Mid-council leaders discuss best ways of helping churches with new-pastor searches

June 21, 2016

SanDawna Ashley leads Face to Face event.

SanDawna Ashley leads Face to Face event. —Danny Bolin

Portland

Recognizing that helping congregations find new pastors is one of the most important responsibilities they face, mid-council leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), gathered during the 222nd General Assembly (2016) to talk about the best ways to accomplish that task.

“The health of pastoral relationships starts with the work we do with congregations during leadership transitions,” said Sara Dingman, transitional executive for the Synod of Lincoln Trails.

She joined three other mid-council executives on a panel hosted by SanDawna Ashley, manager of Call Process Support for the Office of the General Assembly.

“A basis of our connectional system is that every call is a covenant between the congregation, the pastor, and the presbytery,” said Susan McGhee, executive presbyter for Ohio Valley Presbytery.

The other two panel members were Jackie Taylor, associate executive presbyter for New Castle Presbytery, and Warner Durnell, executive presbyter for Middle Tennessee Presbytery.

Discussing the leadership qualities of pastoral candidates that are most important, Dingman said: “I look for shining eyes and energy. Capacity for leadership more than experience. Cultural humility.”

Durnell said he looks for candidates who are risk-takers and are entrepreneurial.

Adaptability, paired with passion and enthusiasm, is important to Taylor. “I’m looking for someone with zing, not someone who apologizes for looking for a position,” she said.

All agreed that, in assessing the “fit” between the potential pastor and the position, it is essential to encourage members of search committees to listen deeply to each other and encourage candidates to join them in frank conversations.

Durnell pointed out that it is the responsibility of the presbytery to conduct thorough reference and background checks, but the results are not always welcome. “Sometimes these conversations get rather dicey,” he said, “but it is our job to be up-front and make sure everything is on the table.”

Taylor said she relies on Committee on Ministry liaisons to build relationships of trust with search committees.

Difficulty in a previous pastorate is not necessarily a deal- breaker, McGhee said: What really matters is what a candidate has learned and how her leadership capacities have grown. When all the blame is on the system or something else, that is a huge red flag.”

Members of the panel also talked about how mid-councils can help sustain healthy pastoral relationships, emphasizing support and comradeship. “I don’t need to tell you that ministry is lonely,” Dingman said.

Financial counseling is often a critical need, and it can be arranged or provided by a mid-council leader or oversight committee. “Good support means calls that are healthier,” Taylor said.

“Our work supporting pastors and congregations sometimes leaves them feeling like there are so many hoops to jump through,” McGhee said, “but remember how generative it can be.” “We’re a connectional system,” Dingman pointed out, adding, “It’s a blessing, not a curse.”

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