Heaven help me.
The last time I served on such a committee the result was, in the end, unhappy for the congregation and simply a disaster for me personally.
So what makes me think I can do any better this time? And what makes me imagine that our Presbyterian system of choosing pastors is any better than throwing darts at a board full of names of candidates?
Humbled (I hope) by my previous experience more than 20 years ago, I don’t have exhaustive and wildly confident answers to those questions. Some members of the nominating committee that selected me to be on the search committee said they thought my history on this score would serve me well. Indeed, I hope I am wiser about such matters than I was in 1987.
I also believe that there really is something to the idea that God calls people to positions of ministry and that one way it happens is through the voice of the congregation and the people the congregation chooses to represent it in this task.
Still, over the years I have felt that either some congregations (mine included) misread their signals from God or that God had some much more complicated purpose in mind that perversely required a bad mismatch between the pastor and the congregation. I am thinking in this regard of a Kurt Vonnegut novel in which he postulates that the entire purpose of human existence is to make sure that an alien stranded on Earth receives a small replacement part for his out-of-commission spacecraft — a part that looks a lot like a beer can opener, as I recall.
Our interim pastor has told the congregation he believes God already has chosen the person to be our next pastor. The job of the search committee, thus, is just to identify who that is. In the Presbyterian way, it no doubt will take seven of us more than a year to do that.
The easy question for skeptical outsiders to ask is why God doesn’t just e-mail us the name and let us get on with it. Sometimes, when I’m not thinking clearly, I find myself asking that same question.
But by now I know that something valuable and irreplaceable happens through the search process (though I think it could be shorter). The search committee, the congregation, and the people being considered for the job all get time to think again about their Christian life. They get a chance to ask who they are and — more important — who God means them to be.
For instance, one of my conclusions from the last time I served on a pastor nominating committee is that God has been inexplicably stingy with the gift of great preaching. That, in turn, has made me pay more attention to homiletics instruction at seminaries. Indeed, my column here last month focused on one aspect of that.
Learning to wait, it turns out, is good for congregations and pastoral candidates. Not just good, but Biblical. Waiting is not a time for dreamless sleep but an active process of discernment. And out of that can arise a renewed commitment to be disciples of Jesus Christ — perhaps in ways we never had previously imagined.
Our polity (thanks, John Calvin) removes autocratic power from individuals and, instead, places representative power in the hands of the elected (if not — small joke — the elect). Most of us retain enough Calvinism to understand that each of us is capable of terrific sin and banal evil, so we guard against that by creating methods of collective accountability.
In the end, that is the right thing to do, even if we must depend on fallen people like me who have failed before. For, as we know, failure in Christianity is not final. Redemption is.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http://billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].