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Read This Before You Accept that Call to Be Rector

Questions for a Prospective Rector Candidate to Ask the Search Committee

The calling of a new rector is a discernment process for both the candidate and the search committee. I have participated in four rector searches as a candidate and overseen numerous searches as a canon to the ordinary. I have found that most of the emphasis seems to be on the search committee and its discernment of which priest God might be calling to serve a church as rector.

While it is true that the candidate does not really have a call to serve a given parish until that parish does, in fact, extend a call, that does not mean the candidate is a passive responder to the lead of the search committee/vestry. In most searches I have overseen, the priest responds to the questions of the search committee but seldom has any really searching questions about being a good fit.

Two complementary needs are at work in the relationship between a prospective rector and the search committee, as well as the vestry:

  1. The search committee needs to know if the prospective rector’s vision, personal ministry goals, and leadership style is compatible with its sense of the parish.

A word to the wise about vision: when asked, “What is your vision for our parish?” the wise priest will respond, “I don’t have a vision for your parish. The parish vision is already written on the hearts of your parishioners. It is passed silently from generation to generation. My task is to listen to your stories and together discern and articulate what that vision is.”

  1. And the priest needs to know whether parishioners will allow this prospective rector to lead them in a direction that they actually want to go. The priest needs to learn the lay of the land. What drives these parishioners? What are their hopes and dreams? What are their perceived needs?

The purpose of this essay is to provide the prospective rector with a good beginning to that listening. Here is an exercise for the prospective candidate to learn things about the parish.

Ask the search committee or vestry to set aside an hour for this exercise. Set up all the chairs in a circle. Here are the questions.

  1. Go around the circle and ask: How long have you been coming to St. Paul’s? What attracted you to St. Paul’s? What keeps you here? The answer to this question will give the candidate a sense of what attracts people to this church and how the church might have changed over the years.
  2. You say you want a priest who is collaborative. What do you mean by “collaborative”? Give me some examples. Also, give me some examples, without naming names, of times in the near past when the rector was not This is a sensitive question. The candidate should guide this conversation very gently. This question will probably raise issues of conflict in the congregation. When a search committee says things like “We want a collaborative leader,” “We want a more traditional priest,” or “We want a rector who won’t come in and change everything,” its members have in mind a specific conflict.
  3. Tell me three things going well at St. Paul’s. Tell me three things that can be improved. As leaders in the congregation, these men and women will have the most acute understanding of the general health of the congregation, as well as the beginning of a to-do list for the new rector. The candidate should also consider asking what specific recommendations they suggest to improve or remedy those shortcomings.
  4. What do people say about St. Paul’s at the local coffee shop? This question asks about the reach or influence of the church in the community. If the candidate has time before meeting with the vestry/search committee, consider going to a local coffee shop and grocery store and ask for directions to St. Paul’s.
  5. Who are the parish heroes? Why are they remembered fondly? These questions give the candidate an understanding of what the church values.
  6. What stories can you tell me about St. Paul’s at its best, or when you were most proud of your church? This question speaks to the vision of the parish and reveals when the church was living into its vision. Members may not be able to articulate their vision, or they may have a vision statement, but this question will reveal whether their vision statement accords with their self-understanding of God’s divine purpose for their church.
  7. What have been the major arguments in the church in the past decade? Awareness of church conflict will give the prospective rector insight into the vision of the parish by revealing times when this parish did not live into the aspirations of its vision statement.

One final word to the priest about the search: you are discerning a call, not interviewing for a job. These questions are aimed at helping you discern whether the church’s vision of God’s purpose in calling this church into existence is compatible with the priest’s understanding of a call to live out the vision that God has given her as a leader in the church.

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