Overcoming the pain of not getting that new position

Leadership Journal, Winter 1998 (Name Withheld ... then. But it was me.)

I was sitting in a restaurant with an old pastor friend, catching up on the news. He asked about a church that had my rèsumè.

“I made it to the final three,” I said, then admitted, “… but I was passed over.”

I started listing every church I’d talked to in the past dozen years. “I was one of seven over there. I made the final cut to two here… But none of them worked out,” I added nonchalantly, “so I think I’ll stay put for a while. No big deal.”

He said, simply, “That must have really been painful.”

To my surprise, tears came to my eyes. No one, not even my wife, had sensed the effect of multiplied rejections on my ego.

The first rejection

I’m in a great church, larger than most. I’ve served here for nearly fourteen years, and we’ve seen significant things happen.

The night the congregation voted on me, my wife and I were waiting across town in a restaurant. We got a phone call to return, and in the time we had been gone, they had decorated the church for a wedding. We walked in, and standing at the front, smiling, was the chairman and other church leaders. Someone escorted my wife and me down the aisle. They had modified the wedding vows so they were both serious and fun. There was a reception. We were excited to get “married.”

That setting has always reminded me that we made promises to each other, and I’m here till God makes it clear it’s time to go elsewhere. But through the years, I have occasionally felt it might be time to move and have been open to inquiries from other churches.

“I won’t get my hopes up,” I tell my wife, but I always do. There’s something about a new challenge that invigorates. But reality says all but one candidate will be rejected.

My first rejection came when I was in my early thirties. I had heard about an exciting church plant that already had seventy people attending. The district superintendent told me I was the right person, and I agreed. I could see how God had prepared me for that time and place. My wife and I went for an initial interview, and I preached. I thought the sermon and visit went exceptionally well, and I expected a call.

When it didn’t come, I decided to call them. The people were nice, but it finally came out: they didn’t think my preaching was that strong. If they had said, “You’re not a good enough pastor,” or “You don’t have enough experience,” I could have lived with their assessment.

But my preaching? That cut to my heart, because I consider preaching to be one of my best ministry assets. I was sitting on the bed when I hung up the phone. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I wondered, Will anybody ever want me? It wasn’t the last time I’d think that.

Why it hurts so much

Since then, I’ve learned that the farther you go with a search committee, the harder the blow when you get turned down. It’s heightened when you’re in a bad situation or at a stage of life when you feel a little desperate. Early on, you can convince yourself there are plenty of other churches out there and this one doesn’t really matter. But there comes a day when you realize, This could be my last chance.

Most churches have fewer than a hundred people in worship on Sundays. Some pastors think of these churches as entry-level positions. In reality, that’s where a lot of people are going to serve their entire ministry, and that can be hard to face.

Then, it’s painful when you feel the committee didn’t get their facts straight. You hear something like, “Well, we went with another candidate because we figured you wouldn’t like the weather here,” or “We were afraid you might not be decisive enough.” You think, You’ve got to be kidding. You missed it by a mile. That’s really hard. But I also know that somebody’s foolish decision doesn’t foil God’s plans for me.

But the primary reason rejection comes so hard is because I consider myself to be gifted. I’m good at some things; I’m ready for the big leagues. It’s hard to understand when a committee doesn’t agree. I was shocked last Christmas when a church I thought was “the one” turned me down. The chairman, a friend, said, “You were one of seven. Then we cut to three. You’re not in that group.” He added quickly, “But we felt you were the best preacher.”

That’s like being named “Miss Congeniality.” I couldn’t understand why, if I was the best preacher, I wasn’t in the top three.

Becoming more selective

One way I’ve lessened the pain of rejection is in becoming more selective about which churches I even enter the race with. Pastoral ministry isn’t just a job. It’s a calling, a strategic investment of my life, and I want to make the wisest choices possible. I’ve learned to ask myself certain questions when deciding whether to become a candidate:

Is the greater need for wisdom or energy? I’m much farther ahead in the wisdom department than I was in my twenties, but with half the energy. Some pastorates call for more energy than I have, so I know not to allow them to consider my name.

Am I willing to fight the new church’s battles? Some battles I won’t fight anymore. For example, I need to be part of a creative worship service, so I’m not interested in going to a church that hasn’t begun to move in that direction.

Is this a good season in which to consider a change? Any pastoral search is a lengthy process. For months, I’ll be thinking about this prospect—a lot. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, kind of an emotional adultery, because it keeps me from fully engaging in ministry where I am. It doesn’t cause me to love my people any less, but it’s hard to move ahead when I believe I won’t be there long. If there’s a problem, it’s easy to think, I don’t need to confront this person. I may not be around in a few months.

Once, I was so sure I was leaving that I planned my final series of messages. The worship planners were working with those texts but didn’t know what I was doing. When the call didn’t materialize, that became my worst series of sermons ever.

Becoming the yardstick

Another way I lessen the pain of rejection is through a change in perspective. It sounds strange, but I’ve come to regard not being selected as a ministry.

I call myself “the yardstick man.” When a search committee is trying to sort what’s important, the yardstick man becomes the standard against which other candidates are measured. Search committees are usually composed of rookies, so they look at someone like me and say, “Here’s a healthy candidate with reasonable gifts. Now, how do these other candidates compare?” I become the gauge that helps them make a better decision.

It dawned on me one day that this is a service to the kingdom. Somebody’s got to do it. Why shouldn’t it be me? They can see, “Jim is stronger than Ray at pastoral care,” or “Now that we think about it, we really value A over B.” This is a quiet ministry, but I take some comfort in it.

Becoming more aware

Being passed over has sharpened my understanding of who I am and where I need to grow.

Several years ago, my name was submitted for a top executive position in our denomination. A friend with considerable influence had submitted my name, so the search team sent a letter asking for information.

As I considered the position, I realized there were two reasons I couldn’t do that job. One, I didn’t have the skills. There’s no shame in that. But two, I realized I didn’t have the character to hold that position. That was sobering. I thought, I don’t have it, but I want it. What will I have to do to grow?

Considering that position also clarified my calling. I asked myself, Could I really do something outside the pastorate? I’ve come to realize that I have to preach. That led me to say, Okay, if I want to be a great preacher, then what am I doing so that twenty years from now, I’m not still preaching at the same level?

I started improving my skills. I assembled a team of people to pray for me every week. I created some self-evaluations. That one encounter focused my plans for growth in both character and competency.

I can’t be in a perpetual state of looking—it’s too draining. But our church is currently in a season in which a change makes sense, and I’ve given myself permission to look around. I’ve been in contact with another church and have been invited to candidate. It looks good so far.

But if nothing happens, I will settle in and say, I must assume that a non-call to go there is a re-call to stay here. Go read Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant again and get back to work.

And I’ll allow myself to grieve the pain of rejection appropriately, without shame.

[This article appeared shortly before I was called to the Village Church of Lincolnshire.]