The search and call process is a lot like dating. They call, you talk, you interview (date) and then you wait. Are they going to call back? Is it too soon for me to call and follow up? Do you talk to all your girl/boy/close-clergy-friends about the other party and worry while you wait? With our profile systems in place in many of our mainline churches, it is a lot like internet dating. You read a candidate’s profile or the candidate reads the churches profile. You see if your interests and hobbies (or values and theology) match up. You make a decision whether to take the next step and contact the other party. And from there, it is like going on a blind date. Sometimes you even get set up by a good friend (or retired minister who knows you and knows the congregation). Both my husband and I have recently accepted calls to new ministries, and both of us had a few prior experiences in the call process in which it was a lot like dating, and some of them were bad dates.
Several years ago, we experienced a situation in which we had an interview together for a church, the feeling of the interview seemed positive and upbeat—and then we never heard from the church again. No follow-up emails, no calls, even after a month when I sent a follow-up email to ask about the search process. We learned from the regional minister months later that the church had called someone else to be their pastor.
A few years back, I was contacted by a church and asked to reply via email if I was interested. I did, and then waited a month and heard nothing. When I made a follow-up phone call, it was discovered my email had gone into the chair’s spam mailbox. So they scrambled to set up an interview, but it seemed doomed from the start. After having what I felt was a good initial interview, I was told I would hear in a few weeks. Again, after a month, I decided it was time to follow up with an email which went unanswered. So I followed up with an email from another account and once again, my previous email had gone into the spam mailbox. I received a reply that they had mailed me a letter stating they were going with a different candidate (via the USPS) but I never received it, nor did I receive back the DVD’s of my sermons that I was told would be returned to me.
Lastly, in a church search I participated in earlier this year, I had once again a wonderful initial phone call and email conversation, a great interview, and was told I would hear back “very soon.” I waited and waited. This was a search committee I really felt connected with. I decided to send a follow-up email thanking them for the interview and looking forward to hearing their response. Another two weeks passed, and I sent another email. Then it was two months, and by that point, I knew they had probably moved on, but I sent one last email just to check, and received an email back that they had already called a new minister.
While I share strictly from my point of view, having been the potential candidate in this dating process, I know that sometimes candidates are not stellar partners, either. I know of candidates who have strung one church along as a “plan B” while courting their dream church, leaving the church at the end of the process (as in, calling two days before the candidate was supposed to preach and be voted on to say they had decided to go another direction and were no longer interested). I know of candidates who have been hard to contact. It goes both ways.
But there are good matches out there. If we are committed to the online dating/search-and-call process, we need to be better with our standards for communication. Check your spam boxes. Check your grammar on your introductory emails. When you decide to make a rejection, please don’t send a canned response—take a minute or two to share prayers for the continued search process-at least try to make it personal rather than a form letter. And most of all, when you are not sure about a candidate or have two good potential candidates, do not keep the other candidate waiting long (and the same goes for a candidate with two churches—do not keep them waiting long, and do not string them along with false hopes).
The online profile systems of most mainline search-and-call processes are a lot like dating. They are not perfect. They work for some churches and candidates but not all. Some of the best matches happen because someone knows someone else (and some of the worst happen that way, too). But the system can be improved by better faithfulness in communication by both parties. And sometimes, it really is love at first sight—sometimes it is in that initial interview you know it is just going to work out. Despite our fears and misgivings, sometimes God really can work through our human processes—and sometimes God works outside of them, too.