Form and function


Last night, I was reading over a church information form, the document that we use to match up pastors and congregations. Do you know these forms? Do you have them in other denominations? We peruse them when we’re looking for jobs. Although that’s not why I was looking over it, I was reading one for a friend.

There are a whole lot of seminarians right now, sorting through these forms, wondering where they’ll end up.

It’s interesting. When I’ve been looking for a call, there are certain forms that convey a warm acceptance, and others that don’t. There are always certain things that immediately turn me off when I read these. It’s like a primal gut reaction that cries out, “Ugh. I’m not going there.” Which becomes a prayer, “Oh, dear God, please don’t make me go there.” Here’s a sampling (not from my friend’s form!):

A rural church of less than 100 members needs an applicant to have four years of experience. Someone forgot to notify them of the clergy shortage.

Descriptions like “Bible-believing.” I know at this point that they’re not talking about me. But why? I believe in the Bible. Who in this profession doesn’t believe the Bible?

Referring to the Bible as capital “T,” The Word. When this is a red flag for me, does it automatically prove that I’m not sufficiently Bible-believing?

When they refer to the pastor as “he.” They’re leaving out half the candidate pool. Do they really want to do that? Oh yeah… I guess they do.

When they refer to God as “He.” I’m perfectly happy to let this one slip. But when it’s constantly repeated, then I begin to wonder.

Then there are declarations like God’s people are called to holiness in all aspects of life, and His standards for holiness do not change to accommodate contemporary culture. I’ve got to put that one down because… well… I’m not sure exactly what they’re talking about. But I am sure that I’m not holy enough to be their pastor. And, I’m confused. What’s so bad about contemporary culture?

Then there’s that tough one… when there’s a juxtaposition of these two sentences:

It would be great to have a pastor who could help us to attract more young families into the church. We have an older congregation who expects pastoral visits. These two things certainly don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But to do the first one, there will be less time spent on the second one. I wonder if they understand that. “Expects” is a strong word. Are they willing to give up some of their pastor’s time in the living room so that s/he can work with young families? Because young families don’t usually expect home visits, but they take time too.

It seems like churches either want an exact clone of the last person, or the exact opposite. Often, their forms reveal a larger situation. I love the succinct sentences that hint to something much larger looming in the past. For us, that’s usually disclosed in the “Characteristics Needed” section. Here’s a sample:

Our next pastor will be a strong leader with enough confidence and compassion to be able to listen without feeling threatened. Listen without feeling threatened? Wait just a minute, what will s/he be listening to, exactly? Perhaps the church might want to have a discussion about why their pastors might feel threatened in conversations. It might not be all the pastor’s fault.

Characteristics needed: Someone who trusts that his personal needs will be met by the church. Really? All of them? Wow. That must be some kind of church! It’s just a small sentence, but it’s like a tiny window peering into a hugely dysfunctional home. I wonder what happened to make that a needed characteristic. My writer’s imagination is taking off now….

What’s a red flag for you when you read these forms? What are the things that set you off personally? What should churches know not to put on the form? What do you look for?

photo’s by Shay

28 thoughts on “Form and function

  1. Good Morning Carol!

    You have hit upon one of the major causes of dysfunction in our churches – expectations. There are so many different expectations of a pastor and from a pastor that there are bound to be conflicts bubbling up in every nook and cranny of our buildings and ministry. And it starts with the search process (or whatever it is named depending on the denomination) and continues as the work of the church and pastor builds. I always imagine that if there are 80 people in the congregation out there looking at me, there must be 81 different expectations in their hearts and minds that day. The “matching” of expectations is tough in the process of call and in the ongoing work of the church.

    Being in a Baptist church (American Baptist) we have people walk in all the time holding their Bibles tightly and say they are looking for a Bible believing church. And those who voice it that way – usually do mean they are looking for a church that takes the Bible literally and as the sole authority on matters of faith and practice. Since we Baptists don’t have sacraments — and don’t believe that any one thing or practice is sacred in and of itself – I always find it funny that people actually clutch their Bible (usually a huge one) as if it was sacred. What is holy and amazing are the words when they encounter a person of faith. Then they become alive!

    But then I think those folks haven’t been taught or introduced yet to the concept of reasoning and thinking as they engage the scriptures and real life. I haven’t seen forms as you mentioned but I bump into those same expectations weekly!

  2. Thanks for the post. My peers are going through the same at Columbia right now, and I feel out of the loop having added a year to my studies.

    That said, forms with talk of the Holy Spirit and seeking the Spirit’s guidance definitely stand out as faithful possibilities. As does the phrase “open to.”

    I know an older pastor who abhors these forms and the process. He speaks of a process that used to be more word of mouth, where ministers didn’t have to toot their own horn, where the process was based on trust rather than suspicion. I expect these memories are through rose-colored glasses, but it does make you wonder.

  3. yeah, I know those forms…
    and the catchwords… like “Bible-believing” and “called to live a holy life…” and leaving out half the applicant pool.

  4. This was a great post to read this morning as I just had my first interview with a church yesterday.

    A few days ago, I went onto the CLC website and searched for positions, and after reading through about 20 CIFs, I got sick of it – they all use the same language, and these churches were all starting to sound the same. It is quite the process indeed.

    But there were a few times that I ran across key phrases that were obviously just stuck in so that people would know where the church stood on a certain “key issue.” While reading the CIF of the church I just interviewed with, I ran across this one:

    “Our proposed vision statement describes us as having a “broad, thoughtful, and Christ-centered theology.” Nurtured through Christ, we hold a spacious understanding of God’s grace and welcome multiple perspectives on matters important to faith.”

    I like that. That’s helpful to me.

    But others that set up “expectations” for pastors are not. And if I have to read one more CIF that is looking for a pastor to help us “Grow” – what does that even mean? Grow how? Grow numerically? Grow in your mission? Grow…I don’t know what that means. And I’m also with you on the “Bible-believing.” The woman in charge of Senior Placement here at Princeton is hilarious and very helpful as she puts on workshops on how to interview, read CIFs, write your PIF, etc. She went on a similar rant about “Biblical preaching” – she’s like, “What? What do you mean by that? Is there another sort of preaching, like…”According to Jane Austen…” C’mon – preaching, from the Bible, is biblical preaching.”

    Anyway – this makes me want to write my own post, and perhaps I should have instead of filling up your comment space…

  5. Adam C,

    My colleague is always telling me that something’s broken in this process as well. It’s strange. I don’t want to go back to the “old boys’ network,” but perhaps we could have a more inclusive network out there… would that be possible?

    Adam WC,

    That’s a beautiful vision.

    All my best to you in your discerning process. And comment space is unlimited. I always welcome your comments!

  6. It’s fascinating to me how easily we can state a theological position by simply using a buzzword. The amazing thing is they are all good words but so often they create polarities!

  7. One very specific one: “We have made our youth program a priority.” That either means they have a strong one or don’t have one at all.

    The Catch 22: In the PCUSA, there is a list of characteristics that the church checks for the position. Preaching, teaching, stewardship, redevelopment, etc. They can only choose 10, I believe. I always chuckle when I see that the church has checked “preaching” for the HOS or solo position. Really? Doesn’t that go without saying? But at the same time, wouldn’t I find it odd if I were looking at such a position and they didn’t think preaching was a priority? Maybe the “Wheel of Fortune” model would help. We’ll give you R S T N L and E. What else would you like to choose?

    In all seriousness, here is a big red flag. In the PCUSA, a pastor cannot choose his or her successor, nor does a bishop send a new pastor over after one leaves. We have and interim pastor model. The interim comes in and leads the congregation through a time of discernment. This time usually lasts 1.5 – 2 years and can be a frustrating time for the congregation. Donations usually drop, some members leave, or at least few join. It can be time in the “wilderness.”

    However, some congregations are trying to sidestep this model. They switch to a co-pastor model. The HOS gets a say in who that new co-person is. Then the original HOS leaves (usually retiring), and then the church switches back a HOS model with the new person brought in. STAY AWAY! Sports fans, remember the revolving door of Alabama football coaches after Bear Bryant?

    I have heard of one time where it worked well, I know of two times where it was a disaster, and I was approached to be that co- in a place where it would have been ugly. The HOS had been there 30 years, we would serve together for 6 months, then he would leave, and I would move into HIS office. And I’m sure I would not live in his shadow at all.

    I do not think this model works. If, however, you find yourself called into this type of situation, be clear about two things. 1) How long is that person staying? “Until you get settled,” is not the right answer. Make sure it is clear, publicly clear, that this person will be leaving in 3, 6, however many months, but be clear. 2) Make sure the roles and responsibilities are clear, publicly clear, for both you and the outgoing pastor. People, parishioners and staff, need to know who to go to.

    Thus endeth the rant. Amen.

  8. I’m not so concerned with the use of “he”, since in the English language, the masculine form is used to encompass both genders, the same way “you” could be singular or plural, and must be determined in context. It’s true that including an “or she” from time to time is a great indicator of awareness of the issue, however, exclusion of such does not necessarily indicate the exact opposite, though further reading of the forms could give you more clues.

  9. as i near the end of my first call (how near the end remains to be seen…), i have begun the periodic exercise of perusing the CIFs in the PCUSA. i think back to my first time engaging with those forms and remember that they started to look the same and language was thrown into some just to “flash their (theological) sign” which was helpful to some degree, i guess.

    this time around i’m reading CIFs, noticing here and there that some are looking for a pastor to help them grow (as adam wc mentioned earlier), and i’m guessing that they have little clue as to what that means (and so, they really don’t know what they’re asking of a pastor). i find myself becoming excited about the possibilities of a face-to-face interview in asking good, deep questions about that desire and what kind of leadership they are really looking for. i think the leadership task of those in ministry now, as well as those who are about to enter, is to help congregations be honest with themselves about that desire and the realistic expectations of such a statement, and maybe that begins in that interview process.

    just a thought…

  10. Ken,

    Really? You think so? Maybe I’m just used to academic settings where the masculine form no longer encompass both genders, but I would never consider going to a church that used “he” to describe the pastor they want.


    It is a little enticing though, isn’t it? I mean the thought of merely getting a promotion, rather than ripping up all your roots and starting over at another church. But… you’re right, of course. It rarely works….


    You’re right as well. The buzzword phenomenon is fascinating.

  11. Debbie,

    I used to live in RI, and I miss your part of the country so much. Although, it does get dark early around this time of year!

    So, you don’t have forms like these? How does the ABC call process work?

  12. As far as the ABC placement process– I have to admit to not knowing the “correct” process all that well. The two places that I have been called to and served at have not happened in the normal fashion. We do have an ABC national profile system that clergy are supposed to keep up to date every three years. You decide if your profile is in circulation or not, and in what area of the country you are open to serving in. Then the churches looking for a pastor and have a committee, and who have done a church profile – are given batches of clergy profiles by the area minister. The committees look through the profiles and decide who they might like to have a phone call with, or go and listen to and then eventually have come to the church to preach. But all that takes awhile. And mine have been done more by informal connections and then with interviews. So — I’m not much help.

    Carol — I had a chance this week to finally read some of your book and I read that you were in Rhode Island for awhile. I loved the beginning of your book with the story about the rug! I love it — so I want to drive to Rhode Island to go to your friend’s store — Peaceable Kingdom. I might not buy a rug — but I love the description of the store and its contents and hearing about you and your daughter sitting together on it. Are they still in operation? I am thinking your book is a good one to do a sermon on — and so as I read it and finish it – I have in mind a sermon with the same title maybe in January. I will let you know — because of course (this is my thing) I think we should sometimes share with others how a sermon or a book or a teaching — causes a behavior change or motivates us somehow!

  13. TC, you picked many of my favorite catch-phrases. Then there are those CIFs that jovially run off their biblical models for ministry: preach like Peter, lead like Moses, walk on water like Jesus. Ha, ha, they imply, not really.

    The thing is, I think they mean it.

  14. Carol what we need is a draft! All viable candidates (viable is a decent word that shall be left to be filled in by any and all people that care to) shall be placed on a board. With skills, interests, gift, and such listed so the drafting congregations know what they are getting into.

    The draft participants are ranked with gender being only a slight advantage to the fellas. This is a draft after all. The will be a combine at all 10 Presbyterian seminaries to rank and categorize the candidates. It will be fabulous! Man there will be coffee, donuts, and chatter.

    When I am preaching in the combine folks (other potential candidates) will heckle me and seek to distract me! That will be awesome.

    The events to test and rank the potential candidates will consist of Preaching with sermon exegeses proof, pastor care/counseling in a crisis, engaging the youth, creating a worship space, proper use of the BoO, BCW, and all decent and orderly forms. The final round is a Bible Bowl forum with spirit leaders and a huge mascot of Moses, Abraham, Peter, Jesus, Paul, or Barth.

    The drafting congregations will be ordered according to need, local contribution to GA, mission service, the buzz surrounding the congregation. They to will also have a combine. They get to gather and discuss how pious, great, and/or Biblically literate they are.

    To make things fair there will be a priority for the smaller rural and urban churches. The lager (mega or not so mega) churches may only draft if needed. They must sell their picks to the smaller churches for the first series of new born Biblically literate children available. This may be satisfied by a compulsory round of Paper, Rock, Scissors.

    I hope that this will provide a more level playing field for the ministry. After all it is all about Jesus and we all know that besides Jesus believing and thinking just like “I do”, Jesus wants to give all sorts of money and stuff. It is what Jesus wants to Do!

  15. this is a good conversation on a difficult topic. What lj says, in some form or another, true of many churches. To be fair, I think at least in part because of the decline they see in the church and their fear about that and their hope that The Right Person (usually a man) can either 1) prevent their church from dying or; 2) turn it around, if it is already declining.

    But it does depress me that, especially in this area of the country, churches seem to think they deserve the Moses, Peter and Jesus combination. a la lj.

    Am I bitter? maybe a little.

    I’m still hearing the Sr Pastor’s words, blithely spoken one time, “Most people still want a man.”

  16. Among my “favorite” CIFs are the ones that list Youth Ministry, Young Adult Ministry, and Older Adult Ministry under preferred skills. What are they thinking? Do they want a pastor, or a freaking chameleon?

    I could go on for days about how much I despise those forms. If I wasn’t so tired I’d type several pages about what’s wrong with the forms, the search process, the lack of leadership from COMs and EPs in the process, et cetera. Yuck!

  17. The UCC is riddled with this as well. We like to use the word “traditional” to describe the theological outlook of the congregation. I grew up Southern Baptist where it was drilled into me that I should invite my friends to church WEEKLY! I figure the Jesus who spoke of his own reputation for being a “glutton and a drunkard…a friend to sinners and tax collectors” would want me to invite ALL of my friends to church, so I look for ones where ALL would be welcome. For this reason, when I read about congregations I look for the ones who are Open and Affirming or going through the process. I figure if they love the GLBT community, I might be a good fit!

    I wish all of us within the Christian Community would have more meaningful conversations about the Bible all together. We sure use it for harm–even in our hiring of MINISTERS!!! Am I the only one who thinks that is just plain paranoid and nutso?

    I cannot help but worry that our corporate culture of “us” and “them” is the biggest sin that breaks God’s heart. When does it ever end?

  18. This is a really interesting thread…

    I have always found the PIF/CIF thing fascinating, though I’ve shared many of the frustrations expressed here.

    A couple of personal observations:

    1. The only lasting value of a CIF is to filter for both parties whether or not to have a further conversation.

    2. Once you get a face-to-face interview (or even a phone interview), you never really refer to the CIF again.

    3. Once you get a call, you never really interact with the PNC again. They are not the Session, often only one or two is in leadership in the church. And sometimes, they only partially represent the actual make-up of the congregation.

    The whole process reminds me of dating for the purpose of marriage. Eventually you are going to want to match with someone whom you can mutually love, warts and all. You need to be as honest as possible, because a relationship built on falsehood or a “front” only has that much more disappointment built in.

    There are ‘buzzwords’ for every theological position, and I find them helpful, lest I spend hours and hours interviewing and ‘courting’ for a situation that would not be theologically compatible. The key, I think, is to accurately read those buzzwords. If the language doesn’t make you crazy, that’s probably a good sign. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Finally, related to the pastoral skill list. Yes, it’s ridiculous that I’d have to check “preaching” – but if I don’t, it will screw up the computer matching… since every church is looking for a pastor who has checked preaching. Yes, the R-S-T-L-N-E method would make a lot of sense. This list also contains red flags sometimes, like the church checking “conflict resolution.”

    Once you start talking to a church… it’s a whole new ball of wax, and the CIF is largely irrelevant. Don’t make more of it than it is…


    Now if the “good ol’ boy” network and the mechanical CIF/PIF method could morph into a social networking method of seeking a call… that would be pretty cool.

  19. I wonder how lay people know which buzzwords to use and not use.

    #3 can be particularly frustrating. Many times, I’ve seen situations where a pastor asks a PNC if s/he will have X, the PNC says, “Yes! Of course.” But then the session has no awareness of what was promised.

    A social networking method… that would be cool.

  20. Carol,

    I guess I am just too used to hanging around English types. Of course, overly traditional grammar usage can also bring overly traditional concepts of the ministry, so I feel you’re definitely not without justification. I guess I’m not trying to be contradictory, but there are some well-meaning, perfectly fair people who may be tired of saying “or she” after every “he”.

    And as we all know, “they” in the singular is a grammar crime! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  21. “I wonder how laypeople know which buzzwords to use and not use.”

    Interestingly, I found seminary one of the more “sheltered” environments from denominational politics. Either that, or most people hung out with like-minded people.

    I think all it takes is reading a few issues, webposts, news articles, etc… from any of the politically charged groups (whether left or right) to pick up the buzzwords.

    CIFs are rife with these. There are also CIFs that seem to intentionally not name any theological or missional distinctives, as if perhaps the church was burned by the last pastor.

    There are also many CIFs that are incredibly bland. Not that using buzzwords is the only alternative, but I’ve read many where the narrative portions were not distinctive at all… just a lot of words that basically said, “We’re a Presbyterian Church looking for a pastor.”

    The advice I usually give friends is to read a LOT of CIFs, even far in advance of seeking a call. (I read them all through seminary and still do, just for the sake of advising friends seeking a call.) I think after a while, one starts to recognize features that “match,” whether that be a certain skill set, certain buzzwords, or a more indefinable ‘tone’.

    I apologize if I’m coming off like a campus advisor or something. I just get strangely energized by the call process and honestly enjoy reading CIFs. [I guess I’m some type of presby-geek]. I have no other particular qualifications to make these observations… I’ve just been through the process twice – once after seminary in ’96 and again in ’02 when I came to my present call.

    I do wish you seminarians well; I remember the pressure of the senior year, CPM meetings, ords, exams, and the need to find a job after graduation.

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