You got the envelope or phone call this winter with your Region assignment. You then got the phone call from a Bishop, and now you know what Synod you’re going to. And now here you are, on the home stretch of your final semester of classes in seminary, with graduation on the horizon.
Oh yeah, you have to navigate the whole first call process too.
For some of you in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, you may already have your first-call in your back pocket – you know what congregation you’re going to. But for all of you who fall outside that category, the whole first-call process can be confusing and anxious. And unlike pro sports rookies we don’t hire agents upon being drafted…..although maybe Drew Rosenhaus or Scott Boras may be more helpful in alleviating your anxiety than the Holy Spirit right now. Heck, maybe you’re so desperate you’d take Jerry Maguire at this point.
Or, perhaps I can offer a few things for you, having been through this process about two years ago. There was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for me as well – moving halfway across the country to a Synod, although I was familiar with it, I wasn’t really expecting to go to. I hope you find these helpful!
1. Chuck the “pastor/spiritual/theological” language. I found in conversation that phrases like “Let’s prayerfully consider where the Spirit’s leading” or “we just have to trust God here” or “I really get a sense of God speaking” in this way or that, while nice, sometimes isn’t very helpful. I think it’s a given that we all trust the Spirit’s guidance and that God is moving in this process. However, God also gifted us with rational brains. You’re out of the seminary world now, and honesty, direct communication is going to become more effective for you in the long run. It can be more assuring to hear “be patient, because there isn’t anything that’s right for you (or anything at all) at this time.”
1a. You are interviewing your Synod and prospective congregations just as much as they are interviewing you. This goes along with the comment about honest, direct communication. First call interviews can feel a lot like dating – both sides want to put their best foot forward, which means downplaying any of the growing edges or challenges (almost every congregation has them). You should be honest and direct about who you are, but also in your questions about who they are. This is where the Synod can help; ask them about frequency and nature of pastoral transitions in certain congregations, or what challenges exist. It’s a telling sign if your Synod can’t (or won’t) name anything they know about the congregation, particularly around challenges.
2. Ask about areas of involvement for pastors within the Synod. You likely developed passions for particular ministry or issues while at seminary. I know for me, Navy Chaplaincy and bi-vocational ministry that reaches out to young adults and youth were areas of ministry that today, still energize and drive me. Yet, rare is the first call that will align perfectly with your passions for social justice or global missions. Ask the Synod you’re assigned to what groups or focus there is for you to feed those passions. It helps connect not just you, but your congregations to the larger expression of church, can be a real asset to both the ministry of the Synod and the congregation, and will be a means of self-care for you as well.
3. Consider the areas you’re looking at from a personal, social perspective too. I chose my first call not just on the congregation, I really considered the location from a standpoint of how it would be for my wife and I socially and emotionally. There were opportunities for meaningful work and professional networking for my wife. There was a wrestling team I could coach, and has become great community of support and friendship for both of us. We live 3 blocks from the beach. (Yes, you read that right!) For me, I know I cannot be a good, healthy pastor unless my personal life is reasonably healthy. In those moments your calls get challenging – and they will – you’ll need something away from the congregations and that community to refresh you.
4. Be prepared to say “no.” John Elway considered it. Bo Jackson played baseball instead of football. They don’t tell you this, but if you’ve been reasonably faithful to the assignment process, and it doesn’t feel right, you do have the right to say no. It can be frustrating when your life is put on hold because others drag their feet or blow you off. That’s not trusting the Holy Spirit; that’s being disrespectful and taking advantage of you. Sometimes you have to switch gears a bit, and that will come with some consequences, but in the end if you’re being told to wait in a way that drastically throws your life in flux, then have courage that you can say no, and there are places that need and want a pastor like you. (Note: if you find yourself in that situation, I advise you to find advocates who will speak on your behalf – experienced pastors, mentors, bishops and synod staff from other synods. Find a few folks who know you well and in that case you do find yourself in a tough situation, they can make calls on your behalf.)
5. While challenging, this process should be exciting. I’ll be the first person to say that the process, while challenging, does work the majority of the time. I believe there are good, faithful people who take the task of matching first-call pastors with good congregations so that God’s grace might be proclaimed and God’s work in the world be done. That might mean a little discomfort on your end, embrace that. However, the process should feel exciting to you overall. If it feels anything other than that, and you know those feelings are outside of who you typically are and how you experience transition and uncertainty, then it’s time to ask why and consider #4 above.
But remember that – this is your first go around, and that is exciting. I can tell you this, my call now is nothing like I thought it would be two years ago. There have been ups and downs, and this IS A FIRST CALL – there will likely be more calls to come. We live between two tensions – an established church culture that values obligation versus a contemporary life that values personal choice. You will feel the tension of that from time to time, but if you honor both without sacrificing one or the other – you’ll be satisfied with the process.
God be with you all in your discernment and “post-draft” negotiations! Oh, and if you do need an agent, I might be available….
I’m sure there are other very helpful suggestions out there as well. Feel free to comment and offer them here for folks to read!