Friday, November 5, 2010

Who Owns the Roster?

A friend in the ELCA told me that the clergy roster there was shifted from the Synods and the Bishops to the Secretary of the ELCA.  All the paper work as well as ownership of that roster was moved from the local regional or state arena of that church body to the national office and with it have come some serious questions about the way things will be done in the future.

Let it be said that the call process has always been different in the ELCA than in Missouri.  In the AELC and ALC, the process was similar to Missouri's practice.  A calling congregation suggested candidates for the call list to the district office and the district office prepared a list of candidates --drawn from both the suggestions of the parish and the knowledge of the district staff of both parish and pastors.  Often a self-study was completed to aid in this knowledge of the parish and the history, needs, potential, and desires of the people in that congregation.  Generally this call list had between six and a dozen names -- all people whom the district believed to be a good "fit" for the parish's needs and its potential.  The congregation's own call committee reviewed the names and generally narrowed the focus to a few names from whom an election would produce a Pastor.

In the ELCA (and somewhat from the LCA background) the Bishop presents generally one name to the calling congregation.  The Pastor presented to the parish by the Bishop had already agreed to accept the call if the congregation agreed and the only people in the "dark" were the people in the calling congregation and the folks in the congregation of the Pastor whom the Bishop recommended.  If the congregation agrees, the Pastor's move happens relatively quickly -- as quickly as it may take to inform the current parish and pack up and go.  With a few names or one name presented to the calling congregation, the role of the Bishop is enhanced in this process and he or she wields great influence over who will be the Pastor of that congregation.

If I have this substantially wrong, then I encourage my readers to correct these characterizations.  But I believe this to be accurate.  Now I am not advocating for either process.  I personally see benefits to both and I also see that the key to this all is ultimately the DP or Bishop and how they exercise the pivotal role of presenting candidate or candidates to the calling congregation.  What I question is the role of the national church office in overseeing the roster of clergy and the seemingly natural tendency for centralization to control what it is responsible to administer.

That said, I will admit that things have changed a great deal over the years.  I have personally never served as a Pastor to a congregation that interviewed me prior to the call.  In fact, both parishes I have served called me completely unknown to me and I was a pretty unknown quantity to them as well.  In the first parish, they trusted the DP/Bishop, Ron Fink, who obviously knew what he was doing since I stayed there 13 years.  In my current parish, they trusted whoever it was who put my name on that list (still have not found that one out) since it is 18 years and I am still here.  So I am not so sure that the move to interviewing and phone surveys and written questionnaires has helped this process and I am fearful that it has hindered the expectations of the people and the Pastor and tainted the process enough to make it more difficult and not less for people to accept their new Pastor and for the new Pastor to accept the new parish.

I also am fully aware that the call process has been used by Bishops and DPs to make sure that the "right" kind of Pastor is placed in a congregation.  Sometimes that means that these leaders want to move a congregation toward a goal and will place on the call list names of those who will move the parish toward this goal.  In my own District there is talk of two call lists -- one of those Pastors who are agreeable to the church growth agenda and one made up of those who do not.  I know that the Transforming Congregations process has the potential to create a two tiered call list of folks who agree with the methodology and the goals of that process and those who do not.  I know that there are confessional groups out there who offer confessional congregations aid and assistance in getting a confessional Pastor.  There are individuals and groups, aided by the Internet, who work to promote their own agendas throughout the call process.  I am suspicious of these efforts even where I may be sympathetic to the outcome.

In the end it revolves around the question of "who owns the roster?"  Does it belong to the congregations, does it belong to the regional church (Synod or District, depending upon your affiliation) or does it belong to the national church office?  It seems to me that we are moving in a direction in which centralization is the great temptation and it threatens to gobble up things in the causes of efficiency and effectiveness.  Neither of these is particularly a high priority for me when it comes to call lists and calls.  I would rather see this process return to the an era when Pastors were not courted like businesses go after executives, when agendas were not the primary pursuits of those who have a stake in it all, and when the prayerful work of the parish and their DP or Bishop, led by the Spirit, resulted in the "it seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit" outcome.  It is flawed because we as people are flawed but its flaws are less dangerous to the Church as a whole than agendas, centralization, and manipulation. 


Anonymous said...

The "business world" interview of
prospective pastors on a call list
not only downgrades the role of the
Holy Spirit, but invites both the
call committee and potential pastor
to "sell themselves" like someone on
a first date. The current ELCA also
has the bad habit of making
prospective pastors preach aa
auditioning sermon at a neutral
parish for the call committee. Then
a month later another auditioning
sermon is preached in the calling
parish. On the very same day as the trial sermon the congregation
is asked to vote to call or not to
call. This is a flagrant abuse
of the "divine" call process and
makes "human" impressions supreme.

Anonymous said...

Do congregations have to go through this process? Is it mandated?

Mark said...

The process you've described is completely unfamiliar to my 21 years of experience as an ELCA pastor, though I'm not about to claim my experience is universal.

In the synods in which I have served, congregations receive a number of names for potential candidates, perhaps three to five. Those congregations may, or may not, chose to interview any of them. And, following the interview and prayerful consideration, are under no compulsion to call any of them.

Likewise, pastors are under no obligation to say yes if a call is extended from a place that they have interviewed but have 30 days for prayer and discernment with the rare possibility of an extension for additional time.

In the last decade, congregations have also had more freedom to ask bishops for the names of specific pastors to be candidates. Also, a pastor will sometimes suggest to a bishop that his name be submitted to a particular congregation for an interview.

Early in the comments section, Anonymous says, "The current ELCA also has the bad habit of making prospective pastors preach an auditioning sermon at a neutral parish." I've heard that happens but I couldn't tell you what synod might do that (and, given my synodical role in working with pastors, have never known a pastor to go through such an "audition"). It's clearly not a whole ELCA practice.

The call process has variations from synod to synod. So what you, and others, have described may actually exist somewhere.

One thing that does seem universal throughout the ELCA at the moment.... the call process is exceedingly slow right now.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Comment #1
The bad habits described are now
happening in the Lower Susquehanna
Synod in Pennsylvania and the Metro
Washington D.C. Synod. Those are the
only two ELCA Synods I am privy to.
But it has been explained to me that
is standard procedure on the East
Coast. I strongly feel it is wrong
to demean the Office of the Holy
Ministry in this manner.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

As a former circuit counselor I can tell you that sometimes the 'auditions' happen unbeknownst to the pastor of interest on the call list. Despite admonitions against doing so, occasionally members of the call committee will make a pilgrimage to the congregation of their prospective new pastor incognito. It is very important for a congregation to have wise counsel concerning the pastor's they call. Sometimes what they want isn't really what the need. For example, they may have wonderful pastor that they love and appreciate, but as they attempt to call an associate pastor, they make the mistake of looking for someone who is exactly like their current pastor rather than someone who will compliment his talents (and weaknesses).

Pastor Peters said...

I regret if I have miss characterized the ELCA call process and am sure it varies but I have friends in the ELCA throughout the US and my words were based on conversations from throughout the East Cost to the West Coast.