The fake search


Recently, the chair of a search committee presented his candidate before the governing body with the words, “We really did have a real search.”

I rolled my eyes. Yeah right. We all knew the truth. It was just another sham.

Have you ever fallen prey to the fraudulent pastoral search? Do you know what I’m talking about? Between me and my husband, we’ve been caught up in it… well, I hate to say just how many times.

You see, in our denomination, to ensure fairness, there’s a process. A good process, where people are reviewed, interviewed, and selected. The pool of pastors needs to be wide-ranging: male, female, differing ethnicities, etc.

But sometimes… well, sometimes everyone knows that the church is really going to hire the non-ordained interim, or the pastor’s seminary buddy, or that particular someone that the job description has been written for. Everyone knows it–except for the other candidates.

We have this process, and so we set up a committee that half-heartedly meets. The members ask around for good candidates, and the pool begins to come together. Then the phony interviews begin.

Now, is there anything wrong with knowing that you’ve got the right person for the job, before the search begins? No. I don’t think so.

The thing that I hate about it is, it was many years ago, but I’ve been caught swimming in that pool of candidates too many times. I’m at my church, minding my own business, not planning on any sort of a move, when I get a call from out-of-nowhere, asking me to apply for an exceptional position. And so I go into that excruciating discernment process with my family. I begin to pray, asking God if I could get some divine light on the messy decision.

When I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to do, then, I figure that I’ll put together my resume. I become open to uprooting my family and moving. And after a couple of weeks of gathering all the data, sweating over essay questions, cajoling references, buying that really expensive resume paper, and putting together a decent sermon tape, I hold my breath. I hope. I imagine, a little.

I prepare for phone interviews. After they go really well, I look at houses on (after all, they contacted me). I begin to check cost of living calculators and I let myself dream (just a little bit). I hold off my vacation time, because I’m not sure if I’ll need it for a visit. I let the summer slip away, without taking time off.

Then, those quick couple of months go by, and I don’t hear anything. And when I begin to ask around, I find out that they hired X–the person they had in their back pocket all along. In fact, they hired him, like, a month ago.

Finally. I figure it out. I got all caught up in a big, fat sham.

Six months after the hire, I get an embarrassed, apologetic “Dear John” letter. (“All of the candidates were exceptional…. We had a really hard time making a decision…. God bless you on your search….”) Usually, I’m very grown up about it. I ceremoniously burn the letter, but I don’t even make any voodoo dolls. I might, perhaps, mutter an imprecatory prayer upon the committee. One from the Psalms, of course.

But… the more I think about it, in these cases, this system that’s supposed to establish fairness, really isn’t.

So what are we to do? I wish that all candidates had one of those highlighters–you know, one of those markers that they use at the mall to determine if a twenty is real or not–that we could use on the inquiry letters to find out if they’re counterfeit. Is there any way to let the churches who have pre-determined their pastor, just hire that person?

Would deleting the frauds dismantle the “fairness” of the system? Has there ever been a time when a committee hired the outsider instead of going with the predestined pastor? Should I (as a young experienced woman) just be thankful that there’s a system in place–one that at least protects my right to get in on the phone interview? Or, should we ditch the fraud altogether and only hold the real searches?

photo’s by brianblackden

14 thoughts on “The fake search

  1. As a member and now chair of CPM this sort of thing always causes considerable conversation; we try to encourage our candidates to fully honor the process. For example: even if they are a beloved intern at a church and a position opens up there we still want them to do a full blown search elsewhere; it seems to us that it is protection for both the candidate as well as for the church. Now we don’t always get our way, but that’s at least what we strongly encourage.

    Now, I don’t think you are ever going to get around the whole ‘we have already chosen who the pastor is going to be here.’ If a church has already gone ahead and done that, then it is a waste of time, money, and effort to encourage a full blown process thats a sham. I would almost think we should just recognize that fact and find some way to develop a ‘fast-track’ process for those types of already made decisions.

  2. Right. I mean, part of me thinks that it’s ridiculous for churches to go through a year-and-a-half process that could be wrapped up in six months. We know that often the interim process can be a wonderful detachment period, where a lot of good work and examination can be done.

    And then, sometimes, it’s a drain on churches. Often it takes six months just to find an interim. The giving goes down, the attendance goes down, along with those more important, less metric things–like the spiritual vitality of the congregation. New members don’t join because they’re waiting to see who the “real” pastor’s going to be…

    So while one part of me thinks, If we can get churches on the fast-track, why not? Then, the other part of me wonders if we’d be working against years of wisdom, not to mention equal employment measures. The process is in place to protect the men and women who wouldn’t naturally be on the top of the predetermined list.

    What’s more just for the candidate, the committee, and the church?

  3. Oh, you’re singing my song. When I was in my last semester of seminary (think dinosaurs), I interviewed like CRAZY. I think I flew out more than 10 times–all over the country. And my classmates were all shocked at the fancy places that wanted to interview me. When I didn’t get a single thing, and missed much of the social life of my final semester, I was totally bummed. Well, despondent. A wise soul suggested I look up who DID get all these jobs–in almost every case, a man in his late 30s, early 40s with 8+ years of experience. I did some calling, my COPM advisor did some calling. There was a reason I was interviewing for jobs where I was clearly unqualified–they didn’t want a woman, but had to prove to the COM that they had “tried.” Because I had set my PIF to be no geographic limits, no position type limits–pretty much “hire me, I’m desperate” I popped into a lot of people’s files. By June, I realized that I hadn’t interviewed for more than two jobs for which I was actually qualified. I changed my PIF, got a lot more picky, and thanks to all my experience as a candidate, was able to get a call within about 6 weeks. I remember feeling so totally stupid, looking back at those interviews and realizing that there were signs, but I hadn’t read them. I’m assuming that these days there aren’t as many churches dead set against women candidates as there were in 1993, but I know that this type of thing still exists. I know because I’ve been in a fake search or two in the last 5 years–not due to gender but due to an inside candidate–and I HATE it.

    I hate fake search systems. In my current job, I am often the one to help students figure out that they’re caught in one. (In one denomination in particular, seminary loyalty is an art form. If the top dog is a grad of x seminary, and the 6 associates are also grads of x seminary, and the church gives big donations to x seminary every year, and all their pastoral candidates go to x seminary—guess what, if you’re from y seminary, it just might be a fake search.)

    In academia, there is such a thing as a “target of opportunity” hire. Generally, this is used when a school or department knows of somebody who is super duper famous and qualified AND ordinarily from a protected group (race, gender, sexuality, religion). They can talk to this person directly–even before the search is announced—ask upper admin for a target of opportunity hire, and just hire him/her outright. It spares everyone the expense and time of a fake search. I’m sure there are other rules. I’ve noticed they only do this with tenured, senior-type positions, and a department rarely gets two in the same decade. I wonder what would happen if we created something like that–especially if it was limited to senior positions (as for the intern becoming associate, I think that should be banned the same as associate to pastor) or to hires that provide demographic diversity?

    Have you noticed that I’m always hijacking the comments on your blog? Sheesh!

  4. I hate that this has happened to you! I’m not aware of this in my denomination. In theory all churches do an open search process, although some Conferences settings have additional rules when someone from within is applying that encourage the church to make an up or down decision on that person before moving to a wider search.
    I’m told there is a shortage of clergy in the UCC, but that doesn’t seem to show in my state because every opening gets a lot of applicants from “away.” And those people do come here. Where we are more likely to see the kind of thing you’re talking about is in the searches of smaller churches, limited by the nature of the available post to looking more locally. There are a lot of people who want to see them do a regular search process, but it’s not realistic. Who will relocate from X, Y or Z to be a part-time pastor in an isolated corner in northern Maine?
    What you’re describing sounds more like what I’ve seen in state and local government employment practices. I’m sorry to hear it’s prevalent in some churches, too.

  5. Actually, Songbird, you may be living in a lucky quadrant, because some of my UCC students have been caught in fake searches lately, particularly in one specific association, in a metro area close to you. Maybe it’s mostly a city thing.

  6. Susan is right. Maine is wonky as this does exist in the UCC. I think it exists in all denominations. I have been victim of it myself — TWICE actually.

    I disagree slightly with what has been said. I don’t think that it only falls upon the candidates to uphold the process (though I can hear the chorus “what if the Holy Spirit tells me otherwise”). I think this is an important part of it.

    But, I also think that pastors should remove themselves from the search process. There should be no SP on the Search Committee for the AP. This should be a discernment process of the church, not the SP. I believe it also falls upon the church to uphold their end of the covenant. Yes, discernment is complicated and hard. However, the process exists so that the church can be intentional about listening to God and each other. If we trust our congregations more and trust the Holy Spirit to truly guide, I think our churches might be amazed.

  7. The challenge is in empowering/teaching congregations about the process. I think, particularly in a church with a complicated polity like the PCUSA (and others), that the technicalities of the search process become mystery to a church—they may be led to believe that an aberration is acceptable, when it is not. And I believe there are congregants who would speak up about unfair practices—if they realized they were taking place.

  8. Pastor Peters, I agree with you about the SP. The AP will be serving the church and not the SP. But, what if the SP meets the AP and hates the person? Could s/he then have veto power? I mean… in an ideal world…

    Susan, You’re right. There would be some who would speak up. But then there are a lot who just want to get the whole thing over with. Quick and dirty.

  9. This phenomenon had never occurred to me, but of course it happens. I’m sorry it happens, what a waste of resources of all sorts, but… I can totally fathom it and I can’t imagine how much it sucks to go through.

    I’m “hmm”ing over whether a fast-track option would be a good addition to PC(USA) process. I like what songbird has said about the UCC practice of making a decision on an internal candidate before doing the search. It would seem like that could be established in our denomination without too much trouble. But how many churches would desperately want the fast-track option and would sacrifice an opportunity to find the best possible fit for their church? Churches are so desperate to move on and move on quickly, for some good reasons (many of which you enumerate above), that I’m sure this would be an awfully tempting loop hole.

    I wish every candidate had a Susan to help them sniff out the fake opportunities and not waste their time.

    I agree with Susan on the intern to associate thing, mostly, though it has worked well for one of my seminary colleagues. I think they actually did a genuine search and then hired her, but.. I don’t know. Another of my seminary colleagues was hired as an associate at the church where she did her internship and she was patronized and very disempowered (rarely allowed to perform the sacraments, eg.) throughout much of a fairly long call there. Watching her experience fuels my feelings about interns becoming associates. That is less about fake searches than about growth opportunities for new ministers.

    Sheesh. Now I’m hijacking! And I’m a new reader!

  10. Hmmm….some of it is denominational. The whole seminary deal is a big deal in some denoms, not necc. PCUSA.

    Um, a few:

    *they don’t check your references, and seem to be in a hurry to get you out “there” quickly. (a good number of fake interviews are at the end of the search–someone, a committee, bishop, senior pastor has said–you didn’t interview anybody who is female, who is from a different part of the country, who is (fill in the blank)….so a committee scrambles at the end.)Fake searches are almost ALL in a region that is a bit away from you.
    * the decision is going to be made about 10 seconds after you leave. (“We’ll be in touch tomorrow,”is rarely a good sign.)
    * the job is perhaps a stretch for your experience level. (They’re looking for 2-4 years, and you have 1—and you can’t see anything in the job description that makes it clear why they’d break their preferences for you)
    *During the interview, they talk a lot about their intern, or about what’s happening at another church nearby.
    * The questions seem pointed, and just “off.” Lots of questions about stuff not in the job description. Situational questions that seem to be out of thin air.
    * They repeatedly call you by the wrong name, or reference your participation in something you never participated in. This is most common with “others” in the process, not the committee–in a chaplain interview, it’s the student interview, in a church setting, it’s the spouse of the committee member who shows you around the community.
    * the rejection email beats you home!
    * an elderly lady in the church says, “now is she the one we want or the other one?” in front of you!

  11. TC —

    I agree with reverendmother — this would be great for Divine Details. Please email me and let me know if you would be interested.

    Alex Hendrickson

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