The Thistle

When Crafting Ministerial Job Descriptions, Let Realty Shape Expectation!

Pastors are neither generic nor ideal. They are not universally nor uniformly gifted. There is no redundancy or irrelevance in the body of Christ. These are individual people created for a specific time for specific “works, which God prepared in advance” (Eph. 2:10).

A story goes that a wealthy farmer woke up one day and decided he didn’t want ten different horses, each doing a different task. He wrote an ad: “$10,000 for a horse—fast on the stretches, sleek on the curves, gentle on the ride, high in the step, sure-footed on rocks; able to pull nine times its weight, a plodder in the field, a sprinter in the lane; slow to tire, quick to recover; preferably attractive to the eyes.” Unable to find what he sought, he hired a breeder to “design” him such a beast, which a breeder did.

Later, someone asked the farmer, “Did you get what you wanted?” To which the farmer replied, “Yes, and no. This beast is everything I could have hoped for, but always the wrong hope during the wrong need. He is high in step during hard work, can pull nine times his weight but won’t, is slow to tire but slower to ever get started, is a sprinter when I need him to plod and plods when I need him to sprint. He is even something to look at, would he be willing to let me harness him during the daylight, which he seems to hate with fervor.”

In pastoring, as in farming, one size does not fit all. This does not go without saying. A recent survey of several hundred pastoral job descriptions (JD) shows that the vast majority of these JDs cluster around two extremes: overly generic or impossibly comprehensive.

Generic descriptions “seek a pastor who loves the Lord, loves God’s people, and is called to preach.” Comprehensive descriptions seek a (single) candidate who can do everything: teach, preach, cast vision, implement, train leaders, oversee outreach, direct, guide, pray, visit, and study; relationally inclined, results oriented, administrative, and personable.” (Both of these examples are derived from real job descriptions.)

Neither of these has in mind a real, image-bearing individual. The one expects too little and the other expects . . . well, Jesus. In either case, the result is an ideal candidate based upon some hybrid combination of qualities and traits from other known pastors. What may come as a surprise is that both of these descriptions generate from a common condition: lack of or incomplete self-differentiation.

A Horse for Every Need
The dangers of each extreme are more similar than different. Churches that post the generic description are not being honest with themselves (or potential candidates) about the other pastoral and personal needs that the church and the community will make upon a minister: visitation, weddings, funerals, midweek Bible studies, and so forth. In fact, this generic description seems to be focusing simply on the character of the candidate­—love for Jesus, love for God’s people, desire to preach and teach—without any expectation of competency. Failure to be more specific about the real needs of this church is a recipe for resentment and frustration.

Churches that expect everything are equally unrealistic. Candidates will come forward and one may even be picked. But the expectation of competency is so intense that the new pastor is almost certain to burn out, fail morally, or leave the ministry altogether after just a few years. These are not speculations on my part; many stories of actual people line the pages of my journals and fill up the content of my prayers: burned out, frustrated, resentful, angry, and depressed pastors who have left the ministry (or simply become ineffective) in part because of the discontinuity between what they are gifted to do and what they were hired to do (or so they thought), and what they are daily tasked with. These are real men, husbands, and fathers who, because of their perceived—and sometimes real—failures in ministry, have completely left the church.

It is important to hear that I do not believe churches are intentionally misleading pastors or deliberately setting up unrealistic expectations. The job descriptions that many churches generate grow out of sincerity and genuineness, which makes them potentially all the more detrimental to the pastoral candidate and specific congregation.

By contrast, taking the time to prayerfully seek wisdom and thoughtfully weigh the counsel of trusted parties—in order to develop a truly differentiated job description that takes into consideration the actual needs of the church, considers the unutilized gifts of members in the congregation, and leaves room for the unique expressions of ministry that God has built into the real person who will finally accept the call—is an expensive endeavor. It costs time, energy, and will require a more honest view of ourselves and our churches. Many questions will be asked, some of which may not even have answers. This process will cost us efficiency, even as it challenges the assumption that all problems are ultimately formulaic, analytic, and resolvable with sufficient data.

A Better Way
1. Document the Needs of the Church – Yes, everything. What are all the needs? No, this does not constitute a completed job description. It is just the beginning of the process. Then scale the needs: which are essential, which are important but not essential, and which are simply preferential? The list is incomplete if the essentials are reduced to a list of theological distinctives. After the needs have been documented and scaled, ask who else in the church has gifts which could be used to meet some of the needs. Ephesians is clear: your pastor will fail if the expectation is that he does all the ministry. Paul writes that God gave pastors, leaders et al to the church “to equip his people for works of service that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12)

2. Get Input From Trusted People in the “Field” – Once the list of essential duties and character attributes have been compiled, run it by pastors you know and trust. These individuals will be able to “test” the job description against real people they know and the reality of what will be required to fulfill the duties.

3. Solicit Candidate Recommendations from Trusted Sources – Hopefully, these trusted people can also recommend appropriately qualified and gifted people for the position, thus helping to build an initial list of candidates.

4. Build a Real “Good-Fit” Profile from the Feedback – Based on the feedback from the trusted people about the JD, adjustments can be made. More importantly, based on the candidates they recommend, you can begin getting a sense of the type of person, his gifts and competencies, necessary to meet the needs of the specific situation. What are the common traits between all the recommended candidates? Which real-life candidates do people who know your church believe to be a good fit? This information can help build a “good-fit” profile against which you can compare other, future candidates.

5. Open the Search Process Publicly – This is often the first step churches take after compiling a list of congregational needs. However, skipping steps 2 through 4 will require committees to look at more candidates from day one, and have to build their own sense of “good-fit” based on no cluster of related data. And candidates who apply may not have thought through whether they are a good fit or not, throwing that work on the committee. But once a “good-fit” profile has been established, comparing other candidates is not as difficult. Knowledge of the common, necessary elements helps shepherd committees as they prayerfully consider others who will apply.

I said that this process is costly, but I do not believe it is more costly than the process that has been historically adapted. The same amount of work has to be done, but the quality of the work and the ability of those doing it are greatly improved, as are the results.

This process does not guarantee that a church will call the right candidate, or even that a pastor ends up in a healthy church. What it does is to provide churches with quantifiable data based on reality, on real people in real time and space with real strengths and struggles. It provides churches with a better understanding of themselves and their candidates. Without these or similarly thoughtful steps in the candidacy process, the job description can quickly spiral into a collective of desired pastoral traits borrowed from a myriad of respected pastors, none of whom are actually called to that church at that time.