I left early, concerned that the ever unpredictable steel and asphalt maelstrom on the Capital Beltway might slow things down on a rainy morning. There were storms all about, deep rumbling clouds fat with rain, which made my ride out there on the bike just a bit on the damp side. Only a tiny bit, though. The ‘Zook acquitted itself admirably, protecting me from the elements, although I noticed an odd side effect of the aerodynamic bubble behind my extended GIVI screen. In really heavy rain, the vacuum behind the windscreen creates swirling back-pressure. The water beading on my helmet visor leaps forward into that vacuum in bright shining droplets, like I’m casting diamonds and pearls at the road from my face as I ride. Rather pretty, although a bit distracting. Not nearly as distracting as it might be if it happened in meetings, but so it goes.
Whichever way, I made it to my meeting on time, and the contract was signed, and badda boom, badda bing, I was the pastor at Poolesville. And, well, that’s an unusual thing for a Presbyterian. In fact, it’s a huge thing, or would be if folks in my denomination thought about it.
Understand this, O my Presbyterian Brothers and Sisters: In June of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven, a PC(USA) congregation said a fond farewell to a long-term and well-liked pastor.
Within three months, they had lined up a new pastor.
July. August. September. And lo and behold, that’s their transition. That’s the total amount of limbo and liminal time they had to endure. Three. Months. How does this compare to your last transition?
This is not an unusual occurrence in smaller congregations, congregations that are used to having temporary supply pastors, which was what I was going to become starting Oct. 1, 2011. That means, in PresbyParlance, that I was not “called and installed.” I was just under contract on an annual basis. That means every year, I need to sign a new contract to reaffirm my relationship with the congregation. If things are working, then we’re copacetic. If either party is ready to move on, well, then it’s time to go. Have robe, will travel, as they say.
Called pastors, well, they’re there as long as they want to be. Of course, they renegotiate their “terms of call” on an annual basis. And if either party wants to move on, well, then it’s time to go.
It’s the same thing, kids.
Functionally, there is no difference between being a called and installed pastor and a temporary supply pastor. You preach. You teach. You meet. You greet. You pray. You care. And honey child? Both positions are temporary. There ain’t no such thing as a permanent pastor, unless you attend the First Presbyterian Church of Transylvania, and Pastor Edward has only been there 350 years. Not like Pastor Vlad, who was there 735 years, and left only after that well-intentioned but poorly thought out sunrise service.
And yet most congregations that aren’t teeny tiny don’t call supply pastors. Supply pastors are for little bitty bucolic family churches out in rolling fields, or for struggling churches that can’t afford competitive salaries. To which I ask: Why? Is it just congregational ego?
Why couldn’t a thriving, successful Presbyterian congregation with 200-plus members choose to sidestep our agonizingly slow and convoluted call process? Don’t complain about it. Don’t fret about it. Just go supply, and simply write a position description, advertise for and locate a qualified pastor who would then pick up and carry on. You’d have a trained, ordained, tested and proven Presbyterian pastor. As a “temporary supply.” With contracts to be signed on an annual basis.
Not just why “couldn’t.” Why “wouldn’t?”
Given the choice, why would you inflict the call process on yourself if you didn’t have to? The way we connect pastors with churches now is institutional quicksand, a source of frustration and anxiety for both pastors and pastor nominating committees alike. If the results were demonstrably better than any other system, it might be justifiable. But the results are not. Instead, it means that those charged with calling pastors approach the task with fear and trembling, but for all the wrong reasons.
Our process as it stands now is orderly, but indecent. A congregation’s energies would be better spent on outreach, or service ministry, or ministries of justice, or on just about anything so long as it got us out in our communities living and spreading the Good News. Instead, we pour our energies inward, into processes that make us feel like we’re doing something but that come perilously close to institutional onanism.
So to you pastors contemplating a move? Perhaps you should suggest going supply to your big-steeple church. You elders who have suddenly found yourselves chairing the PNC? Maybe it’s time to think outside the box a bit, and to make that known to your general presbyter.
Why should little churches be the only ones getting it right?
DAVID WILLIAMS is pastor of Poolesville Presbyterian Church in Poolesville, Md., and blogs at www.belovedspear.org.