This article was first published in the November / December online issue of Lutheran Partners
, a bi-monthly magazine of the ELCA for ordained and lay leaders.
Part 1 — The Search for a Better Way
I have been in hundreds of the call processes. Literally. I usually have 25 the call processes going on at any one time. Over a period of 14 years as assistant to the bishop in two synods, it has been my calling to guide congregations and rostered leaders through the call process. I have found it to be complicated work that is nuanced in every setting where it is attempted. It creates its own stresses for call committee members, rostered leaders, and the call process administrators. When I had the opportunity (1994 — 98) to use my D.Min. program to focus energy on understanding and improving the call process, I took it. I needed to go into “ponder mode” about the call process. And I wanted to develop a rationale for this activity that was clearly communicated in the materials and procedures that the synod would use.
Most people are quick to name the negatives that accompanied their experience of the call process. And I will too. But let it be said, first, that there are clear positives — congregations successfully undertake the difficult journey that begins in grief and ends in anticipation, rostered leaders are renewed as they discover new possibilities for their vision and energy, opportunities to help a ministry setting refocus its mission and redesign its ministry find room to grow, and so, despite our frustrations with the process, God is honored, and the march of the church into the hurts and hearts of this world picks up its pace.
|Joy may come in the morning, but many feel that the call process causes us to linger too long into the night.|
This joy may come in the morning, but many feel that the call process causes us to linger too long into the night. In 2002 The Lutheran published the results of a very unscientific survey they had conducted, asking about the experience people had with the call process. Fully half of the 280 respondents found it to be frustrating; only 15 percent found it to be wonderful. The negatives included the lack of consistency across the 65 call processes in use in the ELCA, the extended duration of many processes, the poor communication among the parties to the call process, the mandates for confidentiality, and the inability to locate an adequate pool of qualified candidates for consideration. Committees and rostered leaders alike had their horror stories to tell, and “the synod” was often the perpetrator.
The 2003 Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee considered a memorial that originated in the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod. The memorial cited the confusion and negative reactions associated with the call process and asked that a study be conducted resulting in recommendations that might improve the situation. The memorial specifically expressed a desire for a call process handbook, for information on best practices, and for information about legal implications. I attended that assembly but I don’t recall any discussion around this issue, perhaps because it was so obviously a no-brainer. The call process needed attention.
In 2004 the ELCA Church Council called for a task force to work on this issue. Twenty leaders representing all segments of the ELCA gathered; Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute was the resource person. We were divided into work groups to concentrate on various parts of the problem. We listened, surveyed, mapped out ideas, and presented some recommendations to a 2006 meeting of the Conference of Bishops. The ideas that emerged in the task force meeting are now shaping the Mobility Database Project, begun in 2007 and scheduled for completion by December 2008.
Identifying Broken Things
Congregations find the call process to be perplexing. The call process resembles the employment practices that people know in their workplaces, but is different in subtle and powerful ways. It is governed by unseen gatekeepers and restricted by unspoken protocols. There are three actors in the process rather than the usual two. It is as much about relationships as it is about job descriptions. And the consequences of the process seem, well, so consequential.
There are at least three concerns that congregations often bring to me as their “coach” in the work of the call process. The first is a level of anxiety about doing a thorough and respectable job in the face of so many people who have so many opinions about the needs and outcomes. How can the process be done so that everyone is on board, conflict is averted, and the results are celebrated? Second, how can we be sure that we were able to see all the possibilities, get the word out about our vacancy to the widest audience, and feel confident that we had the best pool of candidates to interview? And third, what are the synod’s procedures and what are the candidates’ expectations? A whole host of questions spring from these, including: how long will this take, what will it cost, do we have to have an interim pastor, why must we write a profile, how long will it take for the synod to provide recommendations, and how much are you going to be involved in our process? Among the unspoken but present concerns are issues related to gender, ethnicity, age, and salary expectations.
Rostered leaders find the call process to be more frustrating than perplexing. We stake our futures on this process; it controls our chance at fulfillment, happiness, and security. We need the call process to work in a way that is fair, accessible, clear, and unbiased. In the face of protocols and tasks — like completing lengthy forms and engaging the synod staff — many rostered leaders get passive while a few others get active, looking for inventive ways to assert themselves. Some work hard at planning and practicing for interviews and learning about the site ahead of time, while others do little of this, waiting instead for the enlivening presence of the Spirit to release their imaginations and spark a new and affirming relationship.
Rostered leaders have their own list of concerns about the call process. They often begin with an anxiety that being interested in mobility will be seen as a sign of unhappiness or conflict, rather than just an openness to God’s renewing activity in their lives. They express serious concerns about confidentiality, fearing that their openness to call might be misconstrued — if word makes it back to their current ministry setting — as disloyalty or disgust. They dread the thought that a search for a new call can take a full year with no guarantees that it might not result in a bad match after all. They don’t like filling out forms and trying to represent themselves well, and they also don’t like the intensive scrutiny of call committee interviews. They enter the process anticipating a more fulfilling ministry, a greater degree of family and financial security, but find that the seeds of struggle over these issues are already present in the interview itself.
|The goals of the ELCA’s Mobility Database Project hold the promise of ushering in a new day in the call process work.|
My experience as a call process administrator leads to a list of my own frustrations. I struggle with the suspiciousness that tends to greet me when I first visit a congregation to introduce the call process. I am forever amazed by the manifold, inventive ways people have of subverting and derailing the process. I am concerned about the entitlement mentality among some rostered leaders that fails to realize that in this day and time they do have to show results and exhibit leadership that is creative and missional. I am awestruck by the destructive power of poor communication. And I am often frustrated by the difficulty of knowing who are “out there” seeking call, what kind of a ministry setting they might be seeking, and the kind of gifts and passions that they could bring to their next calls.
Fixing What Is Broken
Fixing this situation cannot be accomplished with ease or speed. The recommendations of the task force in 2006 certainly did not foresee an obvious “fix.” But the recommendations noted that steps could be taken to make improvements. While synods pursue the form of the call process that fits their context, we can — on the churchwide level — provide some tools and supports that can help each of the parties to the call process faithfully do their work. New churchwide resources can help us identify the common language and understandings about call and the call process that unite us. Printed resources can be gathered together that speak to best practices and great ideas that would benefit rostered leaders, congregations, and synods alike. Technology can be mustered to give a degree of transparency, mutuality, and timeliness to this work. Using the Web, congregations can be given a way to publicize their vacancy, and the call process administrators can be given a way to learn about the availability of rostered leaders. Creativity and initiative can be encouraged and rewarded. Cooperation among those engaged in the call process can be strengthened and enhanced.
These are the goals of the ELCA’s Mobility Database Project, undertaken last summer to create
- new forms that encourage reflection, creativity, and a missional mindset;
- a new database to house information about ministry sites and rostered leaders for publication and dissemination; and
- a new Web site to offer resources and support. The project holds the promise of ushering in a new day in the call process work.
Part 2 — New Tools for a New Day
A rostered leader has to be persistent and rather clever in the current the call process environment if he or she wants to make progress on a search for a new call. Many lurk on synod Web sites, book-marking pages that list vacancies or talk about transitions. Many actively work to connect with the call process administrators in synod offices. Many write and rewrite the current Availability for Call forms to try to make a good first impression. Others talk to friends who are in a position to know what vacancies might be looming or who can put in a good word of recommendation. Clergy have to muster a lot of energy and skill for this task, but that is but a fraction of what associates in ministry, diaconal ministers, and deaconesses have to muster to make the same progress.
Congregations are at a similar disadvantage in the current call process environment since they know even less about how the call process works. It should be no surprise that they tend to employ search tactics borrowed from the workplace. They quickly discover that they do not fully appreciate how rostered leaders think of call, how synod personnel are involved in the process, and how to use the church’s system to do a fair and effective search. That is especially true for congregations looking to do a national search for a person with a unique skill set or temperament. And if congregations struggle with all this, imagine how exponentially more difficult it is for schools, hospitals, camps, or social ministry organizations to search nationally for an ELCA rostered leader.
What the ELCA needs is a churchwide clearinghouse for mobility concerns. In such a place, rostered leaders from all the rosters should be able to easily and clearly speak of their skills and passions for ministry and have their availability for call be managed with confidentiality and professionalism. In such a place, congregations and organizations of this church should be able to describe their mission and their need for rostered leadership for all to see. And in such a place, both rostered leaders and call committee members should be able to find helpful ideas, resources, and suggestions for doing the call process. This clearinghouse could be a “cyberhouse,” using the blessings of technology and the Web to bring all together in this endeavor.
|The ELCA is introducing a new generation of tools designed to assist all those involved in the call process work.|
The ELCA is introducing a new generation of tools designed to assist all those involved in the call process work. These new tools continue to rely on synodical bishops to design and manage the call process in a way that fits their synodical context. But the new tools encourage a higher degree of creativity, transparency, and initiative than may have been true before. These new tools seek to maintain appropriate safeguards, to level the playing field among rostered leaders and ministry sites as a matter of fairness, and to encourage rostered leaders and ministry sites alike to engage in a process of serious spiritual discernment about their mission and ministry. The very existence of call process resources available at the churchwide level will, it is hoped, gather us around common understandings and a common language for this important work.
New Mobility Forms
The new tools begin with — but are much more than — the creation of new mobility forms. What we once knew as Personnel Forms, then Mobility (M1) Forms, and then Availability for Call Forms will soon be transformed into the Rostered Leader Profile. The new forms are intentional in design and crafted to work together with a churchwide mobility database that will store the forms. They are downloadable in Formatta, the form tool that has been in use in the ELCA for a number of years now.
The Rostered Leader Profile (RLP) is designed for use by all pastors, associates in ministry, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, and First Call candidates for these rosters. The form encourages rostered leaders to reflect on their calling and gifts, be creative about sharing their passions and interests in ministry, and be discerning about their readiness for call. Parts of the RLP are optional; hence, it can be tailored to fit the rostered leader’s preferences and needs. The RLP asks that an outside reference be identified who is willing to complete and append a Reference’s Recommendation Form.
|Candidates from seminary will use the Rostered Leader Profile as they enter the assignment process; lay rostered ministers will have their ministry interests listed alongside those from the ordained roster; ministry sites will tell of their mission and ministry to a churchwide audience; specialized ministry, global ministry, and congregational opportunities will be presented together.|
The Ministry Site Profile (MSP) is designed for use by church-related organizations as well as congregations. It focuses attention on the mission opportunities of that ministry site and allows for reflection on the way the ministry site perceives itself in relation to its calling and its context. The ministry site will have space to be creative in its presentation and the opportunity to write a summary description of its setting and needs. Information from the MSP will be used to create a narrative snapshot of the ministry opportunity, suitable for posting on the Web. The MSP also asks that an outside reference be identified who is willing to complete and append a Reference’s Recommendation Form.
New Web Site
The new forms are linked to the second new tool for the call process work — a new Web site at www.elca.org. This is the “cyberhouse” for the call process. One page of the site, in particular, is destined to become indispensable to rostered leaders and ministry sites alike. Ministry Opportunities is a page that publishes the key information from the Ministry Site Profiles that have been approved for posting by the synodical bishop. Far from being just a listing of openings, this page will allow rostered leaders and others to input search criteria in order to actively seek opportunities for call, to read a snapshot of information about the opportunities they select, to learn whom to contact in order to learn more, and to express an interest in the identified position.
Ministry Opportunities is, in a technological sort of way, a powerful example of the way this church lives out its sense of interdependence and partnership. Created, maintained, and hosted by the churchwide expression of this church, Ministry Opportunities will be the meeting place where ministry sites can speak of their mission and ministry and rostered leaders can seek to live out their calling to service. Ministry sites will be grateful for the opportunity to get the word out about their work and their needs. Rostered leaders will be grateful for a way to be active in searching for ministry opportunities and thereby taking more initiative and ownership of their vocational life.
Synodical bishops and call process administrators will also benefit from this technology and the presence of a churchwide mobility database. Key information from the Rostered Leader Profiles will feed to a separate searchable database, allowing bishops and their designated staffs to search for rostered leaders based on criteria they have selected. Access to the Rostered Leader Database will be restricted to synod personnel in order to respect the confidentiality of the information and the shepherding role of the bishop.
New Library of Resources
The Web site will host a third new tool for the call process work. An online Library of Resources will provide links and documents that rostered leaders, call committee members, call process administrators, and others can utilize. Want to learn how to improve your interviewing skills, how to conduct an interview, how to understand this church’s teaching on call and vocation, what the various rosters represent, or how to create a staff team, and the like? Over time the library will develop into its own meeting place of ideas and resources.
Called to the Whole Church
Candidacy committees remind their candidates repeatedly that their call is to the “whole church” — not just to one favored region, state, or hometown; not just to a particular set of friends and tasks. God’s call is to serve wherever God calls us to serve. Nowhere will this be more clear than in the emerging world of the ELCA call process. There will be signs of mutuality, transparency, and commonality of purpose as all gather to match people of ministry with places of mission. Candidates from seminary will use the RLP as they enter the assignment process; lay rostered ministers will have their ministry interests listed alongside those from the ordained roster; ministry sites will tell of their mission and ministry to a churchwide audience; specialized ministry, global ministry, and congregational opportunities will be presented together.
The new forms, Web site, and library of resources — which will give us yet one more experience of being one church — debuted in the fall of 2008. All the work of designing and developing the technological infrastructure, the Web-based search capacity, and the supporting forms and resources have been accomplished because of the expertise of our own churchwide personnel. Grants from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans made it possible to launch the Task Force on The Call Process in 2004 and the Mobility Database Project in 2007. To all these, we owe a debt of thanks.Stanley Meyer
, the Mobility Database Project Director, is Bishop Assistant for Leadership of the Northern Texas — Northern Louisiana Synod, Dallas, Texas.