Scott Gibson, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Candidating at a church for a pastoral position is like going on a first date and then getting married. The procedure resembles a whirlwind romance. In a matter of weeks a candidate goes through the interview process and ends up as the pastor of a church. Henry A. Virkler observes: “Probably a single sermon, or even a single day, is too short a time for a pastor or a congregation to interact enough to know whether their expectations of each other are compatible.” But, for most churches, this is the process — the only process. The key for seminarians and pastors in search of God’s call in a church is to be sensitive to the dynamics involved and to trust the Lord though it.
Although the procedure of candidating is flawed humanly speaking, we can affirm God’s providence in it. God is sovereign. Through this maze of candidating, men and women and churches attempt to discern God’s call. Throughout the entire search phase, the candidate can use it as an opportunity to deepen one’s faith, to persevere in prayer, to fast, to trust God for His will. The candidating process can be a significant spiritually maturing experience.
For the seminarian, there may be a “great gulf fixed” between the academy and the church. Expectations exist on both sides, some of which are real, while others are imagined. The sooner the seminarian comes to grips with the differences between people and books, the better. But sometimes these lessons are not learned until one is planted in the church and no longer in the classroom.
This article is concerned primarily with the candidating sermon and is written with the seminarian in mind. The fledgling preacher needs to be aware of what takes place as he or she prepares to enter the pastorate. I will walk through the process of candidating considering some of the elements that build into the time when he or she preaches for a call before a congregation.
The Beauty Pageant
To the candidate, the entire candidating process may seem like a Preacher’s Beauty Contest. A Pulpit Committee is established at a church. They contact the denominational office or have other means of communicating a vacancy, including internet search sites. The committee takes resumes and conducts interviews. The procedure may seem impersonal. But we are comforted with the reminder that God is sovereign in processes even like this one. The procedure is not perfect. But God can still use it. This section of the article deals with what happens when an opening occurs at a church. We will examine how the pageant begins.
The Pulpit is Vacant
For most churches, the need for filling the pulpit comes with the departure of the pastor who goes to another church. The reasons for a minister’s leaving are varied. Some churches transition well from one pastor to another, while others struggle. Yet, churches wrestle with departures because of the death of a minister, a pastor is called to another ministry, is terminated, or the church experienced a scandal. No two churches handle change in the same way. This is where good interim pastoral ministry becomes invaluable.
Congregations usually experience an interim period from nine to twelve months. It is not uncommon for some churches to be without a pastor for up to two years. Wise, discerning interim ministry is invaluable for the pastor who follows. The best interim pastor will resemble John the Baptist: the next pastor must increase while the interim pastor decreases. An effective interim pastor will not allow the church to become attached to their ministry, but will be one which looks in anticipation toward the service with the next pastor.
Prepare for the interview
How does one prepare for an interview with a Pulpit Committee? Draw up a list of questions you have about the church, the ministry, the people, programs, and expectations. Although the church may be interviewing you for a position, you are also interviewing them in order to discern if your gifts match their needs. Douglas G. Scott gives helpful insights into the approach one can take when interviewing and what preparations one needs to consider.
You might ask what challenges the church faces presently and what they have faced in the past. If there has been a person previously serving in the position for which you are being interviewed, ask what he or she did well and in what areas would they like to make changes. Find out how long the church has been without a pastor or a person in the staff position for which you are being interviewed. Try to discover the person or persons to whom you would be responsible.
The questions you raise which surface the congregation’s expectations are important. Do not be afraid to ask the pulpit committee, “Is there a question you’d rather I didn’t ask?” One pastor went through a difficult time about two years into his ministry. After it was over he asked the board, “Why didn’t you tell me about this when I candidated?” Their reply was “If we told you, we were afraid you wouldn’t come.”
As for additional questions you might ask, Morton S. Rose suggests:
Scores of questions nag at the minister during this frustrating procedure: What groups in the church are involved [in the interview]? What issues do they want to discuss? How will I deal with the possible controversial matters? How will my family be involved? What sermons will be best suited for the experience? How will we travel? What do we wear? Do I tell anyone in my present church? When will they vote? What is the church’s policy on calling a pastor if the vote is not unanimous? How will I deal with a minority negative vote?
These are some of the questions a candidate will want to consider when contemplating a call out of seminary or when moving from one church to another.
In addition, do your homework. Check the church’s background. Check the church’s references. I know a pastor who, when being considered by another church, went to the town where the church was located a couple of weeks before the interview and asked questions about the church at a local restaurant. He queried about the church at the local gas station. He talked to people at the grocery store. He was better able to discern the church’s reputation in the town and make an informed and prayerful decision regarding the Lord’s call to that church and community.
The next step is preparing for the date. The preparation for the candidating sermon takes place long before the sermon itself. There are a couple of steps that must first take place.
Mail Order Preaching/Dating
You will be asked to send the Pulpit Committee a sample sermon tape: audio or videocassette or dvd. For many seminarians the video will be the sermon preached in preaching class. If that is all you have, it will serve your purposes. But ideally, you will want to send your best average sermon. That is, do not send the committee the greatest sermon you have ever preached! You probably will not be able to maintain that level of preaching week to week. However, if you have one of your best average sermons, you will be able to show them what you are really like.
Mind you, you may want them to like you. But, remember, God is in the process and no matter what you might do to show your best side, you are still who you are and nothing more, nor nothing less. It is best to err on the side of being modest.
The Neutral Pulpit
The next possible step is the neutral pulpit. Before going to a church for the candidating sermon a candidate will preach a sermon in what is called a “neutral pulpit.” A neutral pulpit is when a candidate preaches at a church which is not where he or she is being considered as a candidate but is an agreed upon church where the pulpit committee can have the opportunity to hear the candidate preach. A neutral pulpit allows both the candidate and the pulpit committee the flexibility to say, “No, thanks” or “Let’s go to the next step.”
At a neutral pulpit the candidate preaches a sermon and the pulpit committee hears the sermon and together they have the opportunity following the service to speak further with the preacher. Typically the decision as to whether or not to take the next step to have the preacher come to the church in need of a pastor is not always made at that time. The chairperson of the pulpit committee will likely suggest a time by which he will be back in touch with the preacher. And the candidate may state that he or she may need more time to consider in prayer what the Lord might do.
The neutral pulpit is a possible next step. It is not the norm. However, if you are asked to preach in a neutral pulpit, you will now know why! Most often the neutral pulpit is used when a pastor is considering a call to another church and the Pulpit Committee wants to hear him or her in a neutral setting before bringing the person as a candidate to the church.
The Candidating Sermon
Then comes the next step—the candidate preaches at the church where he or she is being considered. However, there are some churches which choose not to have a person preach but rely on the report from the pulpit committee. One Southern Baptist leader states:
Some churches have discontinued having a prospective minister preach for the congregation before extending him a call. They prefer to base their final judgment on the report of the pulpit committee which has much more than simply hearing one or two sermons on which to base its report.
Persons in a denomination or judicatory who are appointed to their churches do not have the luxury of deciding which person will be their pastor. Suggestions can be made to the bishop or superintendent, but often, the pastor is appointed without the congregation having the opportunity of hearing him or her preach. Preaching is considered only part of the package. However, requests are received and considered by the judicatory leaders.
Preaching is certainly one of the many skills needed by a pastor and too often congregations may overemphasize preaching. However, if there are opportunities other than preaching for the candidate to interact with the congregation, the congregation will be better served. They will not only be able to hear whether or not the candidate has preaching ability, but they will be able to query about one’s pastoral skills as well.
The Matrimony of Preaching
The date has been set for you to go to the church to give your candidating sermon. Sometimes it is called “The Candidating Weekend.” The candidate arrives a couple of days early and has the opportunity to meet with several groups to answer questions, to engage in conversation, to gain an understanding of the ministry of the church and the people associated with it.
In addition, the candidate becomes acquainted with the area in which the church building is located. The intention of the weekend is to familiarize the candidate with the church and the church with the candidate. However, there are certain factors a candidate must consider when preparing for the weekend and especially for the candidating sermon.
This is a Special Occasion
Special occasion preaching is any preaching outside the ordinary preaching schedule of a pastor. Preaching a candidating sermon is not ordinarily something a pastor does from week to week! The dominant question facing any preacher is “Why this sermon at this time?” Preaching on a special occasion such as this one allows the preacher to speak the Word of God to those gathered, to round out the worship, and to bring focus to the occasion.
Like all your preaching, a candidating sermon, has a purpose: “to give a clear, listener-sensitive, biblically based word to men and women who are sometimes eager and often desperate to hear it.”
Preach a Best Average Sermon
Since this is a special occasion, one may ask “What kind of sermon should I preach?” Like the sermon video you sent to the committee earlier, you want to prepare a sermon and preach it with your best effort all the while realizing your weaknesses and deficiencies. The candidating sermon is not a “sugar stick” sermon, after the sugar that many farmers use to draw reluctant horses nearer to the bridle. A strong dose of realism helps the candidate recognize that he or she is not involved in a beauty contest or a meat market, but in the process of discerning God’s will for your life and the life of the congregation.
What is a best average sermon? It is a sermon that captures who you are as a preacher, your personality; and also demonstrates your competence in handling the Word, delivered with skill.
Remember, you are not trying to preach your “barn burner” sermon. A candidating sermon is not the sole measure of your preaching ability. You want to give the listeners your best average sermon to demonstrate to them what you are able to do week by week.
Get to know Your Date: Link with the Listeners
As best you can, from the interviews, determine the type of people to whom you will preach. Once you know your listeners, you will be able to connect with them and communicate clearly God’s word.
When you have a sense of the people to whom you are preaching you will be better able to select the text on which to preach. You will also want to know if there have been any significant occurrences in the congregation near the time of your candidating sermon: the death of a beloved pastor, church leader, the illness of a church member, a celebration of a major event in the life of the church—all of these may feed into the selection of a text for the sermon.
Knowing the listeners will help the preacher shape a sermon that is biblically based, God-centered, and listener related.
Be Faithful to the Text
The approach I affirm in basic sermon construction is grounded in Haddon W. Robinson’s central-idea preaching. Robinson’s Biblical Preaching develops the step-by-step process of sermon construction, which teaches preachers to form sermons with a central—big—idea derived from the biblical text and communicated clearly to the listeners. Robinson’s definition of expository preaching provides the thrust of good, biblical preaching:
Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.
Our sermons are to be rooted in the biblical text. Keeping Robinson’s definition in mind of being aware of the historical, grammatical, and literary issues, the preacher is ready to ask two questions of the biblical text to determine the idea of the passage as it fits into the larger context of the author’s writing. Take the text 2 Corinthians 11:1-6. We first ask the subject question: What is the author talking about? For example, “Why is Paul concerned for the Corinthian Christians?” The subject question will use one of the interrogatives: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The context of the passage will determine which interrogative the preacher will use.
The subject question is followed by the complement answer. The complement answer completes the subject question. The complement answer to the sample subject question is, “He wants them to be pure but they have been deceived by super apostles who preach another Jesus.”
The next step is to put the two—subject question and complement answer—together into a single, indicative idea. The process is simple homiletical mathematics: S + C = I. The interrogative form is deleted and the subject question and the complement answer are combined into an indicative statement: “Paul is concerned for the Corinthian Christians because he wants them to be pure but they have been deceived by super apostles who preach another Jesus.” A homiletical idea is then shaped that captures the essence of the exegetical idea but is stated in a memorable way. The homiletical idea serves as the central idea for the sermon. It is the feature of all sermons, including special occasion sermons—and candidating sermons, too!
The law of preaching is to be clear. If a preacher has the clear idea of the text, is clear about who the listeners are, clear about the occasion, and clear about what he or she is going to say, he or she will make a difference.
You may be away from your home. You may be going from one church to another. You may be a seminarian in search of a position. But you are you. Try not to present yourself as anybody but who you are—nothing more, nothing less.
In addition, you may consider preaching a sermon that shows who you are theologically. That is, the Pulpit Committee will have interviewed you. They will have read your testimony, and read your faith statement. In the candidating sermon you may be able to highlight an aspect of the Bible or theology that is important to you, that shows the listeners who you are and what drives you as a pastor.
Be On Time
Of course you will want to be on time for your interview and other meetings, but, most importantly, stay within the time limit given to you to preach. Respecting the time limitations given you will demonstrate to your listeners your respect for them. A clear sermon can be preached within any time limit!
Clearly, you have been praying about the transition from student to pastor or from pastorate to pastorate. Yet, as you consider preaching ask God to give you wisdom and discernment as to the best text on which to preach. And pray for your listeners, too.
Be Selective with Your Introduction and Illustrations
You may decide to preach a sermon you have given before. Make sure the introduction and illustrations fit the listeners to whom you are speaking. Not all introductions and illustrations fit every audience. This serves as a reminder for the preacher to be relevant. If he or she has done homework on the congregation, introductions, illustrations, and conclusions can be shaped to the listeners at that particular church.
Be Open to God’s Spirit
The candidating sermon, bathed in prayer, is to be given humbly to God for Him to use it as He wills. You have put a lot of work into the sermon wrestling with the text, getting the idea, the homiletical idea, putting together the outline, and writing out the manuscript. The sermon has been practiced. It has become a part of you. Now you are to give it.
The sermon is not an assemblage of black letters on white paper. It is the word for God’s people. The sermon has never been yours—it is always God’s. You are God’s spokesperson. All you can do is be dependent upon God’s Holy Spirit. Give the sermon to God, your measly morsels, and ask Him to use it to His glory to feed his people.
The candidating sermon has the characteristics of a sermon one preaches regularly, with the exception that it is a special occasion. It is a special occasion in the preacher’s life and in the life of the church at which he or she is candidating. These are reminders of our utter dependence upon God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the sovereign Bishop of our Souls, who tells us to “go” and to “come” at His leading. We preach with trembling dependence upon Him and trust Him with the results.
(Scott M. Gibson is Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of the Center for Preaching, Director of the Th.M. in Preaching, and Director of the A.J. Gordon Guild at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA.)