The Thistle

The Hunt: One Man’s Journey to Secure a Pastoral Call

In our current economy finding a pastoral position, whether for the first time or not, can be challenging. Anecdotally, many churches report that they have received up to 70 applications for a posted position. Even discounting the applicants who are constantly “dipping the toe in the new-call pool,” I commonly hear of positions receiving upwards of 30 applications. This can be a great discouragement to those seeking pastoral positions—but knowing how to engage well with the process can make a big difference between success and failure.

There are four steps to the placement process: preparation, deployment, engagement, and reflection. These steps are not independent of one another, and are not necessarily consecutive. On the contrary, because these steps are performed with each engagement in the placement process, one may realistically be involved in every step of the process with different churches at the same time.

Jeff Zehnder (MDiv ’09, ThM ’11) recently went through this process and shares his experience. He came out of a Lutheran background and had few connections with the denomination in which he was trying to get placed (i.e., the PCA).

Jeff, tell us a little about your search for a ministry position? 
After getting my MDiv from Covenant Seminary, I searched for a pastoral position for about a year and half. I sought assistant/associate and solo pastor positions. I also looked at a handful of other ministries,  such as a college chaplaincy and pastoral positions outside the PCA that would accept a man with Reformed and Presbyterian convictions. My main hope was to become an assistant or associate pastor, though youth ministry was fine, too, if God wished.

How did you approach the placement process?

I went through what became three rounds of searches. With each round I sent out at least seven applications and kept an Excel file of all the churches I was connecting to, when I contacted them, and who I spoke with. I found organizing it in these ’rounds’ made it easier for me to put my energy behind it and also to weather the (what became) successive disappointments of not finding a position.  I called and e-mailed a number of the churches, especially those I was most interested in. I usually tried to talk to a decision-maker there, in order to develop more of a connection than just a form in an e-mail inbox. As a result of this work, and by God’s grace, I received some phone interviews, and four in-person interviews (for churches in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Oregon). But ultimately they all ended in a negative response.

So how did you find out about the job you ended up getting?

Somewhere in the middle of the third round of searches, by God’s grace, something happened that I did not expect. I ran into an MTW worker I knew from a trip I took to India during my time in seminary. She lived in Atlanta but was visiting a friend in South Carolina. My family and I, being St Louis-based then, were in South Carolina visiting our old church. We met this woman from MTW quite surprisingly at a lunch in the home of retired friends of ours. During that time, I mentioned my search for a pastoral position. She said, ”Well, my home church was looking for a pastoral intern some time ago, but didn’t get any response. So they took the posting down.” 

You hadn’t really been looking at internships up to this point, had you?

No, but I decided at this point that it was worth looking into anything that might be promising. I e-mailed one of that church’s elders and gave him a link to my placement website. But I never got an answer. 

Did you give up pursuing the lead?
A month passed, and I decided to e-mail the church again. It turns out that the elder I e-mailed had overlooked my first message by accident. He then put me into contact with the pastor. And in time I learned that by ”internship,” what they meant was pretty flexible: they just wanted to bring in a younger man to give him experience. After I had several conversations with them and  flew out to visit the church, they decided to bring me on as their intern.

How have things developed since then?
A year and a half has now passed since this church brought me into rural industrial Western Pennsylvania back in November 2010. The church has showered my family with support and gifts and love. The head pastor is a diligent shepherd with some forty years in ministry and has been generous in giving me tasks to gain experience. Just two weeks ago, by God’s grace (and after a fairly grueling examination process), I was ordained as the church’s associate pastor. We flew in my beloved mentor and friend, Prof. Jerram Barrs, to preach. It was the capstone of a long work of God that began in eighth grade. 

What takeaways do you have from the placement experience?

The search process was a transformative time for me. God tested my sense of call and he also tested my patience, which can run in short supply. Experientially, he allowed for me to see what the degree of my commitment was to the work he had called me to do. I remember today that it is God who led me into this work. And it is God to whom I report still.  

I’ve also developed sensitivity for those who are in the waiting/applying stage, especially people who come from non-PCA backgrounds. I not only lacked a thick network of connections in the PCA, but also found I lacked some of the way of speaking and even humor that some PCA churches have. This was not a defeating problem, of course, because not all churches are looking for that sort of person. But there are five main lessons I’d share with others:


1.       Believe you are a pastor of people today. This was the most transformative change in me during this time. At some point during seminary, I decided I would act like a pastor. This meant I would start assuming responsibility (as a pastor would) for the spiritual health of the people God has put all around me, in church, work, and neighborhood. With my wife, JoAnna’s, help, I had the delight of shepherding our neighbors in St Louis at an apartment complex in Manchester, Missouri, across from a Wal-Mart. And it is reasonable to assume that this decided attitude—”I am a pastor now”—translated into how I carried myself in interviews. 
2.       Take advantage of the ”waiting time” for other activities you will not be able to pursue later. For us, we had such delightful time to spend with our daughter and also our neighbors, time I struggle to find now. I also acquired a Master of Theology (ThM) degree during that time, completing a goal I had desired for some years.  
3.       Continue to be diligent and keep tweaking your ability to look for a position as you go. JoAnna and I continued to learn about little things that I needed to improve upon in myself. 
4.       Take advantage of job-searching opportunities that God is peppering all around you. Mine was a Sunday lunch inSouth Carolina while on vacation in a chance meeting with an MTW worker who normally lived in Atlanta 
5.      Put Psalm 31:3 on a note card, and memorize and pray it. Train yourself to believe it. A classmate of mine showed me this verse providentially right after I myself had found it and begun to memorize it. It states, ”You are my rock and my fortress. For your name’s sake you will lead me and guide me.”