by Robert Earl Houston
I’m approaching a milestone. Next year, on April 30, 2013, I will celebrate, Lord willing, 35 years in ministry. I need to add the words, “by the grace of God.” Lord knows I’ve been blessed and I’ve made my share of mistakes, but through it all, God has been good.
When I was a younger man, I thought that when a church calls a pastor, it’s always a perfect fit. But then reality sets in that every church is not for every preacher. It took 30 years for me to find a church that fits me – and that is First Baptist Church, Frankfort, Kentucky. For this season in my life, they are just what the good Lord has ordered. They are a working church, a loving church, a giving church, a following church, and though not perfect (no church here on earth is perfect) they are a great compliment to me and my ministry at this stage of my life. I’ve moved into the “seasoned statesman” part of my life and this congregation is my dream of a church. God be praised!
However, many a pastor applies for a church becomes of bells and whistles; paychecks and perks; reputation and monuments; only to discover that the church may not be a “fit” for them and their ministry. It’s akin to buying a home that looked fantastic on the outside and without doing any checking at all, tell the real estate agent that you want to buy it, only to discover that the outside was nothing but a facade like the letters “HOLLYWOOD” that are planted in the hills of Los Angeles.
I want to address this with preachers that are searching for pulpits. I want to suggest 5 things to consider while you’re either in the candidating process or even before you seal that envelope with your letter, your resume, your CDs, your DVDs and your salary requirements:
# 1 – IS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD LEADING ME?
Believe it or not, sometimes the Spirit of the Lord has been ignored in the process by some ministers. Never apply for a church like you would for a secular job. This is a process that needs to be rooted and grounded in prayer. When I was younger, in my 20s, I applied for many churches and was rejected soundly church after church after church. That was because I wanted to pastor so bad that I talked to church pulpit committees but I failed to contact the ultimate CEO of hiring – the Lord. Before you spend one minute looking on web sites, talking with other preachers, or the such, TALK TO THE LORD. It may not be your season for movement. It may not be in your best interests to go now. Frankly, you may not be spiritually mature enough to handle a new congregation that has differing needs.
This is too important to gloss over – make sure that it is the Holy Spirit leading you and not your ego! Not your need for fulfillment! Not your need for a tribe under foot. A few years ago I was cursed out by a preacher who wanted to know if it was possible for me to list all of the vacant churches in one long listing per month instead of on an as needed to know basis. He told me “Hell Reverend, it costs me a lot of money to apply to these churches.” SMH. Every church is not for you in the first place. Again, weigh carefully where the Lord is leading and directing you too.
I laugh when pulpit committees tell me that a preacher has sent them a booklet or pamphlet on “What I will do when I become the Pastor.” According to the Word of the Lord, “where there is no vision, the people perish” – but God does not give vision where there is no assignment. Just makes sense – you can’t promise to change the furniture when you’ve never been in the house. Or in the words of the sages, “you can’t move a pillar until you find out what it’s holding up.”
#2 – IS BIGGER BETTER?
That answer is NO. Just because a congregation is larger than the one you currently pastor OR is a large church and you’re serving as an associate – do your homework. When I was much younger than I am today, I candidated at a church in a major metropolitan area. I showed up for the interview and they gave me a tour of the building. When I walked into the fellowship hall, they showed me the “Wall of Pastors” – some 40 men who had served as pastor of the church. When I asked how old was the church, they said “oh, about 60 years old.” You do the math. This church didn’t really want a pastor, they wanted a seat warmer or a temporary forecaster of weather until the next man came in the door.
A larger church does not even mean you’ll receive a larger salary. Bi-vocationalism is not a sin especially if it means that you won’t develop anxiety, depression, heart failure, insanity and family issues.
I’m told of a church in Kentucky. The pastor is paid $60,000 per year, given a new car every other year, and when it snows or weather is harsh, they cancel service and mail him his check. The church, in a rural, farming community, has 10 members. Bigger ain’t better.
#3 – IS THE WORD GOING TO RUN THE CHURCH?
I laughed even typing this because I remember candidating for a church once and they sent me a packet with the notes: “Dear Reverend Houston, enclosed are the rules and regulations for the church – our Bylaws.” In the Bylaws were no mention of the Bible, the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit, Christian ethics and principles. Only this word: “No other document, including the Bible, shall overrule these bylaws.” I took the contents of the envelope, mailed it back and said no thanks.
If the Word of God is not supreme in the church, then the messenger of God is not going to be respected. PERIOD. I pastored a church once and someone said in a meeting, “he only works on Sunday” not knowing that I spend hours visiting the sick, counseling, writing letters, responding to calls, encouraging, teaching, and then at the sake of my family, spend odd hours into the night talking to the Lord, meditating and preparing to “work on Sunday.” That member didn’t care about the Word and in turn did not care about a pastor.
#4 – AM I READY TO GO OR JUST FRUSTRATED WHERE I’M AT?
When I was a young man, I admit that I was becoming frustrated because many of my contemporaries were getting called to or organizing churches. In my home town of Portland, Oregon, my brother in the ministry, Rev. Walter M. Brown, Jr. was interim and about to be named as pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church; my dear friend and brother in the Lord, Rev. George H. Merriweather had planted Northeast Fouresquare Church in Portland; other contemporaries in Seattle were getting called to churches and I found myself wondering “well, what’s wrong with me?” There was nothing wrong with me – God was just preparing me for first pastorate. I candidated at churches all over the country, only to wind up at my first church, about 40 members strong, actually around the block from where I preached my first sermon. If I could go back in time and talk with my younger self, I would tell myself to enjoy the season of being an associate minister – where you don’t have to worry about budgets, raising money, encouraging people, meetings, appearances, etc.
For established pastors, you can mis-read the “urge to go” because of brush-back from the congregation. “They won’t listen” or “They won’t follow” can also mean that a sliver of the congregation does not constitute the thoughts of everyone in the church. The squeakiest wheels make the most noise. It could be that 99% of the congregation is with you, but you’re gauging success or failure by a few loud people and thinking “God wants me to go.” Prayerfully consider something Dr. Willie James Smith told me one night when I was really frustrated at a previous pastorate, “Robert Earl, when people act up, they are confessing that they really do need a pastor.” You don’t know what’s down the road – you may be leaving at the right time or you may be trading in a great congregation for a pantheon of great fighters against a pastor. Tread carefully.
#5 – AM I READY TO TRUST GOD?
I went through a painful divorce in San Diego. I remember moving into my two bedroom apartment with literally only the suit on my back and my long green overcoat which doubled as my pillow. I came in from the landlord’s office, opened the door, balled up my coat and laid down to sleep. At 3 a.m., I woke up with tears in my eyes, shook my fist and God and said “I thought you loved me.” He said back to me, “TRUST ME.” Now, almost 10 years later, I fully understand why God said that to me. Anyone who enters into ministry and hasn’t settled the “Trust Me” issue will never be satisfied in ministry.
For me, it meant He had to break me to get my attention. He had to take away to give. He had to crumble to rebuild. He had to shake in order to firm up. He had to make sure that my service to Him was because I trusted him and not to make a name for myself. I was a Vice Moderator, a national preaching conference Board Member, a State Corresponding Secretary, a National Convention Special Assistant to the President – but my trust was an issue with God. If you don’t trust God, you’ll never be able to bear under the weight of seasons – those great and glorious days and those sad days; those days of great triumph and those days of great loss; those days of headlines and those days of obituaries; Trusting God is not some thing, it’s every thing to the Pastor that He calls.
Can I trust Him when the church is going through seasons? Can I trust Him when there is illness in my own family? Can I trust Him when my personal health fails? Can I trust Him when bills are high and money is low? My answer is now yes.
Can I trust Him when He decides to move you far away from your hometown and kindred? Can you trust Him when He decides to send you to a church that is on hard times and He has decided to use you to rebuild it? Can you trust Him to send you from the city to the rural part of this nation? Can you trust Him to take you to a place where you will be no longer but the big fish but a guppie in the pond?
Again, candidating is a serious manner. I pray that you do so prayerfully, carefully, but most important, spiritually.