It is that time. There are a couple hundred of you out there right now who are in that time. The time of the almost-graduate. If you have registered and begun your final semester of seminary and you have already applied to graduate and may have even ordered your cap and gown, you’re in that time. If your parents have hotel reservations and you are starting to figure out dinner plans for 40, you are in that time. If you are in that time, you may or may not be going to classes and writing papers, but NO DOUBT you are working your almost-MDiv ass off TRYING TO FIND A JOB and get ordained and receive your magic pastor hands and finally, finally start doing the work you’ve been
taking out loans in order to study and learn and practice and take exams and prepare to do called to do! Oh yes, you are in that time.
Last year, when I was in that time, I used to tell people that no one in our denomination should have to take ordination exams. If you survive the call search process with your sanity, friends and faith intact, they should ordain you on the spot. Our call process is a beautiful, faithful, fair, orderly, grueling, terrifying, unpredictable, exhausting, holy, horrible, affirming process. In other words, it totally prepares you for ministry. You’ve survived years of preparation, study, examination, evaluation, oh, and prayer, only to have to kinda do it all over again. There are So. Many. Forms. You describe your whole life’s story and faith journey in two sentences or less about 19 different times. You write five short answers and send them to 45 churches in which you are kinda maybe interested. You read the perfect position description that God clearly had a committee write just for you, spend three days carefully crafting the most brilliant, funny, and pastoral cover letter ever written only to find out they voted on a candidate last weekend. You interview on over-stuttered skype connections and on cell phone calls in your car in the parking lot outside your field ed placement. You and your two best friends fall in love with the same congregation. And there’s only one position. There is nothing, nothing, nothing in the state where your family lives and your spouse has a job offer, but there are 97 small calls in Alaska and all the states you never wanted to live in ever. You pray and hear nothing. You wait. And you wait. And you refresh your screens and accounts and wait some more. People start getting offers while you wait. You try to be happy for them, but you start freaking out because the Housing Director IS going to kick your holy, MDiv-holding rear out of that apartment come June whether you have something resembling a job and an apartment and a hint of a plan or not.
It is hard.
But when you find the right place, and the people there love you and can’t wait to start working with you, when you sense a nudge from God and committee, and your family is excited, when you make the move and settle in, and when your new church family gather to lay their hands on you in that installation prayer, well, it’s pretty great. It’s cliche and ridiculously cheesy, but it is so worth the wait, the awkward conversations, the disappointment, the rejection, and the horror of writing of your own bio 76 times.
So here are my tips to get through it. I guess, technically, I’m no expert. But, I am working as a pastor and I stayed friends with my people and with God. So, I count it as a win.
1. Breathe. You will survive this. If you freak out, sometimes you forget to breathe. Don’t forget. Breathe. It’s important.
2. Pray. For you, for your friends who are also searching, for the church you will serve (wherever it is), for the churches that want you but you do not want, for the churches you want who will pass on you (yes, even awesome you, I don’t know what they’re thinking either!), for those who you’ve listed as references (please say awesome things, please), for your family, for God to MAKE THINGS CLEAR. Just pray. A lot. All the time.
3. Talk to your seminary friends. Be real, real honest. Agree up front to support each other. Agree up front not to compete. A wise pastor told me the story of when she and a colleague were up for the same job. Instead of being secretive and competitive, they agreed to both go for it supporting one another. They prayed about it together, they looked at how each would be great at the job and encouraged the other to share specific strengths. They were able to stay friends throughout the process. I lived that advice and it made my relationships stronger.
4. Figure out what you need. Do you need to talk things through with family or process a bit on your own first? Does it help to have friends grill you with questions, or do you have a trusted mentor to run something by? Figure out what will help you discern and what will make you feel supported. Then TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU NEED. Then listen when they tell you what they need, too.
5. Go to the movies. Lay on the beach. Do something silly and fun and take a break. Do this sometimes with your family. Do this sometimes with your seminary friends. Ban call-search conversation for one day. Enjoy the break. Don’t feel guilty. You need breaks.
6. Do your research. Don’t just read the position description. Dig deeper. The internets will help. Check out the church’s website and social media pages. How often are they updated? What kinds of things to they share? Can you find their newsletters, sermons, worship bulletins, and annual reports online? You will learn so much more about a church with this info. Check out neighboring churches and neighborhood groups. Get the vibe of the community. Call the references, but also call people not on the reference list. You are going to move your life to join the life of this congregation. Try to know as much as you can about them!
7. Develop a good set of interview questions that dig deep. You are checking them out as much as they are checking you out. Ask about the problems and the drama and debates. Ask how they resolve conflict. As what their dreams are for the church, for their community, for their pastor. Ask what they expect out of you. Ask how they’ve failed and what they’ve learned. Ask what their successes have been. Ask them why they joined the church, why they volunteered for the committee, and why they keep coming back!
8. When you get to visit with a potential match, know that you are interviewing THE WHOLE TIME YOU ARE WITH THEM. Think about that when you plan what to wear on the plane, what to eat/drink on the plane and at meals with them, casually chatting while riding around in a car touring their city with them for hours. Be yourself- they should know what they are getting- but be your best self, because they are watching everything!
9. Call somebody. When you’re on that all-important visit, take a break at night and call someone to debrief. Or if you’re not a wildly, off-the-charts extrovert and need a break after 14 hours of together group talking time, write some notes in a journal. Not what you liked and didn’t, words that struck you one way or another, things you noticed around the building or the neighborhood, connections made and missed. This stuff starts to blend if you’re juggling multiple interviews or visits or if you’re just a busy, tired, normal seminarian.
10. Remember the love. God loves us, we love God. We all have different ways of showing it. We volunteer for committees, we plan events, we lead bible studies, we work on finances, we upset the system, we tow the line….we all have different ways. Some of the nominating committees will be super organized and professional and others will be scattered and working hard just to understand the process. Just like us seminarians. Lead with grace. Remember that they volunteered to do this. Remember that they’re doing this because they LOVE their church, they LOVE God, and they would LOVE to have an awesome new pastor. When you get frustrated with anyone in the process- committees, friends, references, oblivious first-year students, family, pets, pizza delivery people- watch for that love. Offer grace. And let them offer you grace in the process too.
One day, in the middle of my That Time, when I was certain I was a big, fat phony who was not at all called to ministry who was never going to get a job and had just wasted three years and thousands of dollars on a ridiculously self-indulgent bible study class, a very wise seminary neighbor told me that we never would have made it through 2.5 years of seminary if we hadn’t been called. “Remember Greek?”, she said. Around the same time, a trusted mentor said to me, “God has been with you through this whole process. What makes you think God’s gonna leave you now.” It’s that time. It’s stressful and scary and hard. But you are called. God is with you. The church needs you! Have some chocolate, take a bike ride, watch some online videos of screaming goats, and get back in it. You’re almost there!
(Oh, and I’ll be praying for you and stuff. You got this.)