch my friends going through similar experiences, I can’t help but think about the things I wish I had known or the words I wish someone had spoken to me when I was in the thick of the process:
- The search process will be painful. There is no way around it. There will be churches that you think are perfect for you that will reject you because of your gender, age, or experience. They will wish you had children. Or wish you don’t. Nothing about their decision changes who you are or what you were called to do.
- Use the disappointments as opportunities to get to know yourself better. Learn to see those obstacles as assets. Churches need you. They need women, and young people. They need single people, and ministers who are married with children. They need a fresh perspective and energy. Only you can show them how badly they need that (read: you).
- Figure out what is most important to you and ask questions. Do you want to be in a collaborative environment? Ask how staff meetings work and how many events/programs take place across areas. Do you hate being micromanaged? Ask about supervision – and if the pastor would mind you having a conversation with another staff member for further insight. At the end of the day, only you know how you thrive, and asking these questions is the only way to know if that church is the right environment for you. Remember: you are interviewing them too!
- I find it hard to believe that anyone feels 100% confident when they first receive an offer from a church. Change is never easy or comfortable, no matter how much you want it. There will always be a part of you that thinks it would be easier to just keep doing what you’re doing. Find a friend who can see past your hesitation and help you find the direction God is leading you – the part that’s not blocked by fear.
- If you find that you’re truly not comfortable saying “yes,” then don’t. You are better off going through three more months of searching than being in a church that is not a right fit for you – or the church. The point of ministry is to share God’s love, and you can’t do that if you aren’t thriving.
- Do not make a decision out of guilt. Ever. Once they bring you to the church, the search committee’s job is to “wine” and dine you. They can’t possibly be too nice to you. If you still don’t feel comfortable, do not say “yes” just because they did a really good job of entertaining you.
- Read Her Place at the Table. Preferably, you will read this before you accept an offer. You have to know how to negotiate for what you need. Honestly, I think this book is applicable for men too.
- When you do say “yes,” celebrate. You are about to embark on an exciting new journey. Let yourself get carried away in hope.
- Allow yourself space to grieve. Chances are, a church or two said some hurtful things to you along the way or didn’t handle their process very gracefully. That hurts, and hearing “yes” does not overcome the grief you felt. Most likely, you will also say some goodbyes along the way. Observe your grief so that you don’t have to take it with you.
At the end of it all, the search process should lead you to the place “where your deep gladness and the [church’s] deepest hunger meet” (Buechner). It won’t be a perfect place, because you’re not there yet to share your love, passion, and expertise with them.
I am grateful that I got to finish the search process a year ago. I am thankful that it brought me to where I am now. I am confident that I am where I need to be. I pray that my friends find that as well.