For those who know me, or know me well, you'll recall that the season I (and my wife) are in has been a long season of searching, waiting, working, waiting, searching, and more waiting. Waiting for what? Waiting for a place to serve as a next step after seminary. Waiting to get our hands dirty, full time, doing what I have been studying, training, and working towards for the better part of the decade. It has taken on a bit over a year and a half, and (if we're honest) it often hasn't been pretty.
Along came "Ohio." Not the state, but a church in it - a church which I'll leave nameless simply because it's the appropriate thing to do at this point. We had many good signs here. Interviews went very well. The questions on the questionnaire were serious, focused, and promising. The situation seemed ideal: Small church, changing community, close proximity to an unreached or under-reached population center. The committee seemed open (eager, even) to having a young pastor, with a mind full of ideas, the energy to pursue them, and a heart for churches in decline who need both care and challenge.
Everything went well. The process seemed to be coming to a close. Plans were made for a trip to this community for face-time, touring the community, etc. The date was set. We would be the exclusive candidate, so we were asked to cease candidate processes with other churches, which we did. This is often the sign that things are very serious, and also a sign that our season of searching could very probably be coming to a close.
My wife and I went on vacation, our yearly trip to Texas to see family. We'd come back, and within a week, be heading to Ohio for the next step. We were encouraged. We were excited. We were well past ready.
Dear friends, we will not be going to Ohio. As many of you know we were scheduled to go on the weekend of the 24th of July, but on the night of the 10th I received a very abrupt email informing me that the chairman of the search committee, the person I had corresponded with all of this time, was stepping down and that I should direct all further communication to a new chairman of a different and new committee. A woman I had never talked to, not interviewed with, and had no experience with thus far. Trying not to jump to too many conclusions with too little information, I went to bed wondering what was going on. But I had a feeling I just couldn't shake. Something has happened.
I was contacted two days later by the aforementioned woman, the new chairman. She emailed me and said that she would like to discuss some "developments" over the last few days and wanted to know what time was convenient. I was driving through rural Arkansas. Thankfully, I had cel-reception and would have some time later, so I emailed her back once we arrived just outside of hot-springs and one of our many familial destinations.
I received a phone call from her that evening. She was very nice, and easy to talk to, but it didn't take very long to discover that, indeed, something had changed. Apparently, the members (or some of them) of the search committee had trended in a direction that a majority of the congregation had become unsettled with in their deliberations. In particular, the issues that were cited to me were Reformed theology and the role of women in the church with regard to leadership and teaching. The level of discomfort apparently grew to such a point that the majority felt a meeting was in order. From what I was told, the search committee (or its leaders, it was unclear) was brought before the church, questioned, and grievances were aired. I don't know any more specifics, but the result was that the individuals in question are now looking for a new church. Make of that what you will. A new committee would be taking over the role of the old committee, and I was speaking to the chairman of that new committee. The local association had approached them, and recommended they cease any kind of pastoral search until the dust settles and they figure out who they are and what they want in a pastor.
Beyond that information, I gained some more information of the church. Candid stuff. Finances are not good long-term (which I expected), and the church was indeed in decline. If something doesn't change, they won't have open doors in a few years. The average age of the congregation is in the sunset of their years (her words) while participation is low, and very much so when it comes to the male contingent of the church. It's a heartbreakingly common story in a culture that teaches that when you retire, nothing more can be asked of you.
The short of it was that the older elements within the church were able to collect a majority, and had become uncomfortable with the direction the search committee was going. I said that before, but what does that mean? Well, the search committee was looking for someone a good deal more on the conservative (theologically and ecclesiologically) than they were. They were very intent on pursuing a strictly egalitarian vision for their church with regard to women in leadership, while the search committee was more complementarian. The majority felt strongly positive about women serving as positions of authority in the church, teaching with authority over men, and making executive decisions regarding the vision, doctrine, and overall direction of the church. The search committee had different convictions. When she used the words, "complementarian/egalitarian debate," not me, I knew I was dealing with people more entrenched theologically than most church people tend to be.
With regard to Reformed theology, there were questions too. The "Calvinism" debate in Baptist churches has a long list of victims and broken churches in its wake, and I can tell you it's as much the fault of reactionary congregations as it is overzealous Calvinists. In every instance I have seen this, ignorance on both sides is generally the root-cause. Reformed theology is poorly understood and/or poorly articulated and people are usually reacting against the words/acts/responses of other people and not in response to a understanding of the respected theologies, history, or text. This church, from my conversation, appears to conform to this experience.
A note: It's easy to blame overzealous "Calvinists," but my church experience has thought me (this season of searching alone could demonstrate) that church-folk in the Baptist world often operate with a large deficit of knowledge on the issue and an incredulity (hostility, even) towards any sort of nuance. I'm a Reformed guy and most of you know that, so you can call that bias if you like, but I have to say that being given a fair hearing with considerate ears on this issue (when it comes up) is the rarity, not the rule. Thankfully, the woman I spoke to on the phone was the rarity, even if her position or preference required her to disagree. I don't honestly know, which is a tribute to her fairness, at least in my short experience with her.
It was a very gracious, fair, conversation. Ms. Chairman (I'm avoiding her name, obviously) was very deferential, neutral, and honest. I have every sympathy for her, the position she has been placed in, and for the situation in which the church finds itself. I understand their concerns theologically, culturally, and practically. One of the most telling remarks for me personally was when I asked her "what is ________ church looking for now, then?" The answer will stick with me for some time: "I think they are looking for comfort as they go into their later years, not for challenge."
With those words things were beyond clear (they were clear before, but now exceptionally so): this church and I are incompatible. Had I gone there, I would have burst my heart open to be faithful to serve them, faithful to the call as a pastor, to the Word and with every stitch of strength love them while leading them Godward and toward truth. It's not my way (anymore! Thank God!) to ride roughshod over people, but doctrinal and ecclesiological convictions are worthless unless you hold them. Time and exposure to grace has taught me not to wear my doctrine on my sleeve as I might have as a 22 year-old recent-comer to the reformed world, but that does not mean or suggest that it would be appropriate to hide those convictions either.
So Now What?
These recent events have been a shock and a trial. This whole season has been. The process with this church in particular has taken months, only to result in this. I agreed to cease candidate processes with other churches, which should have signified we were near the end... but here we are. Scratch, and as if none of it had ever happened. And I've missed many an opportunity in the meantime.
So if you're wondering what's going on in the mind of Bob, here are my thoughts at the end of the day.
- I am thankful for the protection my family received in finding this out now, not three months from now right after they had hired me. Church members (like the ones who were in the minority in this case) get to go to new churches in their area, keep their livelihoods, and still call somewhere "home." Me? I get to see a church destroy itself just as I show up, after I have uprooted my family, moved away from support, colleagues, and friends, and entered into a church family already in turmoil. Better yet, I get to put my name on the debacle, even if any fair mind could see it wouldn't have been my doing. Make no mistake, seminary friends: The pastor always gets the blame. In this case, my first church might have been my last or the one that found me the most bloodied. I am thankful for being spared that.
- I am more convinced at the inherent problems of "democratic religion" and the use of committees as sources of leadership for churches long term. Baptists are horrible at this. Where do we get the idea that the right criteria to determine who leads our churches is with a "cross section" or who is "representative" and not biblical faithfulness, spiritual maturity, soundness of mind, humility, patience, and all of those other requirements we see in Scripture? 9Marks has already made a far better argument than I have.
- The question of the role of women in leadership (in churches) is more about what we believe the Scriptures are and who God is than anything relating to sex. When I was asked about this issue I had to be honest: I am a complementarian, I believe that men and women are equal in essence but different in role. I believe it is a grace, a beauty, and not a burden. It is a fair debate in and of itself, but that is where I land. But beyond that, with respect to leadership, we have much more clear direction from Scripture. We are given a picture of what the Church should look like, and it's pretty clear on that point. The issue, then, isn't what the text says but what the text is. Is it authoritative? Is it mere suggestion? Is it fully inspired; a true account of God's revelation to us, or is it just a culturally locked collection of general wisdom which can lead us to God? You can land wherever you like, but you cannot have both. On this issue, the text doesn't leave you much room. I believe that women can be immensely gifted in ministry and my goal as a pastor will be to equip them to serve and help them find places to serve that most accurately reflect the picture that I believe our good God has given for us for our good.
- I now have a new set of questions to ask churches as we interview one another.
- If you are a search committee, or going to be on one, please don't play games. Pastors are not just service providers. We're people. We have families. We have bills and hopes and dreams and everything else that you do. We need to know if the house could fall on us on any moment. It may not stop us from coming. If you hide that, however, I can assure you of one thing: You will hurt us and you will hurt yourselves. Please be honest in the candidate process.
- A Church that asks only for comfort and not for challenge is asking its pastor to be unfaithful to his call and is ensuring the church will die. Taking that off the table from the get-go is like sheep mandating that a shepherd be in the fields without a crook. Pastors are not mere administrators and public speakers: Their charge is both comfort and correction. A pastor that cannot (or will not) pursue both when appropriate imperils what it means to be a shepherd.