You can tell only so much from a Sunday worship service or by mucking around on the church’s website. In most cases, if you’re a visitor, those things are the welcome mat. They are the public face of the congregation.
At this point in our lives, if my husband and I make it beyond an initial visit, we’ll then return several more times to listen and participate as anonymously as we can. I have no desire to be a church consumer, but in these initial visits, we’re trying to get a sense of who this body of believers is, what’s valued in the congregation, and what their lived theology looks like. Is this a place we can belong?
The real questions usually can’t be answered in a Sunday service. What’s going on when you get beyond the welcome mat? It can take time and relationship to find out what the unwritten rules are, and how power is used and/or shared, and what gifts are cherished among the body. Part of that discernment process is to sit down with a church leader and have a conversation or two. Because we’ve moved frequently, and have had to search for new congregational homes as a result of those moves as well as our decision to leave a couple of toxic churches along the way, I have a bunch of questions I try to ask the pastor or leader of a congregation. We share our story as well. (It also helps that I have a long list of published credits to my name. My spiritual life is kind of an open book.)
Yes, I get the irony that these questions make it sound like we’re interviewing someone for a job when we’re the ones looking for a place to serve and a community of believing friends. That said, here’s what we hope to learn in these conversations:
1. Tell us about your faith journey.
What is their church background? What led them into ministry? What have been the pressure points, challenges, and losses?
2. What is your understanding of/adherence to historic Christian orthodoxy?
Sure, I could read the church doctrinal statement or investigate its denominational affiliation, if it has one. (Spoiler alert: I already have, long before we have a conversation with a leader.) But what does this statement mean to the person or people guiding this congregation? What are the non-negotiable beliefs at the core of congregational identity?
3. What is the history of this congregation?
Why was it birthed? What has past leadership been like? Have there been any splits? Which leads us to…
4. What are some areas of past conflict in the congregation? How was it handled? What have been the lasting effects?
We know they can’t go into detail. We have enough church leadership experience that we can fill in at least some of the blanks. But we do need to hear how they talk about conflict, and what the lessons were.
5. Have there been issues of sexual misconduct or abuse by congregational leaders? How has this been handled?
I have pointed at least one church leader to this piece I wrote a few years ago. I have no more capacity for a church leader who tries to cover up a past mess – because for a victim, it is never fully in the past.
6. What is your theological understanding about the Jewish people and Israel?
This is not a theoretical question for my husband and me. It is an existential one. This piece begins to explain why.
7. Let’s talk about the role of women in this congregation.
Complementarian, egalitarian…there’s a whole spectrum of conviction on this question. How does their conviction on this issue this play out within this fellowship?
8. What is your relationship with the other pastors in this area?
My work with Catalyst/Christ Together in Chicago showed me how powerful it is when local pastors pray and care for one another across denominational and church turf lines.
9. How much has the rise of Christian nationalism among conservative voters affected the life of your congregation? What role do American politics play in the life of this congregation?
We never would have dreamed of asking questions like these a few years ago. Now we can’t imagine not asking them. Sadly.
10. How are you handling the Covid pandemic in terms of gathered corporate worship? How are you maintaining relationship with those who can not attend in person?
Yes, this directly affects us because I’m immunocompromised. But it also reveals how they view the least of these among them, as well as their relationship with all the neighbors in their town.
11. What are you reading right now?
What is fueling their mind and soul? What are they curious about? What inspires them? This reading question has been pretty revealing over the years when we’ve asked it. One pastor told us he didn’t have time to read. That was a red flag alerting us to burn out in progress. (And that’s just how it played itself out in this person’s life.)
12. Is there a place for us here?
The answer is always supposed to be ‘yes’, but it would be refreshingly honest if a pastor or leader said, “No, because you ask too many questions or we just can’t use someone like you in our congregation.” We’re trying to figure out if our gifts and experience are welcomed and needed, and how they might fit in what is already happening in that congregation.
What would you add to this list?