Call Seekers’ Conundrum

Josh Kerr —  April 22, 2014

Photo Mar 02, 5 54 52 PMHaving recently accepted my first call, I emerge from the call process more attuned to increasing grumbles around the PC(USA).  The grumbles to which I refer are coming from understandably frustrated colleagues and friends in the process of seeking a first call to pastoral ministry.  The reasons for their frustration are pretty simple: they feel called to pastoral ministry in the PC(USA), have completed every step of the process including a master’s degree, and have not yet found a community to serve.  This can be a vocational, emotional, and spiritual crisis, and it is affecting many of my friends around the church.

To begin this discussion, let’s look at some stats from the PC(USA)’s Church Leadership Connection (CLC) website.  According to CLC, there are currently 1336 call seekers registered with the site.  1077 of those call seekers are already ordained Teaching Elders, 245 are candidates like me, and 14 are “lay professionals.”  There are currently 460 open positions on the site, only 46 of which are listed as open to first-time call seekers.  792 of the call seekers on the site are men, and 541 are women.  There are 138 “racial ethnic” call seekers in the system, and 26 “racial ethnic/multi-ethnic” congregations seeking someone.  The webpage where I am finding these statistics is viewable by clicking here.

To summarize that data, there are a lot more people looking for positions than positions available.  There are very few positions listed as open to first-time call seekers.  It is also important to note that women and persons of color continue to have fewer churches seriously consider them for available positions.  All in all, the outlook is not great for those seeking a call, especially first-time call seekers.

Instead of a long treatise on the roots of this dilemma, I would like to offer a few suggestions for the PC(USA) as a whole and for indivdual first-time call seekers.

For the PC(USA)

Bring back the meet-ups  When I talk to experienced pastors about my call seeking experience, they tell me about the days of yesteryear before the CLC website.  They speak of a more regional process that involved ancient tools like bulletin boards, the post office, and meet-ups sponsored by seminaries.  My first suggestion is that we bring back these meet-ups They could be sponsored by seminaries, synods, and presbyteries, and they would allow Pastor Nominating Committees (PNCs) to actually sit down and meet call seekers.  Maybe it is something akin to speed-dating where quick meetings are arranged throughout the day.  Maybe it’s a weekend retreat where folks can really get to know each other.  Whatever the format, a face to face meet-up seems superior in every way to the odd matches and columns of text provided by the CLC.

More help and training from COM  This is an area where I admittedly don’t have much experience, but I believe Committees on Ministry can play a greater role in preparing PNCs for calling someone who is different than their pastors of the past.  This means deliberate discussions on the possibility of calling a woman, a person of color, an older first call seeker, or a younger first timer (whoever the church may not immediately consider).  I suspect many churches have a mental image of what they want their pastor to be, and anyone who does not fit that image is dismissed before credentials are reviewed.  For most churches, this image looks like previous pastors, and means young (but not too young) caucasian man with a wife and child(ren).  COMs can strongly encourage PNCs to consider the entire range of call seekers and then (this is also very important) support the church and pastor as they begin their relationship.  There is an entire pool of talented and called ministers who aren’t being considered for pastoral positions, and we are missing out when they aren’t considered.  I think we can all do better.

Plant a pastor in a church  My third suggestion will no doubt ruffle some feathers, but here it is.  I would encourage larger, wealthier churches to establish relationships with small, struggling churches in their area.  Instead of FPC Tallsteaple hiring another Associate Pastor for (fill in demographic here), I ask that they consider forging a relationship with FPC Smalltown, and helping them support a pastoral position for an extended period.  This would support the ongoing ministry of FPC Smalltown in their context, open up another call for a first-time call seeker with a livable wage, and further embody what it means to be a connectional church.

For Call Seekers

Have lots of different people look at your PIF  While I love my seminary colleagues and professors, we can sometimes speak a different language than those outside our bubble.  Have a lot of people from different backgrounds read and critique your PIF.  This means professors, pastors, ruling elders, and other church members who have served on a PNC.  The greater the number of eyes helping you on your PIF, the better suited your PIF will be for circulation.

Hit a homerun with a recorded sermon  I think many PNCs disproportionately privilege preaching in their search.  These days, you really need to have a video recording of your very best sermon.  This sermon needs to be recorded in a setting that looks like the one to which we’d like to be called.  This sermon needs to be easy to follow and very crisp and concise (10 minutes!).  It needs to be unedited and energetically delivered.  It needs to have decent sound and video quality.  This is the biggest impression you will make with a PNC until they meet you in person.  Hit a homerun!

Find a way to minister while you search for a call  This is one that I suspect many first-time call seekers struggle with.  As you continue your search, become engaged in the ministry of a local congregation.  This will, of course, benefit your congregation, but it will also aid you in your search.  You will continue to hone your skills for ministry, add to the experience on your PIF, and foster connections within your area/presbytery.  You will also be living out your call, if not in the particular setting your envision.

Oh, and self-refer to everywhere!  Do it!

This post is just one small part of an ongoing discussion.  There are regular discussions on social media and other blogs regarding this issue, so I encourage you all to join in when you can.  Please feel free to leave comments below and share (using the button below) if you feel so moved.

Edit:  I’ve seen a lot of discussion of existing Face to Face opportunities at General Assembly and other national gatherings.  While these are good opportunities for networking, I suspect they are less helpful for first-time call seekers.  The cost of traveling across country and staying in a hotel is too high and there will not be many PNC members present.  Intentional regional gatherings would be a drivable distance for everyone and not get lost in the backdrop of a huge national gathering.  These are my thoughts.  What are yours?

Josh Kerr

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Josh is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Perry, OK and completed his seminary studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a father, husband, and hater of cliches.