Peter Iwankiw pastors in the Washington Conference, United States.

I knew it couldn’t work. It was an obvious mismatch—and it was stressing me out. I felt impressed to start praying for two things: momentum or a move.

When you feel as if you are just stuck because of a poorly matched church district, you hope that, beyond all apparent roadblocks, God can still provide some momentum. But if you find yourself continually running against walls, perhaps it is time for a move. Little did I know that was what God was planning for me.

Ministerial placement in a church district

In my part of the world, when a congregation needs a pastor, the conference forms a search committee to find possible candidates. After weeks, or even months, of prayerful searching, the chosen candidates undergo interviews to determine whether they will be the right fit. If they answer questions to the satisfaction of the committee, they get placed on a short list until one individual is selected. The method seems to work well enough. A pastor is searching for an opportunity to serve, and a church is looking for the right candidate to lead.

Throughout the whole process, one question lurks in the back of each mind: Is this going to be a good fit? Churches want to know that a pastor lines up with their vision, and pastors want assurance that the members are open to theirs. What sometimes happens during the first interactions is that both parties overlook glaring red flags of an incompatible relationship. It is not until sometime later that they may realize it was not a good fit after all.

Since pastors learn to be content in all situations while being all things to all people, they struggle through that relationship for a while longer, praying it will get better. The reality most often is that unless the pastor and congregation change their philosophy of ministry, there will continue to be a mismatch.

I have pastored churches where what was important to me was inconvenient to them. When we tried the dance of give and take, they insisted on leading or leaving. With every criticism and refusal to change, I would ask myself, Is it me? Now recognizing that my first duty should have been to submit the decision to God in prayer, I realized I was in a bad fit. Do not be anxious about a specific church or district. Instead, pray, ask for God’s leading, and then be willing to accept it.

As pastors, we often assume that given enough time, we can rebrand, revive, and rebuild any congregation. I would love for this to be true, but when it is a bad fit from the onset, a pastor can become discouraged and deflated from stifled creativity and ministry paralysis. For those who have been or currently find themselves in similar situations, I would like to recommend three ways to ensure a healthy pastoral placement.

1. Ask difficult questions

In the early stages of conversation, we talk about outreach, discipleship, and other ministry concepts but often fail to flesh out what that entails in practice. To say you believe in a Christ-centered, Bible-based, uplifting service does not reveal much about what that looks like weekly. I would speculate that all churches want those things. It is when you start specifically discussing the atmosphere and culture of the service that you see both sides. Does the church have a visitor assimilation system in place? Is the membership open to receiving visitors or is the service simply tailored to the specific needs of the members? Does the congregation intentionally focus on those they are hoping to reach? What do they consider good preaching? Who gets to participate? What is acceptable music? What is the focus for outreach and how uncomfortable is the church willing to become for the sake of those they are hoping to reach?

Some conferences have the church and pastor fill out a survey that reveals on which side of the spectrum their philosophy of ministry lands. Sometimes questions are avoided for the sake of politeness, or we do not think of them while we are being wooed. Asking the right questions can help prevent the regret of a mismatched relationship down the road.

2. Confirm a majority vision

Occasionally, a few elders or a small committee from the church take part in the interview process. Future plans are shared outlining the direction they would like the church moved in, but later, the pastor discovers this is the passion of a few, not the vision of the majority. Sadly, this realization may only surface once you begin to teach specific topics or attempt to vote certain changes. At this point, you realize that the vision you were sold on went no further than that first meeting.

To have a better understanding of the church’s direction requires both a survey and a discussion that will clearly reveal a majority vision. With this information, pastors will know precisely what most members are open to and thus they are more likely to have support as they move forward with their plans. Do not hurry to transform the church. Rather, spend time to listen to their proposals, understand their viewpoints, grow relationships, and build trust. Pray for and with your members. Show them that you care. Make changes one step at a time, breaking them into small, incremental steps. Even though it may go slower than desired, it is better to accomplish a few things gradually than to do everything faster—and alone.

3. Align for success

What can also happen is that a church and conference concerned about filling a position may move too quickly. The conference feels good about filling the position, the church can breathe a little easier, and everyone feels satisfied. Some time passes, and the congregation and pastor realize that a wrong fit is keeping the church from forward movement, and most of the time is spent putting out fires. When placing a candidate, it is better to take a little longer to ensure the right match that will bring success to both the pastor and the church. If we are placing just to fill a vacancy, then it will provide only a temporary fix. But if we are aligning for success, we will see both a pastor’s ministry and the church grow exponentially in a short time.

So, what was God planning for me? A few weeks after putting my initial thoughts together for this article, an unexpected ministry opportunity came my way. As I reflected on this possibility, I knew that I would have a chance to implement the ideas I had just put together.

The time for the first interview finally arrived. They began with soft underhand pitches with an occasional changeup. I knew it would be my turn soon. While I wanted to raise the “uncomfortable questions,” I also desired to make a good impression. Finally, I had to ask myself, “Is the possibility of offending them worse than getting stuck in another mismatched district?” It was not. Because I asked, I better understood what they were for and what they were against. So far, so good. Next, I had to find out if the things they were sharing were the thoughts of a minority in that room or a majority vision of the church. They answered, and I was two for two.

When it comes to alignment for success, there isn’t just one specific question to ask at the interview. Among other things, the conference determines placement based on the culture and philosophy of ministry of the church and the pastor. This decision was made prior to the interview. At some point, the leaders of this church were interviewed about their culture and mission, and this information was presented to me beforehand. As I shared these points with my wife, she responded in amazement, “They’re pretty much describing us and our vision.” It was a difficult decision to make because it would involve so much change for us. Yet, we could not overlook the fact that since we were not gaining momentum where we were, here was the move we had been longing and praying for. We accepted the invitation.

We had a somewhat seamless transition. What made the most significant difference in the process was the fact that we were willing to ask difficult questions and confirm a majority vision, and we were privileged to be aligned for success.

Momentum and impact

I am not naive enough to promise that if you consider these three steps, you will never have a mismatched ministry, but maybe they can minimize that possibility. You should not have to just survive ministry in a particular context when you could thrive in another. Some of the greatest achievements in life have taken place because a proper fit generated momentum for individuals and organizations. Such steps may take a little bit more work and feel a little uncomfortable, but they will ultimately allow our pastors and churches to have the greatest impact for God’s kingdom.

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Peter Iwankiw pastors in the Washington Conference, United States.

February 2021

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