One of the more exhilarating things about March is that the "free agency period" for both professional football and the liberal church occur at the very same time. For one, I follow NFL.com and boy, has it been interesting. There were many big moves. Some of them will no doubt look like acts of brilliance this time next year. Others will be head scratchers. For the comings and going of my colleagues--at least in the UUA--I check out the Hot Stove Report on Facebook. The Hot Stove is followed mostly by clergy and search committees and--now after a few years--former search committee members. Links will be provided below.
One thing that I see during this period for both groups is a certain mentality of high expectations and big dreams. In a way this is good. It makes churches and teams look closely at who they are and who they want to be. It makes ministers and players think in similar terms. The purpose, after all, is a good match. In both cases not just any person will do. A minister--like a football player--has to fit in to the system and the culture. It is not just a case of getting the very best or the most popular person because each organization's "best" is different. Sometimes folks realize this. There are very good personnel people and search committees in both the NFL and the UUA. Sometimes, though, they don't. The pastor may have an imperfect or unrealistic understanding of his or her abilities. The church leadership (in search or not) sees greener grass elsewhere. Whether this gap can be bridged is one of the challenges of being in relationship over time.
These days, too, there is a tendency to try to quantify and measure tasks that are unmeasurable. There is a sense in which pastoring and playing are arts They naturally defy easy description. Still the folks doing the hiring often haven't done the work, themselves (interestingly it is becoming less common in the NFL for coaches to do the hiring and opportunities to have a clergy person on a search or personnel committee are rare). They may want to focus on those skills that help them in their own jobs (transferable or not) or break things down into seemingly more controllable tasks and pieces.
Why do they do this? I think it is because they--search committees of both stripes and stakeholders in general--are tense. It takes courage to step away from the bullet points and statistics and take the leap based on those "intangibles". This is why during the recent Payton Manning sweepstakes two teams--the Broncos and the 49ers--tried to hire him even though their own quarterbacks had taken their teams to the playoffs. Alex Smith--who came within a few feet of the Super Bowl--got to keep his job because Tim Tebow's Broncos got Manning. Tebow has gone to New York. Smith has stayed in San Francisco and a relationship now needs fixing.
Meanwhile, there is no clear evidence that Manning will be the player he was with the Colts. Different teams have different systems and different cultures. Yes, by the way, this chasing after celebrity happens in churches, too.
Churches in search, of course, have a luxury that football teams do not. They can take another interim year. There seems to be quite a bit of this going on right now. Ministers I know have also turned down offers for congregations that--while perfectly fine for someone else--just wouldn't work for them. It is a good, thoughtful move when this happens. That said, my heart goes out to the people and congregations that have made this choice. Now there is yet another year of uncertainty ahead.
So for these folks I am posting a brief paragraph about the ministry from the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett. He was quite the lion of Unitarianism in his day. It should be said, though, that he comes from the tightly-wrapped, often-ill, self-recriminating branch of my profession. A kind and brilliant man who rarely cut himself any slack. It is a branch that many of my colleagues are familiar with, so understand that he writes with experience to us today from back in 1839.
All ministers were not made for the same kind of work. Each holds the ministry according as he [or she, it was 1839 after all] has received mercy. One loves study, another action; one is of a logical turn of mind, another feels the truth which he cannot reason out; one will touch and subdue his hearers on Sunday, another's powers of persuasion must be exercised in private...Now what can be more absurd than to place all these different capacities of usefulness upon one Procrustes' bed, and stretch and lop until they are all brought to what is considered the standard of ministerial service! ...
I have known so much needless suffering to be endured by ministers, and so much unjust comparison to be instituted by the people, that I am the more anxious to expose the error of imagining that there is only one road of professional success; that what one person does well another can and ought to do equally well. Hence the impatience of a congregation when they hear a better preacher than their own, forgetful of the influence which he exerts in private....We cannot all be alike. Our success must lie in different lines of usefulness. It is through a variety of endowments, and, therefore of exercises, that the church must be benefited. "As every man hath received the gift," says the apostle, "even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold"--mark the word!--"the manifold grace of God."
Here are links to the NFL
And the Hot Stove Report