Published: Jan 08, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Jan 04, 2013 02:05 PM
Last month, our new pastor, the Rev. Kerri Hefner, gave her first sermon. One of the things she talked about was how her father’s family welcomed into their home people who didn’t have a place to go on Christmas Day.
Now, New Hope Presbyterian Church is at a point in our 256-year history when we are welcoming our second female minister. If New Hope’s founding families, such as the Strayhorns, Kirklands, Blackwoods and others, could see the church today, they would not only be surprised that we have a female minister, but might even be surprised to see men and women sitting in the same pews.
How is the leader of a religious congregation chosen? Within different religious denominations, it can in some ways be as different as the religions are themselves.
I recently was given the opportunity to serve with six other people on New Hope Presbyterian Church’s committee to choose our next minister. There was far more to the process than I had expected.
We follow strict guidelines from the Presbyterian Church USA. Like all things Presbyterian, it is done by committee.
When a pastor leaves or retires, it takes a while to find a new one. We’re not allowed to go right ahead and choose our next minister. First, we must hire an interim minister who stays until the right person for the job is found, which usually takes about a year.
We fill out a personal information form (PIF) that lists the primary skills that we’re searching for and a church information form (CIF) which tells attributes of our individual church. These same forms are filled out by all Presbyterian churches nationwide looking to find a new pastor. This information is then plugged into a computer system that floods us with PIFs containing the skills and attributes of ministers that match our request. We are also given a representative from our Presbytery to help guide us in what we are doing.
But within other religious denominations this process is often very different. From what I understand, in the Baptist church an individual congregation decides how it would like to go about choosing its own pastor. In the Catholic church, the bishop of the diocese assigns priests to specific parishes with little or no say from the congregation. Traditionally in the Methodist church preachers would rotate in and out every three years, though this has changed some in recent years.
When I was talking with our friend Jonny Lake, who is Jewish, I was surprised by how similar the Presbyterian process is to the process he described for choosing a rabbi for a reformed Jewish synagogue. The president of the board of trustees appoints a Rabbinic Selection Committee similar to our Pastor Nominating Committee. This committee, which Jonny has served on multiple times, decides what they want in a new rabbi and writes to the New York-based Union of Reformed Judaism and the URJ sends them five candidates. If none of them work out, they send more.
I found that serving on this committee was one of the best experiences I’ve had at church. This was more than a traditional job search and our personal interviews were more than traditional job interviews. The right candidate depends not just on a set of job requirements but on good human qualities such as how they connect with others and, as committee chairman Dan Hooker says, “nurture the congregation in a variety of ways.”
People like my father enjoy a good sermon. Orange County farmer Bob Strayhorn, a descendant of one of the church’s founding families who was also on the committee, is pleased that we have a pastor who likes southern food, especially beef.
Janet Borel, another committee member, says the most important quality she looked for in a pastor was someone who could “really keep going our sense of community.”
People are part a religious faith for a variety of reasons and believe in a variety of different things, but she says it well. To me, fellowship is what religion should be about. Lucas Selvidge is an junior at Carolina Friends School
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