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Talk Before You Call: Questions about worship for search committees and pastors

Any congregation who has recently called a new pastor knows how complicated finding the right person can be. How can you tell if a minister's ideas of worship and leadership will match those of the congregation? What if the pastor you call doesn't feel comfortable with the style of worship and ministry that is so integral to your congregation?

Questions like these are important. No pastor or congregation should take lightly the interview and search process that often precedes a call. Decisions that search committees, church councils, congregations, and prospective pastors make together set the pattern for their ministry for years to come.

Many of those conversations and decisions should have to do with worship. Corporate worship is central to the life of the church. It's the time when the church fulfills its important scriptural mandates of both proclamation and prayer, the time when members of the congregation meet with each other and with visitors. All other aspects of the church's life are helped or hindered by what happens in worship.

Yet surprisingly, worship is often a neglected area of discussion between search committees and prospective pastors. One pastor recently reported participating in an interview for a position entitled "Minister of Preaching and Worship" that included only one question about preaching and none about worship!

Pastoral candidate interviews need to include discussion on a whole variety of topics, of course. Evangelism, pastoral care, church education, and other pastoral tasks need to be addressed, as does the nature of the given pastor's and congregation's spiritual journey, their respective passions for ministry and their strengths and weaknesses. But, given the importance of corporate worship, questions related to worship must not be neglected.

The following paragraphs suggest an outline for part of the dialogue between a search committee and a prospective pastor, focusing on three areas for discussion regarding worship. Questions about preaching, although also of highest importance, will be treated only tan-gentially here. Well-grounded advice on this topic is readily available in Elizabeth Achtemeier's recent monograph, So You're Looking for a New Preacher (Eerdmans, 1991).

Guiding Concept of Worship

All congregations and all pastors bring to their worship life various assumptions, theological premises, and spoken or unspoken preferences regarding worship. Most decisions about what song to sing, what sermon to preach, and what style of worship to choose flow out of this guiding concept, whether or not it is ever clearly articulated.

The concept involves, first of all, an idea about what corporate worship is:

  • Is worship—to use a traditional Reformed metaphor—a time of dialogue between God and his people? If so, in what way is God present with his people when they worship?
  • How important are the horizontal (or communal) dimensions of worship?
    In what ways can we most clearly experience these dimensions?

Pastors and committees can helpfully ask each other about this basic concept of worship both in terms of theological categories and personal experience: "What is a biblical concept of worsliip?" and "In what way is worship significant to you personally in your spiritual journey?"

A person's concept of worship often is shaped by what he or she believes about the purpose of worship:

  • Is corporate worship primarily for adoration and praise? Or is proclamation more important? Or the sacraments? Or prayer? Or evangelism? Or fellowship?

A complete and balanced view of worship undoubtedly values each of these dimensions. Yet many pastors or churches choose to emphasize one or more of them for any number of reasons. The recent trend of emphasizing evangelism in worship services may be one important specific topic for discussion.

Finally, a guiding concept of worship has implications for the mood or style of worship:

  • Should corporate worship be introspective or exuberant? Well-planned or spontaneous? Formal or folksy?

In asking and answering questions on this topic, search committees and pastors should be careful to avoid false dichotomies. A pastor should not be asked, for example, whether he or she prefers formal or Spirit-filled worship. More helpful questions would explore which theological and pastoral considerations the person or group uses in deciding on the most appropriate style of worship in a given context.

The guiding concept of worship can be difficult for a pastor and search committee to discuss. We in the Reformed tradition do not have a strong tradition of either theological discussion or personal testimony about worship. Furthermore, the congregation itself may not have a unified vision concerning their worship life. Nevertheless, honest discussion on this topic is essential for laying a strong foundation for a vital future corporate worship life.

Worship Planning

Planning ideally occupies a significant portion of the pastor's energies. Discussing it will uncover not only important matters regarding worship, but also matters about the nature of personal and working relationships between the pastor and other worship planners. Search committees will undoubtedly want input on this area from musicians, artists, worship committees, and others charged with the task of worship planning.

Discussion on this topic could begin with questions about the goals of worship planning:

  • Should the pastor and the congregation seek a closely integrated worship service?
  • Should the Scripture readings and sermon suggest a unifying theme for the service?
  • What are the important guidelines for advance planning? The Christian Year? The Common Lectionary? The Heidelberg Catechism or another creedal document?
  • What occasions should be observed with special services?

Also important are the mechanics of worship planning:

  • Should the pastor plan the entire service?
  • Who selects the hymns and other congregational songs—the minister of music, the choir director, the organist, or the pastor?
  • In what forum can services be most helpfully planned—in weekly meetings? In informal phone conversations?
  • How far does the pastor plan in advance?
  • What is the role of the worship committee in worship planning?
  • What resources are most helpful in planning services?
  • What role do denominational forms for the sacraments have in worship?

An additional area for discussion concerns the pastoral dimensions of worship planning:

  • How are various groups within the congregation considered in the process of worship planning?
  • In what ways should a congregation's worship life include children and youth?
  • How should services be planned to be sensitive to both new and mature Christians?
  • How can the ethnic and cultural diversity within a congregation be reflected in the congregation's worship life?

Related to all of these questions is the matter of how both a church and the pastor view change and innovation in worship. Discussion should focus on the relative importance of change:

  • Does the church or pastor want to change its corporate worship life?
  • Does the church or pastor want to adopt a consistent model for worship or continually be seeking something new?
  • If changes are to occur, what is the desired process for change? With whom should the pastor consult? Who should make final decisions?
  • What principles will be used to guide future changes?
Worship Leadership

Thoughtful worship leadership is another essential ingredient of meaningful corporate worship. At first, questions on this topic could simply explore who should be involved in worship leadership:

  • Should the pastor be the only leader? The pastor and elders? A variety of church members?
  • What roles should lay members have in worship leadership—leading music only? Reading Scripture? Leading in prayer?
  • How should children and young people be involved in leading worship?
  • What should the role of musicians be in worship—primarily to lead congregational singing? Or primarily to contribute anthems?
  • What should be the role of a choir or vocal soloists?
  • How should music be integrated with the other parts of the worship service?
  • Should professional musicians serve as worship leaders?
  • Should guest musicians ever be used or only members of the local congregation?
  • Which type of musical leadership would be appropriate for the congregation: an organist, a pianist, a choir, a soloist, worship teams?

Another completely different but important issue concerns preparation for leading in worship. Questions to the prospective pastor may include the following:

  • What do you do to prepare your heart and spirit for worship?
  • Do you rehearse the reading of Scripture?
  • How do you prepare for prayer? Do you write out your prayers?
  • How do you help other worship leaders prepare for a worship service?

Questions to the search committee from the pastor may include the following:

  • How will you help me prepare to lead worship?
  • How high a priority do you want me to place on worship leadership?
  • What opportunities will I have to rehearse, to dialogue, and to pray with other worship leaders?

Finally, interview questions could address the prospective pastor's manner or style of worship leadership:

  • How much attention should be focused on the pastor and other worship leaders during the service?
  • What style of leadership do the pastor and other worship leaders use during worship? Formal? Informal? A balance between the two?

Although these questions may be difficult to answer, they will likely be helpful in getting at some of the underlying assumptions about worship that either a pastor or a search committee might hold.

The Process

How can a pastor and a search committee ever work their way through such a myriad of questions?

Undoubtedly, one of the challenges of preparing for interviews between pastors and prospective churches is finding efficient and creative ways of addressing these concerns in a limited amount of time. Search committees will certainly want to avoid long, time-consuming written questionnaires that are insensitive to the demands of a given pastor's current ministry. Both pastors and search committees will want to continue the process of dialogue only if there is a reasonable potential for future interest in each other.

In the interview itself, allow time for open communication in both directions, from pastor to search committee and vice versa. Providing all participants with a written outline of the interview well in advance can make this expectation clear.

Questions should be asked in light of both real and ideal contexts. For example, pastors need to ask committees both where the congregation is at and where they would like to be. Search committees must ask pastors what they've done in the past, are doing now, and would like to do in the future. Neither the congregation nor the pastor should be limited by their own histories.

In recent years many congregations have chosen to invite prospective pastors to preach and lead them in worship. A number of the questions addressed in this article can be meaningfully answered in part by experiencing worship together. This practice also permits the full congregation to become part of the search process.

But search committees who opt for this practice should be sensitive to certain concerns. First, both the congregation and the pastor must acknowledge the artificial nature of the situation, realizing that everyone present may be more concerned with sizing each other up than with worship. If the service is carefully planned and led by both the prospective pastor and members of the local church with sensitivity and honesty, this concern can certainly be minimized.

Second, some pastors may not be able or willing to leave their own congregation for a Sunday. Requiring them to do this is an imposition on both the pastor and his or her current congregation. In this case, perhaps a midweek service can be arranged.

Finally, some pastors may wish to have their visit remain confidential, choosing to accept an invitation to preach and lead in worship only if their consideration by the search committee is not announced. This approach has the advantage of reducing the artificiality of the occasion.

By the Spirit's Power

It's possible that this article may be misleading, since it may suggest that compatibility is the highest goal of the search process. Both congregations and pastors need to keep in mind that the match to be achieved is not first of all between a pastor and congregation, but rather between the decisions of each and God's will. Thus the most desired gift in a search process is spiritual discernment. And no act is more important in the process of discernment than prayer. Search committees and pastors who value these gifts will quickly realize that their purpose has profound implications not only for the people involved in the process, but more importantly for God's mission in that setting.

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FOR FURTHER READING

In the process of preparing and answering these questions, both a congregation and pastor have an ideal opportunity to reflect on the nature and practice of corporate worship. The following list of books may provide helpful stimuli for thought and discussion.

Elizabeth Achtemeier: So You're Looking for a New Preacher: A Guide for Pulpit Nominating Committees. Eerdmans, 1991. Well-grounded advice for organizing a search committee and for evaluating preaching. A must-read for both search committees and prospective pastors.

James A. De Jong. Into His Presence: Perspectives on Reformed Worship. CRC Publications, 1985. A study of the basic components of Reformed worship. The opening chapter is especially helpful in reflecting on a guiding concept of worship.

Craig Douglas Erickson. Participating in Worship: History, Theory, Practice. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989. Discusses many contemporary worship practices in light of their biblical, theological, and historic bases.

Hughes Oliphant Old. Guide to the Reformed Tradition: Worship. John Knox Press, 1984. Classic and comprehensive guidelines to the historical and theological bases of Reformed worship.

_____. Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology: Some thoughts on the Theolog of Worship. Eerdmans, 1992. Explores five biblical themes regarding the guiding concept of worship.

William Willimon: Preaching and Leading Worship. Westminster Press, 1984. Helpful insights about the process of worship planning and leading worship.

See also resources for organizing a search or pulpit nominating committee. One helpful set of materials is available from the Pastor Relations Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, 2850 Kalamazoo Ave., Grand Rapids, MI 49560.