Last week I wrote a blog post on when cultures collide. I’ve continued to think about the topic of culture, but want to address a more specific aspect as it relates to a church calling a pastoral leader. In this congregational process, which we American Baptists honor as part of our polity, culture can be a determining factor as to whether the call is productive or not.
In working alongside pastoral search committees I have often said that there are two aspects of the cultural fit which a committee, congregation, and prospective pastor must pay attention. One is what I will call the “theological cultural fit”. The second is what I call the “social cultural fit”. Let me explain.
A theologically conservative congregation does not usually want to call a pastor who is not theologically conservative. Similarly a theologically moderate church will probably not do well with a far-right theologically conservative pastor. This may seem like a given, however it’s a conversation that needs to be explored in the search process. Too often persons assume agreement on the basics of Christian doctrine and do not explore the nuances of a topic. For example, I can be a theologically conservative pastor who has a high view of Scripture, sound understanding of soteriology (salvation), traditional views of Christology, missiology and ecclesiology. And I may also affirm the role of women in leadership and ministry, as a conservative pastor or congregation. Yet if I am matched with a pastor, or church, who also espouses a conservative identification, but does not also agree with the view of women in ministry and leadership; there will be tension and strife within this match from day one.
Another arena within the theological cultural fit has to do with one’s understanding of congregational polity and leadership. As an American Baptist I affirm the autonomy of the local church, including it’s right to call whom it discerns God has led to be pastor. I also affirm that the pastor, while called to an office or role within the church, is not to function as as an autocrat but a leader among leaders, working alongside staff and lay leadership (male and female) for the good of the whole. This collaborative style of leadership is one that will not function well within a congregational system that looks to the pastor for authoritative leadership; nor will the authoritative pastoral leader function well in the midst of true congregational polity.
These are but two examples where due consideration of the theological match in the search and call process is critical, and worth more than one conversation. In a time when longer tenured pastoral calls show congregations with greater stability and health, let’s not get in such a hurry that we short-circuit the process and end up repeating it in a couple of years, leaving both a weakened clergyperson and congregation in the wake!
The other cultural fit I identified above is what I termed a “social cultural fit”. By this I mean that the pastor and congregation would do well to come from a shared social understanding or background. The most common example I have used is that a rural congregation is likely to fare better with a pastor who has some understanding of rural life, verses one who’s only life and ministry experience has been urban. The reverse of this is true as well. Of course there will be exceptions to the rule, and we never want to deny someone the capacity to grow and stretch in their appreciation of a different context. Nonetheless, more often than not when we assume the social cultural fit is not that important, in the end it usually proves to have been.
The additional caveat I would include in this post is a combination of the above “fits” as it concerns denominational affiliation. We are clearly living in a day when denominational labels and traditions are not given as much weight as they once were. Congregants choose affiliation with congregations today for a wide host of reasons, with denominational affinity being down the list, especially for younger generations. Pastoral candidates are tempted to do the same. Afterall Baptist is Baptist, right? Well, maybe not!
As a regional judicatory minster who has more than once been called on to mitigate the differences that surfaced between a long established denominational church, and it’s recently called non-denominational, or other denominational pastor; I can promise you that this “fit” is also important. Search committee, pastoral candidate, and congregation take heed. God does work in mysterious ways, but God also works among those who’s streams of spirituality and ministry are most similarly aligned.