I was asked recently to speak to a smallish, bedroom-community congregation about what ministers are looking for when considering a new call. The answer is complex, and often has to do with circumstances over which the congregation has no control—cost of living, cultural opportunities, athletic facilities—but I believe that virtually all candidates for ministry are hoping to serve a healthy congregation.
If your next thought is to ask what constitutes “healthy,” again the answer is complex, but as someone who works with congregations of all sizes, conditions, and denominational affiliations, my list of characteristics includes:
- Missional—I’ve frankly never liked the word, but the key concept is important. Ministers want to serve congregations that are outwardly focused, not endlessly anxious about their own survival. Anxiety breeds anger, depression, and conflict and is rarely a faithful response to God’s often-repeated instruction to “Fear not.” Ministers look for congregations that are more excited about reaching out to the people in their communities, both to share the Good News and to feed the hungry, than about the endless routine of recruiting committee members and having meetings.
- Flexible—Most of the congregations I interact with have been around for 100 years or more. They may originally have been perfectly suited to their time, but now they idolize aging buildings and pander to outdated understandings of family. Some ministers may be comfortable in such settings, but most are hoping for a congregation that is eager to experiment and innovate in response to a changing culture. The old model of church is passing away and we can’t yet see the shape of the church to come. Ministers look for congregations that are flexible, innovative, willing to fail at some of the things they try, and open to changes that will allow both minister and congregation to survive and serve in new and compelling ways.
- Accountable—Ministers are looking for congregations that are accountable to their mission. Accountable congregations are clear about their mission, create job descriptions for senior ministers, staff, committees, and boards that align with their mission, and specify how each is responsible for its accomplishment. During the year, members and staff of accountable congregations offer one other reasonable pressure and support in their pursuit of the mission. And at the end of every year, the board of an accountable congregation evaluates its own performance and the senior minister’s to determine what needs to be improved.
- Sensible—Consider these facts: More than a third of Millennials are unaffiliated with a faith community, only 11% are part of the former Protestant Mainline, and most are having fewer children later in life. In that situation, does it make sense for a declining, older congregation to hire a young minister, refuse to make any changes she suggests, and expect that she will grow the church by attracting families with young children? Of course not!
Nor is it sensible for perpetually conflicted congregation to expect that the “right” minister will magically unify them. Ministers want congregations that accurately assess their demographics and culture and those of their community and make choices appropriate to their actual circumstances. (And by the way, congregations are often too close to the trees to see cultural or community changes clearly, so denominations and their regional offices have a primary responsibility to help congregations understand and interpret environmental change as it happens.)
Ministers want to serve congregations with clear, realistic expectations—even to the point of realizing that their best choice might be to continue being healthy and faithful till they must finally close.
- Professional—Ministers hope to find congregations that are competent at their administrative functions. Such congregations adopt and abide by sound financial and personnel policies, maintain clear job descriptions, practice firm and fair evaluation, and comply with IRS rules. They do all they can to keep children and vulnerable adults safe and keep buildings and grounds clean, up to date, and properly insured. They make decisions openly, know how to behave when conflict arises, and respect and trust one other and their staff. To ministers, congregations that do all these things are more precious than rubies!
- Faithful—Ministers want congregations whose members care about the words of Scripture, are eager to study and pray, want to follow Jesus’ lead in “taking the form of a servant,” and are filled with a joyful spirit. They dread those congregations whose declining numbers lead to bitterness and blame rather than to relying on the Holy Spirit to help them reclaim their mission.
Finally, please note that none of this depends on a congregation’s size. I know of congregations with an average worship attendance of eight that are breathtakingly healthy and congregations of 8,000 that are breathtakingly dysfunctional. Whether a minister is looking for a part-time or a full-time position, they will almost always prefer a congregation that, regardless of size, seeks to serve God and witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ in a healthy, gracious, enthusiastic way.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.