All my life I’ve been an avid reader, and as a long-time blogger, I’ve built up an online community with other writers, many of whom are published. So I often get a chance to read early copies of their latest publications in exchange for writing a review. The high point of my books-for-review last year was Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, by Winn Collier, a pastor in Charlottesville, Virginia. This slim volume is his first novel.
In it he explores what it means to search for a pastor. He depicts a small-church search committee who chooses to use an honest letter to open the door to deeper conversations with their candidates. The person who answers in the same candid spirit is the one they call.
The rest of the novel consists entirely of letters written by this new pastor to his congregation. The story moves through crises, festive events, and the slow but sure building of solid community. Along the way, they wrestle with the realities of life in the twenty-first century, including racism and truth-telling.
More than any nonfiction book I’ve read on church organization, or how to adapt business practices for congregations, or the latest gee-whiz approach to growing a church by leaps and bounds, this book tells it true.
I don’t know about you, but every congregation I’ve ever been a part of operates pretty much the same way when it comes to selecting a new leader: a committee is elected, they meet in private, they ask a few questions of the congregation at large, and then they go into lockdown mode for however long it takes to find a candidate.
Collier lifts the veil a bit. His search committee asks good questions. They cut through the veneer we all so cheerfully wear and get to the heart of things. In an opening letter, they ask, “We want to know if you’re going to use us…or might we hope that our church could be a place where you’d settle in with us and love alongside us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?”
I wonder if some principles in this book might be applicable to the big searches we find ourselves facing as a denomination this year. We’re looking for a new president. So is our university. Add to that, two superintendents and a department head. That’s a lot of searching!
Do we believe that the denomination is a business, first, last, and only?
Collier’s honest, beautifully written account pushes me to wonder if we are asking the right questions as we go about the business of finding new leaders. Are we looking for people with both pastoral and administrative skills? Do we believe the denomination is a business, first, last, and only? Or do some of the characteristics that mark the relationship between pastor and community still apply in this larger context?
Also, how are we considering the issues facing the larger American church today? Will we remain true to the short list of distinctives by which we define ourselves in the Covenant—and do we want to? Are those still central to us? Are we the small-but-mighty group who agrees to a short list of central beliefs and then also agrees to disagree, lovingly and patiently, with those who might disagree with us? Will we consistently choose to remain in community, despite our differences of opinion and/or interpretation?
What do we want as we search for these new leaders? President Walter has asked us to consider the value of “burden” as well as “vision.” That begins to get to the kind of questions I hope we are asking. Is the Spirit moving in this person with weight as well as light? Is there a deep sense of caring commitment to the truths of the gospel, to the distinctives of our denomination, and to the realities of the complex world in which we live? Is there a pastor’s heart as well as an administrator’s skill in this person’s portfolio?
Oh, I hope so. I pray so.