An announcement and strange reports from the pastoral job search (with mention of Taco Bell)

I’ve been a little absent on AUFS lately, and I don’t want to detract from the really vibrant discussions going on here in the past couple of weeks. I have moved to a new position as pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Dallastown, PA, and will be shifting the focus of my teaching work to some philosophy classes at Penn State York and the occasional class at Lancaster Theological Seminary, as I am invited. Dallastown is a small town outside of York, PA, rougly 16 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, north of Baltimore and south of Harrisburg.

These have been a really crazy couple of months full of changes, including having a new baby daughter in the middle of all of them, and moving only a few weeks later, but so far this is a good move for us. The move also represents some clarity for me, professionally, that my primary audience remains the church even while I am still trying to construct a Tillichian-Niebuhrian “boundary” intellectual presence beyond the church.

Similarly, the job searching process for clergy, at least in my denomination, is just as mindless and random as academic searches, except there are jobs that actually get filled “out there.” But the situations one finds are crazier than academic job searches. Here’s a peek into the strange world of clergy searches. One church had the sister of the immediately former pastor on the search committee, whose questions always revolved around what I did or didn’t know about her brother. Another church has a problem with a former pastor interfering as a retired member of the church, and his wife was on the search committee, which they tried to hide from me until right before I withdrew my name from the search. Yet another had fired a pastor for his theology but no one would answer my direct questions about what exactly he said that was so offensive after working for them for eight years. Another paid an expensive consultant to come up with a plan with lots of nonsense–“paint the nursery, 10 more kids will show up on Sunday”–that was nearly identical to the same consultant’s plan for another church I had seen in my prior search five or six years ago. Another talked to me about nothing but homosexuality. For at least four hours between two interviews.

Another told conference staff that I was one of the worst preachers they’d ever heard after suddenly dropping me as a finalist. Yet another wanted a promise that I would retire from the church, that they had never had any pastor not “retire” from there since the Civil War (my response: “I don’t think there will be ‘retirement’ in the future”). Churches whose former pastors had affairs with the secretary; solicited sex with minors on the church office computer (and was arrested, the “minor” ended up being a cop); got into fistfights with parishoners, embezzeled money from the congregation; showed up drunk or hung over to worship on Sundays; left worship services early to meet up with another pastor for an affair on a regular basis; tried to force the church to leave the denomination as a way of diverting attention away from accusations of his lewd behavior around teenage girls in the neighborhood. One search committee chair called me and had an entire conversation with me and then realized that she was talking to the wrong person. One was keeping the place open by renting out space to a Taco Bell. Two churches in major college towns made it very clear that they wanted the pastor to have very limited engagement with the universities, but also lamented that they had lost touch with the university communities around them.

I met an interesting guy on a search committee who was a former doctoral student of the late Paul M. Van Buren, which was cool. One interesting thing that happened in the process is how seach committees of laypeople read this blog, and how perceptions of this blog “out there” shaped opinions; one search committee wanted me to justify others’ swearing in some of the comments here!

No one asked about my theology outside of ideas about homosexuality–except for the church that hired me. The church who fired a former pastor over theological differences never asked me about anything theological, even when I asked if they wanted to talk theology. There was a don’t ask-don’t tell policy about the theology. What I did in seminary or where I went to seminary only mattered that someone knew that Jeremiah Wright also earned his M.Div. at the University of Chicago. One asked how I would feel if they attempted to find my dissertation, which I thought was weird. “You would be the fourth person to read it.”

I am happy to have landed in Dallastown. When I first read the church’s pastoral profile, I said to my wife, “I’m not sure I would have really considered moving to Dallastown, but their church seems like a really good fit for me,” moreso than all of the other churches I had initial interest because of their locations. I didn’t hear from them for quite some time after submitting my name, but once I interviewed things went quickly. I think I withdrew from 13 churches’ searches when the search committee and I came to an initial commitment with each other. With three children, a church having a parsonage is a big plus for us, and I am grateful for that. I am also fortunate to be able to continue my academic things as I am able.

More about all of this another time, as some things about my transitions may be imoortant to share but not at this time, but I hope to start posting some things on here again soon.

8 thoughts on “An announcement and strange reports from the pastoral job search (with mention of Taco Bell)

  1. What is interesting to me is that for some churches that seem to pride themselves on their theological liberalism or their theological defiance against the liberalism of the larger denomination, they had little to no sense of what theology is or how to talk about theology, even in basic ways. And alarmingly so, to the point of firing a pastor over “theology.” Something didn’t “feel” right about the theology, I suppose, but that is frightening if one’s preaching is about pushing the envelope and taking folks out of their comfort zones.

  2. When I’m not answering the very many questions of my Five-Year-Old at my main blog Caterpickles or reading this blog, I volunteer as the archivist for my UCC church in Needham, Massachusetts. I occasionally blog about the more interesting things I find in the archives Once Upon a Time in Needham.

    Your tale about the church that booted out its previous pastor over theological differences reminded me of the story of the Rev. Frank Estabrook, who was booted out of our church in Needham in 1903 for refusing to take a firm theological stand against the evils of smoking and playing sports. You can find the story here, if you’re interested. Good luck with your new assignment, new home, and new baby.

  3. As I have just agreed to serve on the search committee for a new rector (Episcopal church) I read your post with GREAT interest. LOL. I can’t imagine too much of that happening during our process but I may feel compelled to ask for a brief summary of each candidates theology now. Hope that things go well for you in your new place.

  4. Thanks for your post, Jay. Good luck with the search. I don’t think every pastor needs to be a scholarly theologian, but I believe it’s obvious that clergy should have a theologically-laden aproach to their practice that is not overly simple. I imagine the Episcopal church does a better job with this than the UCC and other mainline protestants, but the reason why search committees don’t ask is becuase they don’t know what to ask or they’re afraid to ask. It may also be a respect thing–a respect for the ordination processs and a respect for pastors in general. Some of it may also have to do with being a male and my graduate degrees, but I don’t think I got asked about my theology beyond “Explain what it means to say that ‘Jesus loves you.'” Beyond this, the stupidity and simplemindedness of most denominational ordination committees breeds nontheological practice, and since committees don’t want theologically trained pastors, seminaries generally are teaching less and less of it. I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but maybe just a little.

  5. Well as our bishop’s youth minister I’m a little more comfortable asking theological questions. I believe it’s important to have a sense of the theology of the pastor a church calls. Don’t need the dissertation just a feel for who he or she is and where they find their foundations.

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