11 February, 2013

Search and Call in the Days of eHarmony

From another of my Blogs:  This is one of several posts that reflect upon the Search and Call Process within the United Church of Christ; they are decidedly from the PASTOR's point of view.  I'd love to hear from Local Church Search Committee Members about the system from your perspective.

So much of what we do these days is instant:  Baked potatoes and popcorn in the microwave, dinner in minutes at the fast food drive-thru, taxes filed on line in the blink of an eye and refunds deposited directly into your checking account.  Even the dating scene has been condensed with Speed Dating Events and on line dating services like Match.com and e-Harmony dot com.

Wouldn’t it be something if the process of Search and Call could be as nicely condensed?  

e-Harmony and Match both have online questionnaires that ask everything from the quirky to the intimate. The more in-depth of the two, e-Harmony, has hundreds of questions that range from preferences for ideal first dates to personal values.  Using algorithms, these dating services match one member's responses with similar and complimentary response patterns from another member. 

Picture a system where pastoral and congregational profiles are all completed on line in the likeness of eHarmony dot com.  Imagine, instead of a self appraisal section on the profile, the pastor rates his agreement with statements on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being "Completely disagree" and 10 being "Completely agree" or "Never" and "Always."  Can you picture each reference for the pastor also responding to these questions about the pastor?   What if instead of having to choose 12 qualities from a long list of possible qualities, the pastor and her references were asked to rank each of the qualities from 1 to 10?   For the congregational profile, would it be possible to have members of the congregation complete a 100 question survey about their church where their responses are made on a "fill in the dot" method with the option to fill it out on line? 

    If these things were possible, the areas of a pastor's experience and expertise could be paired with the leadership needs of the congregation; the interpersonal relation style complimented with the personalities of the congregation; value systems matched; and theological leanings paired.  References could be tagged with key words in the narrative sections.  Through the magic of computer logic and e-Harmony technology, the profiles of the candidates best suited for St. Johns’ By the Gas Station would be sent to the search committee for follow-up.  For the Pastoral Search Committee, the difficult process of developing all those statistics for the profile would be eliminated; tediousness of reading 50 profiles in depth would be nearly eliminated since only the best matches would be sent to them.  Pastors would no longer need to   blindly send their profiles to congregations for whom they have only a 100 word description from the Employment Opportunities Database.  The most tedious portions of the search and call process could be eliminated and the most fruitful possibilities could be explored in more depth.  

    In the end, the call to or by a congregation would still be discerned through a lot of up close and personal time spent together between the candidate and the search committee, a careful listening to references and the Holy Spirit, and prayerful contemplation over what is the best direction for everyone.  But wouldn't it be something if we could eliminate some of the busy work (and potentially political rubbings) out of the initial process?

    Of course, this is a pipe dream.  Our system of Search and Call is entrenched in paper and ink so that the process of discerning God’s plan for each part of the Body of Christ can be most openly explored – because we all know that God works through paper and ink!  Isn’t that why the Bible was written down instead of given to Moses on a USB Jump Drive?

    While MESA[i]  has made advances toward the digital age, we have a long way to go.  There is limited uniformity in the process from region to region. Some conferences interpret the Search and Call Manual one way while others follow a different interpretation of the procedures; the candidates have no idea what interpretation to follow.  For example, does the Neutral Pulpit follow the "old rule" that Search Committees invite just one candidate at a time to a neutral pulpit and go to the next candidate only if the first doesn't work out, or, do they invite all their top candidates to neutral pulpits?  A recent bit of my own experience was a painful lesson in the lack of uniformity. 

    The staff from Conferences/Associations meet with search committees to explain their version of the protocols; and local church autonomy allows them to follow or disregard them.  The search committees usually enter into a covenantal agreement with the regional body to accept only applications that have come through the MESA process; but I’ve yet to work with a congregation whose search committee doesn’t have the discussion about what to do with the informal applications they’ve received from the friend of someone’s Cousin BZBee.  

    Search committees are instructed to complete the standard profile, but are allowed, and often encouraged by conference/association staff, to add photos and other narrative to increase the readability of their profiles.  In most regions, the churches are responsible for distributing their own profiles; often the copy a candidate receives does not have the comments of the regional staff or any indication the regional staff have seen it (though of course they have!).  The system offers a series of form letters and protocols but these are left up to each search committee to use or not; all too many use the form letters verbatim.  Friends who have served on local church search committees say that from their perspective, the most challenging part of the search is assembling all of the data and leadership statement of the congregation, and finding the time to meet and discuss the profiles of pastors who apply.  

    Search Committees can recruit, or headhunt, pastors any way they choose.  Recently, a large metropolitan church widely (and blindly) circulated their professionally produced, color, glossy 24 page narrative version of their profile to every pastor within 1000 miles of their church who had 15 or more years of experience and 8 or more years in their current church – information gleaned from the now searchable UCC Yearbook; the search committee had applicants before the position was advertised in the then weekly Employment Opportunities and within 2 months had a “hold on profiles” status in that publication.  While this is the exception and not the rule, churches with means and resources can and do supplement and expedite their search for a pastor.

    Further adding to the lack of uniformity is the reduced staffing in many conferences.  More and more churches are left on their own with very little coaching and follow-up by the regional staff due to cut backs.  When churches are arranging their own neutral pulpits and devising their own means of advertising and attracting candidates, pastoral candidates are left with very little assistance in understanding the process being used -- because often the regional staff are out of the loop after approving the church's profile.

    It does not help that the Search and Call Manual does not contain a clear flowchart of the procedure.  It lists the various steps, but not with any instruction about the order to follow or the expected protocols.  

    Pastors have very limited ability to actively market themselves to congregations.  For them, the search is much more regimented and and often merciless.  Only profiles circulated through MESA can be used; pastors are given only a PDF copy of the profile that is stamped "NOT FOR CIRCULATION." MESA does not allow the pastors to reformat or add photos (or anything else creative) to the profiles that are circulated; a ministerial profile is dull and not inviting to the readers with its 10 point Times Roman Font and set number of characters in each field.  There is no room for any creativity or individuation within the profile for the pastors.  Even specialties and certifications of most sorts are not allowed to be listed under certifications unless they are recognized by the denomination—which is limited to Christian Education.

     Those famous 12 characteristics of ministry chosen by the references and pastor are most often a qualitative means by which the candidate can be eliminated; during many Search Committee orientation meetings, regional staff instruct the committee to match the qualities the congregation has chosen as its 12 preferences to the most commonly chosen qualities chosen by the candidate and her references.  Heaven forbid the candidate have a variety of gifts recognized differently by each reference!  The employment history is limited to the previous three positions with no option to add to this except as “supplemental pages” which are limited in length.  While it is protocol for the pastor’s profile to sent to the search committees at the request of the pastor; it is not an uncommon practice for conference staff to place some profiles in the “recommended” pile when sending these profiles to the committee; but of course, there are no politics involved in the search because each congregation is autonomous and open to the Holy Spirit’s leading! 

    The protocol of most conferences prohibits pastors from contacting congregations to which they have applied until such time as the search committee tells the pastor they are interested in them. In short, there is little a pastor can do to help their profile stand out from among others.  The pastor is at the mercy of the search committees and the “call of the Spirit.”

    The search is no piece of cake for either the church or the candidates.  Some churches – particularly the smaller and rural congregation – have a difficult time attracting candidates.  While it is not unusual for a search to take two years, some congregations listed in the current database have been searching for 3 or more years; and many, many more have simply stopped looking.  While some search committees have the resources to advertise beyond the Employment Opportunities and receive hundreds of applications, others are lucky to receive ten profiles from the available “open” profiles in the regional office; of these, there may be two candidates actually interested in the church.  A search committee operates under a fair amount of pressure.  Members' schedules and the steep learning curve of this work lead often to confusing and frustrating progress. Further, in our denomination  there are nearly 5200 congregations and fewer than 3500 active clergy; so it would seem our Search and Call process gives clergy "the pick of the bunch." These are disheartening for the Search Committees.  How well the search and call process works for the congregation is closely linked to the location of the church, and the financial resources and personnel expertise available to the committee. 

    For the pastor, the possibility of serving another congregation often distracts her from the work of the current parish. Or worse, the “use by date” on his effectiveness has already passed and he is anxiously seeking new ministry possibilities. Once a pastor starts the search process, she often begins to unconsciously distance herself from her current congregation while she is waiting for the "process."   And the search has a lot of waiting:  

    • for MESA to process the profile and circulate it to the conferences;
    • for a search committee to acknowledge receipt of the profile;
    • for a search committee to let the candidate know they are among the candidates whose profiles are being retained for further reading; 
    • for the search committee to request further information of the candidate – video graphed sermons and other writings; 
    • for the search committee to invite the candidate to a phone or video interview; 
    • to hear back from the search committee that they are still interested in the pastor; 
    • for the search committee to interview (all the) other candidates in which they have an interest, or to advertise elsewhere to find more candidates. 

    And the work of the search committee is dependent upon the schedules of its members and of the congregation.  Very little communication between committees and candidates happens between Thanksgiving and New Years and between Memorial Dan and Labor Day.  And in the meantime, the pastor is waiting for the Holy Spirit to make her move.

    A pastor may begin go look for a new position in January and not be invited for a trial sermon until May two years later. If she is voted in by the congregation, she won’t start for yet another two or three months.  That is a very long time to spend “in transition.”

    In our denomination, there are 5194 congregations and fewer than 3500 active (unretired) pastors (3064 pastors, 416 Associate Pastors and Christian Ed professionals).  At any time, therefore, there will be 2130 congregations without pastoral leadership.  Many of these are not actively seeking a pastor.  In the February 8 set of results from the Database of Employment Opportunities[ii], there were 192 congregations looking for a pastor or associate pastor; 50 of these were seeking part time leadership.  Statistically, pastors are in short supply and should not have a problem finding a new position rather quickly.  In reality, the search and call system works at its best at glacial speed.

    In the secular world, where the Holy Spirit has little voice in who is hired, the position is advertised with a date by which all applications will be received; candidates submit their resumes/applications either on line or through a kiosk on the premise; human resource specialists choose a select number to interview within a short period of time; the top candidates are chosen for a second interview; the best candidate is chosen for the position and starts the position in two to four weeks.  The whole process might take six weeks. 

    In the church, the process is expected to take TWO YEARS.  Why?

    Match dot com boasts that its matches result in more couples and more weddings than old fashioned dating services. 
    Every year, hundreds of thousands of people find love on Match.com. …. Match.com continues to redefine the way single men and single women meet, flirt, date and fall in love… Match.com can help you find the date or relationship that fits you best.[iii]

    eHarmony goes a step further and claims to find more than a match but a quality relationship through specific compatibility traits (discovered through a survey of 400+ questions).
    Of all the single men or women you may meet online, very few will be compatible with you specifically, and it can be difficult to determine the level of compatibility of a potential partner through methods of conventional dating services – browsing classified ads, online personals, or viewing profile photos. Our Compatibility Matching System does the work for you by narrowing the field from thousands of single prospects to match you with a select group of compatible matches with whom you can build a quality relationship.[iv]

    While search and call can never be an online dating service for pastors and churches, I look forward to the day when we have a streamlined and efficient system that uses technology as well as the Holy Spirit to match congregations and pastors in a quarter of the time it now takes.  
    In the meantime, I am still waiting for the Spirit to move.

    [i] MESA -- The Ministerial Excellence, Support & Authorization Ministry Team—replaced OCLL – Office of Church Life and Leadership -- and is responsible for ministerial placement, among other things,  within the U.C.C.
    [ii] http://oppsearch.ucc.org/web/advancesearch.aspx accessed at 4:10 p.m on February 8, 2013.
    [iii] From  http://www.match.com accessed at 5:15 p.m on February 8, 2013.
    [iv] From http://www.eharmony.com  accessed at 5:24p.m. on February 8, 2013.

    05 February, 2013

    (Pro?)Found Facebook Posts

    Sometimes I am amazed when I go back through old Facebook posts and find gems I've jotted down in haste and forgotten.  Here's a few from a gleaning of my Facebook page.

    Call to Life
    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 4:04am via mobile
    The morning light on the horizon gives one the assurance of the promise of new life. Good morning life!

    Morning Charge
    Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 5:00am via mobile
    Golden rays of light and promise spray from the horizon. A new day is birth. How will I live the promise today?

    Call to Worshipful Living
    Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 5:56am
    The Morning Star shone brightly this morning in the predawn sky. Tho the daylight blocks my view, that Star still shines with the same radiance, still glows the same warm light into our distracted lives. Look up! Your light shines!

    9/11, Anger, Forgiveness
    Saturday, September 11, 2010 at 8:34am
    When we confuse forgetting with forgiving, we become our own enemy. We will never forget. The question is, "Are we brave enough and strong enough to forgive?" Or will we become like them: vengeful, angry, and fueled by hate?

    An Epiphany Song
    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 4:07pm via HTC Sense
    Awake! Awake, and greet the new day!
    Greet the new morning and be on your way
    The people are starving, employment they seek
    Awake and be ready to empower the weak

    Awake! Awake and open your heart
    The dawn is our sign of faiths journey to start
    The weary seek rest and the hungry a meal
    Awake and make haste for our God is made real.

    Awake! Awake! And greet the new morn!
    The prophets await us and Jonah's forlorn.
    Arise! Get you started. The kingdom's at hand.
    Good News is for sharing--bring word of God's plan.

    Money Laundering
    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 8:28pm near Tell City, IN via mobile
    I just discovered I put my American Express card thru the washer and dryer. I have no money to launder so I launder my credit! Just like the bankers.

    Being Exercised
    Monday, February 13, 2012 at 8:42am near Tell City, IN
    Hamsters and gerbils exercise by running on wheels; they get no where. Humans do the same on treadmills, don't we? What's the treadmill that gets you exercised but takes you no where? What are you jumping upon that gets your heart pounding and your brow wet but never moves toward change. It's time to get out of the wheel and onto the path toward our futures.

    Good News
    April 24, 2012 — in Tell City, IN.
    Today I broke my necklace. But I heard it drop to the floor and didn't lose it.
    Today I lost my phone. But I called it and found it inside a three ring binder in my desk drawer.
    Today I got 107 pieces of junk e-mail. But I got one note saying my Doctoral Project has been cleared for development. 
    It's been a good day. 

    Values and Money
    January 12, 2013 via mobile
    Which theologian said that our budget reflects our values? It never ceases to amaze me that the very people who complain that they have no money for (name that ministry or church) are the same ones who manage to take extravagant vacations, buy all kinds of gadgets and toys, and buy new cars every year. Priorities are displayed in how we spend our money.