Reading a book about wild redwoods last night, I was reminded of my first interview for a full-time ministry position. Not that the two have anything in common. Who knows what triggers those old memories to resurface?
Anyway, I was in my last year of seminary. Graduation day loomed ever closer, and with it, the expectation that I would begin my ministry. That, plus the fact that I would be evicted from the campus apartments reserved for seminary students and their families, motivated me to begin searching for a place where my newly minted seminary skills could be put to use.
I got a call from a church half a continent away. The woman on the phone sounded elderly, and said that their pastor of 25 years (she described him as a "real doll") was retiring. They were looking for a new pastor, and had received my papers. I said, "Let's talk."
She told me that one member of their search committee would be vacationing soon in a state next to the one where I was currently going to seminary. Perhaps he and I could meet? He and I got in touch, and he confirmed that he would be taking a cross-country RV trip. Arrangements were made for us to meet over coffee (or tea in my case), in his RV, in a WalMart parking lot several hours away.
A few weeks later, I drove to the WalMart parking lot, and found the RV. I briefly thought of other meetings that take place in big parking lots, but quickly put those thoughts out of my mind. I knocked on the RV door, and this older gentleman kindly welcomed me in.
We sat down at the small dining table; the window above the table framed the entrance to WalMart perfectly. We began with small talk, but the conversation quickly turned to more pressing questions. One of those questions had to do with gays and lesbians. He told me that a lot of people in the region he's from favor the ordination of homosexuals, and if the larger church ever tried to impose such a policy on the congregation, they'd leave the denomination, and how would I feel about that?
It's strange. I've never once had a search committee ask me what the church should be doing about the 30,000 or so children who die every day from preventable causes. I've never been asked about what the church should do to end poverty in the world--or even in one's own community. And I don't remember being asked how I think congregations can work to help those outside their walls. But every congregation I've ever interviewed for wants to know what I think regarding the behavior of two adults in their bedroom.
I told him that, in our denomination, things don't work that way. Authority in such things rests with the congregation. No one outside the congregation can tell the congregation how it should do things.
He said to me, "But what if they did?" I said that what he was talking about would never happen, but if it did, I was committed to the denomination and what it stood for, and that if the congregation should leave the denomination, then I would probably need to leave the congregation.
Surprisingly, this did not end my conversation with that congregation. The lady who had contacted me initially kept calling me, asking for more information on various things. We continued the process of learning more about each other over the next few weeks.
Then one day, she called and told me that their dear pastor of 25 years had become so used to living in the parsonage next to the church, and that he was so old, that they didn't think it was right to ask him to move. So the congregation decided to continue renting out the parsonage to him, and that they would provide their new pastor--me, if things worked out--a housing allowance instead of the parsonage. Besides, she said, this will make it easier for him to stay active in the congregation, which he plans to do.
It is commonly understood among clergy that it is unethical for a resigning or retiring pastor to remain active in his or her congregation after the arrival of a new pastor. It makes things too complicated and difficult for the new pastor. In my mind, I could see people coming to the church, looking for the pastor, seeing a parsonage next door, knocking on the door--and where would that leave me? How could that possibly be any kind of an effective ministry?
This first interview was not a good match. The second congregation I interviewed with was better, but still the match wasn't right. Fortunately, it wasn't long until a third congregation came along, and just a few days after my last seminary final exam, I arrived in my new congregation, ready to begin a career in ministry.