Prayer request

Last week I mentioned that some of my coworkers are retiring.

I neglected to mention that their retirement was not voluntary.

This is how that came to pass:

Four years ago, the director of the System for which I work retired. He was replaced by a new director, a former member of the Board that oversees the System. Clearly, they knew what kind of director they were getting.

The previous director was a visionary leader. The new director is a pragmatic leader. (One of his favorite words is “sustainable.”) Once he settled into his position, became familiar with the details of the System, and replaced most of the administrative leaders with his people, he then persuaded the Board to hire a consulting firm to determine how the System is operating and how it can be improved.

Now at this level of operations, one does not find a consultant by randomly looking in a phone book. Instead, one researches the various consultants in the field, studying the advice they have given other clients. One selects the consultant that has, in the past, given the kind of advice one wants to receive. The consultant then examines the System, interviewing employees and clients and people in the service area who have not been clients. Having done all this work, the consultant produces a report on the System with suggestions for improvements. Any unpopular improvements can be blamed on the consultants and on their research. So the System began developing a strategic plan, based on the recommendations of the consultant, and aimed at making the System more helpful to its clients and prospective clients.

The previous director—the visionary leader—created, over the years, a special department within the System to achieve tasks not done by other branches of the System. I was hired to work in that department. The strategic plan, based on the work of the consultants, treats my department as one of fifteen branches, similar to the others rather than unique. That same plan points out that my department is far more expensive to the System than any other branch. Although there was talk this past spring and summer about targeting our unique services to serve the branches, by the end of the summer it was obvious that our branch budget was going to be significantly smaller in 2020. The only way to meet that budget was to reduce staff. My division of the department was targeted for cuts, and so our size as we enter 2020 is about half of what it was a year ago.

And we already know that the branch budget for 2021 will be smaller yet.

The coworkers who were involuntarily retired happen to be workers who have served in the System for years at various capacities. They had scaled back to part-time, aiming toward eventual retirement; but they had hoped to continue working for a bit longer. The branch manager explained to all of us that no one had been singled out for removal, but that part-time positions were no longer considered “sustainable.” This explanation is, at best, a partial truth. Removing these positions without singling out the actual workers saves the branch money, and it also indicates that my division within the branch is least valuable to the branch and to the System and most likely to be targeted for future cuts.

That presents half the puzzle. Now that I have written more than five hundred words—now that casual readers have clicked off the post and only my friends are still reading—here is the other half. In the summer of 2016, I studied for, took, and passed a certifying exam, giving me full credentials for the position I currently occupy. But that same summer, I received a phone call from a pastor in the area (who also happens to be a friend). He said that two congregations were combining to hire a pastor and my name had been mentioned among the possibilities. Would I consider returning to full-time church work? I had not been thinking about returning, so I asked for a day to consider the question. My oldest daughter pointed out that I could say yes, I would consider it, and still be free to say no later; but that if I said no right away I would wonder later if I had been right or wrong. So I said yes, I would consider the position if it was offered. It turned out that I was the second choice of the committee choosing a pastor and their first choice said yes. But a hint was dropped that a new door might be opening.

I belong to a group of churches that are very congregational. No church official can assign a pastor to a congregation, nor can a pastor advertise that he is seeking a position. Congregations seeking pastors create a list of possibilities, study the qualifications of the candidates, sometimes interview the most promising candidates, and then offer a call to the one they believe will serve them best. Church officials can make recommendations, but they cannot place a pastor in a position. Any pastor who advertises himself for a position disqualifies himself for that position. “The office seeks the man; the man does not seek the office.”

But, having been considered for one opening in the area, I updated my paperwork and indicated to the regional church official that I was willing to be considered for a call. Several opportunities came and went, but no one contacted me to say I was being considered. More than a year ago, the regional church official, along with my friend, strongly urged me to accept a call to a congregation about fifty miles away, but it would have been a part-time position, so I told them no. Now, with the changing situation with my full-time job, I thought I had better act. I contacted the regional church official, and he set up a meeting with me early in October. I gave him the details of my personal position and encouraged him to recommend me wherever he thought I would be suitable. Commenting that adult members of my family were establishing themselves in the community, he suggested that he would be reluctant to recommend me for a position too far from where I live now. But he agreed to do what he could to help move me back into full-time church work.

On December 1, another friend of mine—also a pastor—announced his retirement, effective the beginning of May. I know his congregation well, and I am well-known there. Some of my children have joined that congregation. My family attends special services there, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I am very comfortable with their traditional style of worship, and I know that my theology and approach to pastoral work is much like that of the current pastor.

The regional church official met with the congregation’s call committee around the middle of December. On the last Sunday of December, the chair of that committee announced that the members of the congregation will be surveyed about the congregation’s need for a new pastor and that nominations will be accepted at the same time. (These steps are happening much faster than is typical for a calling congregation.) There is no way to apply for the position, no one who would accept a resume, no way of getting their attention that would not have the opposite effect of disqualifying me for the position.

All I can do is pray. I can bypass the congregation’s leaders and the regional official and go straight to the Lord of the Church. But even such prayers must be qualified with the phrase, “Thy will be done.” I see only part of the picture; the Lord sees far more than I see. To me it seems like an ideal match. I expect that at least some of the members of this congregation would agree. But the process must be left for the Lord to guide.

I invite your prayers for me and for this congregation. I know that getting other Christians to pray will not force God to do what I want. At the same time, we can always ask. And please also pray that I may be made worthy of such a position, that God would shape me to be the kind of servant he wants in his Church. And may his good and gracious will be done. J.

It’s… complicated

In the last two years I have applied for two jobs—only two. Obviously, I have not been hitting the pavement searching for employment. Nor have I found myself thinking, “I should look for a different job,” while on my way home from my current job.

Last summer I saw a job listing that looked as if it had been written with me in mind. It involved doing the kind of work I am doing now, but on a college campus. This job also included teaching, and it was at a Christian college, so not just anyone with the right training would be considered. The skills, experiences, and attitudes described as the ideal applicant all matched me perfectly. The only discouraging sign was that they preferred a Master’s degree in the field; even so, they were willing to hire someone who would study to earn a Master’s degree while working for them. Best of all, this college is near my childhood home—so close that I had visited the campus often.

I sent them the required information, and they quickly responded. Later they told me that I was on their short list and asked for additional information. In the end, I was not one of the two people they interviewed on campus, but their last word to me was that if the interviews were unsuccessful they would get back to me. Evidently, I missed getting the job by this-much.

This winter my best friend asked me if I had seen a job listing in the publication from Church Headquarters. I had not—most of the mail that comes from Church Headquarters goes straight to the recycling stack. I found the job listing and saw that they wanted someone who could write for the Church Headquarters. The various kinds of writing all appealed to me, so I decided to apply. The process was automated, and after the initial acknowledgement I heard nothing more for a while. I figured that the computer had read my information and disqualified me before a living human being ever knew I had applied. Meanwhile, just in case they were interested, I took the time to familiarize myself with written information coming from Church Headquarters.

Then, months later, I received an email inviting me to interview over the computer. We scheduled the interview—I put on a tie and suitcoat to talk to people on a computer screen. The interview seemed to go well, and they asked me to email samples of my writing. It sounded as though they were hoping to make a decision rather quickly. Weeks went by, and I heard nothing. I asked myself if I had checked the writing samples carefully for grammar and punctuation and spelling. I was tempted to open the email and double-check those things, but I knew it was too late to change anything, so I didn’t really want to know. Last week I finally got a computer-generated email thanking me for my interest and telling me that the job at Headquarters had been filled. (Yes, I am again dropping all publications from Headquarters in the recycling, unread.)

Not long after the interview, while I still had reason to believe I was being considered for the job, I received a phone call. “Hey, J.,” the caller said. (He is someone I have known for a dozen years.) “Would you be willing to let yourself be considered for a full-time church job?” I had held such a job for a while, then dropped back to part-time church work and took a different full time job. Rather than give a quick yes or no, I asked for a day to think about his question. The next day I returned his call and said I was willing to be considered.

A committee interviewed me over the phone the next week. I was one of three they were interviewing for the job. They promised to keep me posted on their decision. They have not done so. At the beginning of this month, I learned from two round-about ways that they had offered the job to another man. That did not mean that the story was over, though, because it was possible that he would decline their offer.

My thoughts dwelt on full-time church work again. I considered how I would tell my present coworkers about the change, and how I would discuss it with my family. I considered creating a Facebook post with a picture of Michael Jordan and the words, “I’m back.” (Sports fans will understand the reference.) Since I am Facebook friends with my present coworkers, I thought that might not be the best thing to do.

In all three possible job offers, I tried my best to pray the words, “Thy will be done.” I tried not to add, “but if you want my opinion, Lord….” Even though I do not have a burning desire to change jobs, any of these three would have been good for me, and I would have been good in any of them. Finally, it was good for me to consider the question, would I be willing to be considered for a full-time job in the church. I am not ready to go looking for such a job, but if one were offered to me, I would very likely accept.

This morning I learned that the other man who was interviewed and who was offered the job has accepted. That door is closed, but I have a suspicion that another door is about to open. J.