Thursday, September 29, 2011

Power Supply

Yesterday morning, I motored my way from my home in Annandale, Virginia out to the congregation I'll soon be serving part-time in Poolesville, Maryland.  I had an 11:00 AM meeting scheduled with the clerk of session of the wee kirk there, to sign my first contract and talk about how things at Poolesville Presbyterian work.

I left early, concerned that the ever unpredictable steel and asphalt maelstrom on the Capital Beltway might slow things down on a rainy morning.  There were storms all about, deep rumbling clouds fat with rain, which made my ride out there on the bike just a tiny bit on the damp side.  Only a tiny bit, though.  The 'Zook acquitted itself admirably protecting me from the elements, although I noticed an odd side effect of the aerodynamic bubble behind my extended GIVI screen.  In really heavy rain, the vacuum behind the windscreen creates swirling back pressure.  The water beading on my helmet visor leaps forward into that vacuum in bright shining droplets, like I'm casting diamonds and pearls at the road from my face as I ride.   Rather pretty, although a bit distracting.  Not nearly as distracting as it might be if it happened in meetings, but so it goes.

Whichever way, I made it to my meeting on time, and the contract was signed, and badda boom, badda bing, I'm the pastor at Poolesville.  And, well, that's an unusual thing for a Presbyterian.  In fact, it's a huge thing, or would be if folks in my denomination thought about it.

Understand this, O my Presbyterian Brothers and Sisters:  In June of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven, a PC(USA) congregation said a fond farewell to a long-term and well-liked pastor. 

Within three months, they had lined up a new pastor.  

July.  August.  September.  And lo and behold, that's their transition.  That's the total amount of limbo and liminal time they'll have to endure.  Three.  Months.  How does this compare to your last transition? 

This is not an unusual occurrence in smaller congregations, congregations that are used to having temporary supply pastors, which is what I'm going to become starting October 1.   That means, in PresbyParlance, that I'm not "called and installed."  I'm just under contract on an annual basis.  That means every year, I need to sign a new contract to reaffirm my relationship with the congregation.  If things are working, then we're copacetic.  If either party is ready to move on, well, then it's time to go.  Have robe, will travel, as they say.

Called pastors, well, they're there as long as they want to be.  Of course, they renegotiate their "terms of call" on an annual basis.  And if either party wants to move on, well, then it's time to go.  

It's the same thing, kids.

Functionally, there is no difference between being a called and installed pastor and a temporary supply pastor.  You preach.  You teach.  You meet.  You greet.  You pray.  You care.   And honey child?  Both positions are temporary.   There ain't no such thing as a permanent pastor, unless you attend the First Presbyterian Church of Transylvania, and Pastor Edward has only been there 350 years.  Not like Pastor Vlad, who was there 735 years, and left only after that well intentioned but poorly thought out sunrise service.

And yet most congregations that aren't teeny tiny don't call supply pastors.  Supply pastors are for little bitty bucolic family churches out in rolling fields, or for struggling churches that can't afford competitive salaries.  To which I ask:  Why?  Is it just congregational ego? 

Why couldn't a 200+ member, thriving, successful Presbyterian congregation choose to sidestep our agonizingly slow and convoluted call process?  Don't complain about it.  Don't fret about it.  Just go supply, and simply write a position description, advertise for and locate a qualified pastor who would then pick up and carry on.  You'd have a trained, ordained, tested, and proven Presbyterian pastor.  As a "temporary supply."  With contracts to be signed on an annual basis. 

Not just why "couldn't."  Why "wouldn't?" 

Given the choice, why would you inflict the call process on yourself if you didn't have to?  The way we connect pastors with churches now is institutional quicksand, a source of frustration and anxiety for both pastors and pastor nominating committees alike.  If the results were demonstrably better than any other system, it might be justifiable.  But the results are not.   Instead, it means that those charged with calling pastors approach the task with fear and trembling, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Our process as it stands now is orderly, but indecent.  A congregation's energies would be better spent on outreach, or service ministry, or ministries of justice, or on just about anything so long as it got us out in our communities living and spreading the Good News.  Instead, we pour our energies inward, into processes that make us feel like we're doing something but that come perilously close to institutional onanism. 

So to you pastors contemplating a move?  Perhaps you should suggest going supply to your big steeple church.  You elders who have suddenly found yourselves chairing the PNC?  Maybe it's time to think outside the box a bit, and to make that known to your General Presbyter.

Why should little churches be the only ones getting it right?

3 comments:

  1. I find it amazing the way congregational churches run. I mean, imagine trying to write down the instructions on how to run one church you've pastored. How to run EVERYTHING and just about every "what if" you can think of.

    Then think about writing this survival guild to one church that must apply to EVERY CHURCH IN THE DENOMINATION, on earth. (Or at least in the country...depending on your denomination)

    The fact that there is such a broadly used system that connects pastors and churches is impressive, even though it's a bit clunky.

    I don't know if its good or bad. I think it could be a mix of both. Its a long annoying process at times, but in other situations it's a proven way to do something when the guy in charge doesn't know what to do. Honestly it's also a way to keep the crazies down too.

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  2. @ Stephanie: It is amazing. And yet...they do run. Your point about the crazies and the predators is well taken, but I would hope that would be dealt with by folks on the CPM. My fear is that our approach to call doesn't just filter out the bad folk, but also the passionate, the exuberant, the creative, and the joyous.

    And occasionally, it might filter out the called, because the call of our Creator doesn't always involve a process that takes 18-24 months.

    That kind of by-catch does real harm to our church.

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  3. Agreed. I think the major issue with denominations these days (at least in my Nazarene Church) is that most of the policy runs out of "what if." Its all a reaction to the possibility of something bad happening. I'm not saying to throw caution to the wind, but perhaps there's a right way to do something instead of a resolve against a lot of wrong way to do something.

    I'm not sure if a policy can stand between a call. If anyone God of the universe has to be the only person capable of understanding those gosh-darn handbooks and loopholes. I'm just not sure how God could say "go do something" only to retract that 'call' with, "aw man, I guess they won't let you follow Me." But that depends on your opinions on being lead by God or "hosting God's presents", and a bunch of other theories.

    --just a thought

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