Podcast Episode 31, 51 min
How To Find The Right Pastor/Church Fit, with Matt Steen (Ep 31)
Karl Vaters interviews Matt Steen, a former pastor and church planter, now with Chemistry Staffing, a ministry that helps churches find great staff members (and helps staff members find great churches).

Matt Steen: We look at it as a four-legged stool - theology, culture, personality, and skillset. Those are the four legs. If you miss any one of those, you're going down.

Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl and I'm a small church pastor, and welcome to Can This Work in a Small Church. My guest in this episode is Matt Steen, a former pastor and church planter, now with Chemistry Staffing. In this episode, we talk about how to make a better pastor church fit for the long term. This episode is filled with practical advice, including what's changed in pastoral transition and placement over the last generation, how the pandemic has accelerated pastoral transitions, and at the core of it, the five key principles to look for when looking for a new pastor or as a pastor looking for a new church. And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question, Can this work in a small church.

Matt, welcome to the podcast. It's good to have you on as a guest today.

Matt Steen: Karl, it's always good. I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, me too. You told me you'd behave yourself during the podcast, but that'll just make for a boring one, so hopefully you'll do something a little bit odd just to brighten the room up a little bit, but we'll see how that goes.

Matt Steen: Well, good thing for you, my wife is out of town today.

Karl Vaters: Oh, okay.

Matt Steen: Normally she sits just off camera and functions as my conscience. So I could get us both…

Karl Vaters: Oh boy, Jiminy Cricket is gone. Who knows what we're going to get today. This could be very interesting. Hey, we're gonna talk today about finding the right fit for pastors and for churches. You have a lot of background in that. But what I wanna do is, right now I think we're in a season coming out of post pandemic. I think… I've got this picture in my head that during the pandemic, even after lockdowns and so on, it was like the lion, the witch and the wardrobe when they go into Narnia and it's always winter but never Christmas, and everything's frozen in place. And then spring comes, and with the thaw everybody's delighted that there are buds now appearing that haven't appeared for a long time, but it brings new dangers. As they try to cross a river that previously was frozen, the cracking ice now makes it life threatening. And it feels that way right now to me in the church for pastors, for churches, for pastoral searches, for churches looking for pastors, for pastors looking to leave. Are you seeing anything similar to that, or how would you categorize this moment in pastoral search terms?

Matt Steen: I love that analogy, cuz I think that's brilliant. I think that's really appropriate. This is why I came on the podcast, is to be able to get material like that to be able to use, because up until now, I've just been using the technical term of it's weird right now. Thank you for that. That's awesome. But it is. I think it's fraught with peril, is a good way to look at it from the church standpoint. Man, we're seeing a ton of turnover. We're seeing a ton of people that are leaving their church for one reason or another. We've watched a lot of people walk away from ministry, a lot of pastors. A lot of youth and worship pastors especially.

Karl Vaters: Really?

Matt Steen: Yeah. I'll have people that want to fight me on this, but I look at the last couple years, and the roles that I think took COVID hardest were youth and worship. And the reason for that is March of 2020, pastor comes into those two offices because stereotypically they're the youngest and most techy, and the pastor says, I need you to innovate us 30 years in 30 days.

Karl Vaters: Good point,

Matt Steen: Get us up online. And so all of a sudden their role becomes online campus pastor. And so their 40, 50, 107 hours a week, however many, is devoted to that. And then what happens? We start - depending on where in the country, we start coming back in person, and you and I both know how it works in the church. Once you get something slapped on your job description, it never comes off.

Karl Vaters: Yep.

Matt Steen: And once you have something that's working, you don't stop it. And so all of a sudden, the time that they were put into this online campus pastor role still was top priority. But also top priority is, Hey, we need you to do what we're paying you for. And so most of those guys, they kind of grit their teeth and said, Hey, I get it, we've never been through this, I can make it through Christmas, we'll get to 2021 and everything will be normal. We see how that worked out.

Karl Vaters: Remember when we were that naive.

Matt Steen: Yeah, exactly. And somewhere around March or April of 2021, we started to watch those guys just burn out. It just got to be too much. They were tired of not seeing their kids, they were exhausted. And so those two roles in particular, we watched walk away from ministry in droves in that March, April time period. And so instantly that particular candidate pool got a whole awful lot younger and a whole awful lot less experience. And it felt like overnight to us. Because that used to be a fairly straightforward search for us, and all of a sudden it's like, Where'd everybody go. That's part of what you see. Part of what we see are just a lot of people that are beat up. There's a lot of carnage out there. You know this. We've got a lot of guys that I feel like we're sending more people to counseling now than we are to churches. Internally, we have what we call the Home Depot conversation where it's just like, Hey man, you've been through a hard season, ministry's gonna be there, take some time off, take care of your family, bind up your wounds, make sure your kids don't hate the church. Get to the point where your spouse can go back to sitting in service again. And maybe that's a six month sabbatical, maybe that's 12 months, maybe that's the end of vocational ministry for you. But we're having a lot more of those conversations now. And so you talk about thin ice and fraught with peril. A lot of times our search teams, because we don't do this a lot, we're liable to hire somebody who's really beat up internally, really beat up spiritually, and is going to bring the baggage from their last church into their next church. And so we just need to be really on guard for that in this season.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, we've known, I think, statistically and just experientially for years. I'm a third generation pastor and I've had over 40 years in pastoral ministry, and I have seen over and over again, without question, the most hazardous time for churches is in a pastoral transition.

Matt Steen: Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: It's doubly hazardous when it's happening because of a moral failure or some kind of church split. And then in addition to that, you've got the whole post pandemic situation of trauma, some people leaving because just simply - like you talked about, the exhaustion, the stress, the difficulty - and then like you say, they take it to their next church. That happened to me. I've been 29 years in my current church, but when I came it was because I was leaving my previous church limping, and the church I came into was limping. They'd been through five pastors in the previous 10 years.

Matt Steen: Oh.

Karl Vaters: And the Lord somehow used a hurting pastor and a hurting church to... And He helped both of us bless each other and heal each other. But that isn't typically the case. You put a hurting church with a hurting pastor during a hurting time, that we're living in now and coming out of now, and it's really a recipe for a whole bunch of disaster. I want to back up a little historically to getting to this point. Like I said, 40 years in pastoral ministry, third generation pastor, so this pastoral stuff is baked into me and it seemed…Was I naive when I was a kid thinking that pastoral transitions were fairly standard and a lot easier than they are today, and that they've become much more complicated? Have we simply figured out better ways to do it, and so we’ve got more tools in the tool belt, or is it a more complicated process today? I very well might be seeing it wrongly because I could be filtering it through childhood and teenage lens. Setting aside pandemic stuff, what have you seen changing in pastoral transition or what does your research show from this generation compared to a generation ago?

Matt Steen: I think the biggest difference is the role of the denomination. I think we - in the last, what, 40 years give or take - we've seen the rise of the non-denominational church, and at the same time we've also seen the weakening of a lot of our denominational structures. And coming out of the Baptist background, the way it used to work is that either a DOM or somebody in the Baptist hierarchy would know of a church that's looking for somebody, would pass along a resume, because he had a pretty good idea of who the pastors in the churches were, who was ready to step into a new role, that kind of thing. And there were kind of gatekeepers to make sure that people that weren't ready or were a little beat up or something like that couldn't do it. A lot of other denominations, their denominational hierarchy has people a lot more hands-on and involved in the process, whether it's a district superintendent or Bishop or whatever. I think what's happened is with the weakening of our denominational structures and the lessening of importance that even churches that are part of those denominations are putting into denominational life, their ability to really speak into that process and help guide that process has really eroded. And so I think a lot of what's going on is, outside of maybe the Methodists, there's not a whole awful lot of direct placement going on these days. But even the support system that denominations used to have, for one reason or another, just isn't there like it used to be. And so I think that's part of it. I think we've got a lot of people that used to have that support to lean on, all of a sudden, because of staff reductions or whatever, no longer have that support system.

I think the other piece of it is - this is going to get me in trouble - I think our seminaries have shifted and don't necessarily do as good of work of preparing a Presbyterian pastor for their unique denominational tribe.

Karl Vaters: And of course, we're just talking about the Presbyterians; everybody else does it well.

Matt Steen: Everybody else is exempt. No.

Karl Vaters: Obviously that's an example. You could have put any other denominational name in there, and that's not.

Matt Steen: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. But I think what we've learned is it used to be, if you went to a DTS, you knew what you were getting. If you went to Denver or if you went to Fuller. Or name your name brand seminary.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. At any denominational seminary, they were training for their pastorates in their churches, and most of them are not focusing on that anymore. Most of them haven't necessarily abandoned it, but that is no longer their focus.

Matt Steen: Exactly. Exactly. And so you see a lot of people that are coming out that don't necessarily hold to that theological tradition of the denomination. But you're also seeing a lot of people in a lot of seminaries going after people to get an MDiv, to go into the nonprofit space, or to go into counseling or just to have a vanity degree. Talking to different seminaries and Bible colleges, we're talking to- we're hearing a lot of these schools saying, Hey we have people that are getting MDiv’s that have no desire to go into pastoral ministry.

Karl Vaters: Wow.

Matt Steen: And I hear that and I scratch my head and it's like, if you're going to get a vanity degree, why are you gonna get an MDiv?

Karl Vaters: That's interesting.

Matt Steen: That's a lot of time and a lot of work. Go get an MA and save yourself two years of frustration. Just saying.

Karl Vaters: It is interesting.

Matt Steen: Yeah. We're seeing a lot of that too. So you don't know what you're getting out of seminaries like you used to, and there's a lot of people that are coming out that are just no intention of going into ministry, which is mind blowing to me.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. It really is a different landscape than it used to be. So let's narrow in on some practical things. So for the pastor who's considering leaving their church or who is not in a church right now and is looking for something, and that is your area of expertise is matching up the right pastor with the right congregation. I know in the work that you do, you have five key factors that you work on to help people find a long term fit. So what are those factors? And then we'll walk through them one at a time. List them for me, first of all.

Matt Steen: Yeah. So first is theological alignment. Okay. The second is church cultural fit. Okay. Not geographic culture - geographic is important - but church cultural fit.

Karl Vaters: Gotcha.

Matt Steen: Personality. You know how that works. Skillset. And then the fifth is chemistry. So is this somebody that you actually like enough to spend the next five years with or however.

Karl Vaters: Gotcha. Okay. So let's take a look at those one at a time. Theological alignment, number one. What are we talking about here? How do you take a look at that?

Matt Steen: Yeah, so every church has its own close-fisted theological issues, and they also have a series of openhanded theological issues. The close-fisted are the non-negotiables. Back to the Presbyterians, typically they're reformed, and the last thing that they want is to have a Wesleyan on their staff. And so part of it is, part of what a person that's applying needs to do, or a church needs to do, is they have to know and own what are those close-fisted theological issues that they're not gonna budge on. At the same time, they have to have an understanding of what are our open-handed issues. So maybe you are a church that is… You might lean complementarian, but you're not what we call angry about it. And so you’d be okay with somebody that comes from a more egalitarian standpoint, as long as they're okay with the party line at the church and they're not going to try to fix you. That kind of thing. So that would be more open-handed. If you're close-fisted on it, you bring somebody who's egalitarian to that church, that's never going to work and should never work. So that's kind of what we're looking for.

Karl Vaters: I love those two terms. Close-fisted and open-handed is a great description of that, cuz immediately anybody listening who's paying attention at all to the theological landscape will know that there are certain denominations that are becoming surprisingly close-fisted on things they used to be very open-handed about.

Matt Steen: Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: You just mentioned complementarianism is one of those.

Matt Steen: Yeah.

Karl Vaters: And other denominations that are becoming really open-handed about things that quite frankly, I'm convinced they should be more close-fisted on. Like these are biblical non-negotiables, folks, how are you just okay with that? But if you don't at least have alignment and an understanding there, even within your denomination. So you're not just talking about, Okay, we believe these things, but where are you close-fisted on it, where are you open-handed on that? Because I think you probably have had a lot of pastors get into a church and are shocked at the attitude coming back at them when they aren't as strong on something that the church has become close-fisted on or vice versa.

Matt Steen: Yeah. So most people, when they hear us list out these five things, they roll their eyes and they say, Oh, that's brilliant. And they're not super impressed because they don't think it's rocket science. It just kind of makes sense. But here's the reality of the situation. What most churches do when they hire is they'll take a resume, they'll look at it and say, Oh, I know that church, that's a great church, I listen to their pastor's podcast, it's awesome. So if they're doing it there, of course they can do it at our church. And so that's their kind of skills and abilities check. And then they get into the interview part of the process, they laugh at somebody's jokes, whoever it is reminds them of a niece or a nephew, they start to get warm and fuzzy and they begin to develop chemistry. And those are the two areas that churches focus on. What ends up happening - I'm convinced of this - you get three interviews deep and in the back of your head you start to think, I do listen to that pastor's podcast and they're a little bit more fill in the blank on a theological perspective than we are, maybe that's going to be an issue. Oh no, God's gonna work it out, it's gonna be fine. Or we use the same words to mean totally different things, depending on the tribe that we're coming from.

John McArthur's definition of what Spirit-filled means is going to be way different than Reema or name your favorite Pentecostal, their definition, but they're still gonna put that in the job description. And so we don't poke and prod on that kind of stuff. And so what ends up happening is we think it's gonna work, but then we get 18 months in and we start to realize, Oh, theologically, we are way off. Oh no.

Talked to a guy probably about six months ago. Youth pastor, went to a Restoration Movement church, came out of a Southern Baptist church. And Restoration Movement makes a big deal out of baptism. Now baptism for them is regeneration, which if you're coming out of a Southern Baptist tradition, that's heresy. And the guy realized three months in, Oh no, this is what they talk about when they're talking about baptism, I gotta get outta here.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. So even a definition of terms, I can see how that gets missed and I can see how important it is to establish it right up front.

Matt Steen: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So many of our churches, we just don't…We think Spirit-led or we think whatever means the same thing from tribe to tribe to tribe, and it gets us in trouble.

Karl Vaters: Or even within the same tribe.

Matt Steen: Oh, didn't want to go there, but now that you bring it up, yeah.

Karl Vaters: Okay. That's number one, theological alignment. Secondly, cultural fit.

Matt Steen: Yeah. Everybody is quick to look at, like, the geographical culture of something and say, Hey, somebody coming from New York is never gonna work in Kearney, Nebraska, or wherever. There's some truth to that and you need to watch, but God has made a lot of people way more flexible geographical culture wise then we give Him credit for, and that's how so many of our missionaries work. What I'm most concerned about is the type of church culture that somebody's coming out of. And so one of the dangers that we see is it can be really easy to go hire somebody from the mega church down the street, bring them into our church and think, Oh, it's gonna be awesome, and have it just go sideways. Because culturally, so many things are different, right? You bring a worship guy in from a large church of 2000, 2,500, something like that, into a church of, say, 300. And they may have all sorts of skills and abilities and talent, but they may also have a pretty hefty support system around them that's doing different odds and ends. And so all of a sudden, to get into that church of 300, they look around on the first day and say, Oh, I need to build my own backgrounds, I need to program the soundboard myself, and those types of things. So that's one of the things that we look at.

The other thing is just, how does your church operate? You bring a church planter into a church where the congregation votes on every check request over a thousand bucks, good luck making that one last for a long time, right? Yeah.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, I see that often, obviously, as I work with smaller congregations especially. The biggest, the hardest transition I see regularly is when the staff pastor of a large church feels called now to be a lead pastor and goes most of the time to a much, much smaller church as their first lead pastorate, and all of a sudden it's, Wait a minute, I can't just fill out a check request form to get what I want, I've got to actually figure out how to raise the money for it.

Matt Steen: Oh yeah.

Karl Vaters: Or I think I need things that I don't necessarily need in this environment. The culture fit is, I'm gonna say, is never smooth, and it's seldom easy and it often doesn't fit at all from the large to the small. I think in many more cases it could work if they would consider the cultural differences between big and small. And that's just one cultural difference, it's just the one that has the most impact on what we're doing in this podcast. But it's just one cultural fit, realizing that you need to at least ask the questions and see that these cultures are different in advance. I think a lot more of them could make it work, but you can't unless you know at least first to ask the question and then actually pursue and get the information and know how to adapt.

Matt Steen: One of the things that we're seeing, we’re seeing a lot of people that are burnt out on the big church that are going to the smaller churches, think it's gonna be easier. Good luck. But part of our role is when we get somebody like that, we beat on 'em pretty hard and try to convince them that they don't want anything to do with it because they're not gonna have the support system around, they're not gonna have the same budget flexibility. They're not gonna have the same ability to go and do whatever they want. And try to get a sense of, Hey, are you going after this dream of this easier type of a lifestyle, or are you really feeling called to a smaller church and have a clear understanding of what you're getting into? We find probably about half the guys have a pretty good understanding of what they're getting into. The other half is just, they're gonna be there for three months and realize, Oh, I made the worst mistake ever.

Karl Vaters: And some cultures you can adapt across and some, the wall is gonna be too thick and you're gonna look at it in advance and go, better I figure out it's easier to break up before the marriage than after the marriage.

Matt Steen: Oh, that's true, that is true.

Karl Vaters: It becomes like a divorce if you find out afterwards. You want to find all that out in advance. I think it was Benjamin Franklin gets credited for saying almost all this cool stuff, but I think it was him who said, Go into marriage with both eyes open and go through marriage with one eye shut. This is the going into it with both eyes open part we're talking about here.

Matt Steen: That’s it.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, get all the answers up front.

And now a short break to talk about something else. If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Second, consider becoming a financial supporter through Patreon, Venmo, or PayPal. Just go to Karlvaters.com/support. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most. Our support link is in the show notes

All right, so that's the church culture fit. Thirdly, personality.

Matt Steen: Personality. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, that means God made us with our quirks. And part of what we need to figure out going into this is, Are my quirks going to feed into your insecurities, are my quirks going to just annoy the living snot out of you and make you wish that I'd never… Part of it is just getting a sense of what is the personality of this person, do they align with the personality of our church, of our current team, of our board, and are we going to be able to really accept this person for who they are coming in. And we all think, Oh, it's the church, it's gonna be… We need to be aware of our quirks.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. And not only do people have personality quirks, churches do as well.

Matt Steen: Oh, absolutely.

Karl Vaters: And one of the things that I teach when I'm talking to small church pastors is the smaller your church is, the quirkier it is.

Matt Steen: Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: Because the individual personalities have a greater impact on the whole. If you're talking about two or three megachurches side by side, yes, they will have distinctions, but there won't be these quirky differences between them. There's gonna be a standardization across that.

Matt Steen: Exactly. Those rough edges get smooth.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. The smaller it gets, the more you've gotta have an idea of what those quirks are gonna be before you show up. Because, God bless them, the quirkiness of the small church is both its strength and its weakness.

Matt Steen: Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: But if we don't understand it, it's only weakness. If we understand it, we can capitalize on the strengths.

Matt Steen: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: Personality. Next one then is skill set.

Matt Steen: Skill set. This is straightforward, and most of our churches do a half decent job on this. It's just, Is this person ready to do the job? Have they done it before, have they trained for it, are they ready to step up into it, that kind of thing. Most churches are used to going through and creating this job description and only probably a quarter of the job description is a lie, coming in. But we've gotten to the point where we're pretty good at figuring out what does this look like and all, but we need to make sure that somebody can actually do the job and are ready to step into it. Otherwise, six months in, you're gonna realize, Oh dear, we need to move away quick.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Plus you may not use this term for this step, but I've got to think that in the skill set, there's something similar to the close-fisted and open-handed, that there's going to be a core set of skills that are absolutely required to do the job, and another set of skills that, well, if you had, it would really be nice, it would be wonderful, but we can figure out how to compensate for that or work around that, and to know the distinction between those two.

Matt Steen: That's it. So many, like, associate roles, so many - especially in smaller churches - so many of the combination roles, like youth and - insert, fill in the blank or whatever - those are some of the conversations we have. It's like, Hey what is the most important piece of this, what is your nonnegotiable? And then what are some nice to have’s that we could potentially back fill in? And so if a church comes to us and says, Hey, we need a worship and a youth pastor, part of what we ask is, Hey, what is the most important one of those things. Because there's no such thing as a 50/50. And we start to walk through that and try to unearth what are the nice to have’s? And if youth is the primary role and worship isn't as important, it is, Are there a couple other areas that this role could fit into if we find somebody that checks all the boxes on your youth role and maybe is a better discipleship pastor than worship pastor. And so the flexibility on that is super helpful, especially in those combo or associate pastor, which encompasses who knows what.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. My first position in ministry was under a senior pastor who was close to retirement and was ailing and was just missing a lot of things, and a major part of my job description was to pick up the stuff he dropped.

Matt Steen: The old elastic clause, right?

Karl Vaters: Yeah, it was. They literally said that he's missing things, he's forgetting things, part of it is to have oversight on that. Thankfully the Lord helped me do that and we did it all right for a little while. But yeah, that was part of the job description. Alrighty. And then number five is chemistry.

Matt Steen: Chemistry, ironic that we're named that. Big part of what we're trying to do, we kind of were frustrated with this idea that people are in place for three years. We wanna see pastors be in place for five years. And so when we talk to a church, we're asking them, Does this pastor, does this person have natural chemistry with you guys enough so that you're gonna want to hang out with them for the next five years? Is this somebody that is gonna fit in and you're gonna want to invite them over for barbecue on Thursday night. Is this somebody that you're comfortable with doing your daughter's wedding? Is this somebody that you'd feel comfortable going in and sitting down for a counseling session, or having sit at your bedside if you're in the hospital? It's those types of things. Is this somebody that so fits who you guys are, that you're comfortable enough to do that, and you want them to be with you for the next five years and you see them being just this key piece of your faith community's life, of your relational life, all that kind of thing. That's a big deal. Now, we focus a lot on that and most churches, like I said, the skill set and the chemistry piece are the two that most churches really focus on, but the chemistry piece is pretty huge.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, it has to be there. It feels though in some ways like it's at the end of the series. Not because it's less important, but because it feels to me like it should be maybe the last thing we look at. The worship leader at our church, for instance, just was commenting on how she selects songs, and she said when somebody recommends a song to her, she reads the lyrics first before listening to the song because she doesn't want to get sucked in by a beautiful song, a beautiful melody or a beautiful buildup and think, Oh, I want to have that emotional buildup, and then look at the lyrics and go, I think I can make it work. If the lyrics don't fit, I'm not gonna get sucked in by the chemistry of the song.

Matt Steen: That's it. That's it. We look at it as… Like, you graduate seminary, you have to have a stool analogy. So we look at it as a four-legged stool. Theology, culture, personality, and skill set. Those are the four legs. If you miss any one of those, you're going down. But you can sit on a four-legged stool. It's not gonna be really comfortable. In fact, it's still gonna be a pretty miserable experience until you put that seat on. And that's what we see, the chemistry piece as being the seat. That takes all those other core components and is gonna make it a much easier ride in the days to come.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Let's come back. I love this. There's some great foundational stuff, but in the last few minutes before we get to the lightning round here, let's talk to some of the pastors who right now may be in a… Let's first of all talk to the pastors who are in a church, and the spring is coming and things are breaking up, and they're looking around, thinking this may be my time to leave. In my tradition, from my church background up until a generation ago, it was once you feel the Lord's calling you to leave, you get up, you announce your departure, you get out pretty quickly, and then it's up to the church to figure out the next pastor, you just let that go. That was our tradition, that was not every church tradition. But as we've talked about already, I think even in those that typically had a stronger denominational oversight, the means by which transition is happening is change. It has changed and is changing. Those changes have been accelerated by pandemic stuff. So talking to a pastor who right now is in a church who believes it's their time to leave and look for something else, do you have any practical advice for, like, first steps? Do they just quit first, do they find a new church before they do so? If they go and candidate at another church, how do they do that without it being all over social media in advance of everybody else finding out? Is there an order to this that is even semi-universal, or are all the rules off the table and every situation is completely different?

Matt Steen: So total consultant answer, It depends. So here's what I would say. Generally, we know at least six months before we leave that we're on our way out. Generally we know. And so what I encourage pastors to do is you still have a responsibility to care well for your congregation during that six months that you’re taking your final bow or whatever. Take the time to make sure that they're set up well for the interim period. Intentional interims are no longer the norm. They need to be. Honestly, I think the work of interim pastors is incredibly important and for some reason it's nowhere near as normal as it used to be. But begin the process of getting your church ready to be able to last 12 to 18 months without a pastor.

Karl Vaters: 12 to 18, okay. So I just wanna reiterate that.

Matt Steen: I tell churches to think 12 to 18 months, and then you pray that it's six, right, but think 12 to 18. So take the time to make sure that there is lay leadership in place that can own different pieces of ministry, make sure that you have some people - and you don't have to go and broadcast, Hey I'm heading out, but you can begin to delegate. You can begin to make sure that there is gonna be some consistency and the ability for the church to be able to continue to thrive while in that transitional period. So begin to do that. Don't start any new initiatives. Don't launch out into any brand new trendy thing. Begin to move back, head into a season of simplicity. That's the best thing that you can do for your church. I'd also encourage you to put together a file for the next guy. Who are the people in the church that they really need to get to know? Where's the combination to the safe? Just all those different practical things, all those different relational things, just to brief the next guy coming in and let them know. I would begin to have some conversations depending on the health of your board, depending on the health of your church, with leadership ahead of time. It doesn't necessarily need to be broadcast and all that kind of thing, but to begin to have the conversations with some of your key leadership to say, Hey, look, I think I'm probably coming to the end of my time here, and have the conversations to start to prepare them for that. They're gonna need some time to mourn. Don't tell them one week that you're thinking that you're leaving and then the next week start to talk through all the necessary stuff.

Theresa and I lived with my father-in-law in the last years of his life, when he was walking through cancer. He had known, he had known he was coming to the end and all that kind of stuff, and we were still early on and Theresa loved her father. And one day he looked at her - a retired firefighter, so this explains a lot probably - he looked at her and said, Hey, when I kick off, do you want the house. And it was just like that. We were watching, like, Matlock or something. And she let that soak in, and I'm watching the tears well up in her eyes, and she looked at him and said, Dad, I'm not ready to have that conversation yet. And then she needed to go to the bathroom for a while, and I can definitely understand that.

But keep in mind that if you've done this right, your people love you. If you've done this right, you have walked through some major seasons and crises with your people, and you've been thinking about this likely a year, two years, six months. They're going to need some time to process that. And so you need to give them at least two weeks, probably more like a month to let this settle on them and realize, Oh no, you've been here with us for all this and you're leaving. Let them take a period of mourning and then begin the process of walking through the issues and helping them think through what's next.

A couple great resources, Karl. Wade Hodges, he wrote two books: One called Before You Go, and one called When to Leave. He has given them to us to be able to share with everybody, and so I'll send you a link and you can point people to it if that's helpful.

Karl Vaters: Awesome. Yeah, we'll do that.

Matt Steen: I've found them to be two of the best books, because they're written really practically. Two of the best books for people that are wrestling through this, and would love to be able to give them out to anybody that needs them.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, it sounds like there are two fairly distinct stages in the process. One, there are a lot of things that you can do to prepare the ground before you even tell anybody.

Matt Steen: Yes.

Karl Vaters: A lot of that first part of what you talked about was that. And then after letting everybody know, giving them enough time to process what's happening. When I was doing police chaplain training, I was a police chaplain here in town for a while, and they gave us just a few lessons on what to do. Lesson number one was where to hide if the shots start firing, which where I live just never happens thankfully. But the other one was on giving death notifications, which I did have to do a couple times. So somebody dies, the police go and all of a sudden, a policeman and a chaplain show up at your door, you've got some pretty bad news coming. And the main lesson from that was give people even the smallest amount of time to jump to the conclusion before you actually say it. So for instance, if you're on the phone and they can't see you, they don't know what's going on, don't get on the phone and go, Your husband just died. You wanna say something as simple as, Hi, I'm the chaplain from the police department, I have some bad news, your husband was in an accident, the doctors did all they could. And every one of those phrases sets it up for their brain to jump to the next thing, and because they get there before you, that gives us a chance to address the trauma far more capably than the instant, Your husband's dead, and I didn't know anything until that phrase was said.

And similar when pastors leave a church. If all of a sudden it's, I'm out and I'm gone in two weeks, it's kinda like what did we do wrong kind of a thing, there's no chance to process. But even just a couple more weeks in that, like a month, I know once you've told yourself you're leaving, a month can sometimes seem long, especially if there are problems in the church. But like you said, for most of us, we've known six months already, so making that last month or so, or even longer in some situations. I'm talking to a pastor right now who's probably gonna be three, four months of letting their church know in advance because there's a really good situation there and a good relationship and they will miss him and they want the chance to process it. And he wants the chance to process it with them and to help them to do that next step. So giving them time to process that and then to introduce the principles that we've been talking about here into that setting can really be helpful. So those two phases I think are really very important.

On the other side of it, for churches that are looking for the pastor, obviously they should be looking at those five things, but do you have any first steps for that or again, is it just so different given different church cultures and the denominations?

Matt Steen: So the first thing that we tell people is the pastor comes in and says that they're resigning, that they're retiring, that they're moving on. The first thing we tell churches is breathe, just breathe. The first instinct is to go, Let's go put something up on churchstaffing.com, let's go create a new job description. The first thing you really need to do is breathe, and sit in it, and realize that God is not surprised by this. Our tendency - we are in an anxious age, right? Our tendency is to panic, is to get anxious and all that kind of thing. And so really it is, Let's breathe, let's soak in this, let's let our emotions process, and then we can move forward. I encourage churches to do an exit interview. Do an exit interview where the pastor has the ability to speak frankly with people. And so maybe that's reaching out. If you're in a denomination, maybe it's reaching out to denominational leadership and saying, Hey, would you conduct an exit interview for us? Maybe if you're not in that kind of a structure, maybe it's finding a board member that has the relationship enough with the pastor that's on their way out to do that. We've got a template for that we can share if that's helpful for people. But I highly encourage that, and the frank discussion from that will suit you well.

The second thing is really once you've done those two things, take some time to step back and really get a sense of who you are as a church now. Who are you, because you were not the same church when that pastor came 3, 5, 10, 15 years ago. We tend to think that we are, but we're not. And so let's take a look and see, Who are we now, and be honest with ourselves. Are we a church that's average age is 72, are we a church whose average age is 36 and we've got a bunch of young families? What realistically, as we look at the community around us, what are the felt needs of the people that may not be showing up here? What is it that they're looking for, what's the state of their soul? And use some of that to learn, What does our next senior pastor, what does our next solo pastor, what skill set do they need to have, who do they need to be? Do they need to be… Realistically, are we looking for a chaplain to come and care for us, or are we looking for somebody whose goal is to get outside of our walls? Having the ability to have honest, really, really honest conversations about that is gonna be super helpful for you in the next transition.

And I'd encourage a board, bring in somebody to help you have those conversations before you begin to post. It can be a pastor from another church in your tribe that can just lead the conversation, but have somebody that'll help you guide that. I'm happy to have conversations with a church to at least give them the questions to think about before they launch into it.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Churches, they're not trained in this. We've got people who are highly trained in other skill sets that they do at their work, but this is a skill set of its own, and it's one that even most pastors aren't trained in, let alone most congregation members.

Matt Steen: And the thing is a lot of times, when we work with a search team, they'll tell us about the search team, and this person, they've got a big company, they hire a lot of people. And it's like, That's great, but keep in mind, hiring a plumber and hiring a pastor, the only similarity is the P, right? A plumber, I don't care how strong the relationship is between my plumber and his wife. I care because he's a person, but unless they got into a fight just before he came over, that's not gonna affect how he fixes the pipes in my house. It is significantly different between hiring somebody for a corporate world and hiring somebody for a pastoral role, and fortunately, we get to ask questions of people in the pastoral context that you're never - you never ask.

Karl Vaters: It would be illegal to ask outside of the pastoral context.

Matt Steen: Exactly.

Karl Vaters: And appropriately that it's illegal there, and appropriately that it's not illegal in the pastoral context, because it's a different situation.

Matt Steen: It's a different situation, and really you need to lean into those differences and get those quick.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, absolutely, wonderful. Let's get to the lightning round here. I got four questions for you. Are you ready?

Matt Steen: Oh boy. Hit me.

Karl Vaters: Alrighty. First of all, what are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years and how have you adapted to it?

Matt Steen: The biggest in this last two years is just the amount of carnage and the amount of people walking out of ministry.

Karl Vaters: Yeah.

Matt Steen: And so we talked about this already, a lot of the conversations we're having is just, Hey, you need counseling, have you seen a counselor about this, do you need to step out of ministry. That's the most significant thing. In fact, this is conference season, and so one of the weird parts of my role is, I must have interviewed 4,000 or 5,000 people over the last five years, and so it's not uncommon for somebody to come up and say, Hey, we talked about a church, however many years ago. That's always a little risky, cause I'm always looking for my exit route, or, we're to hide when the bullets start flying. And a guy looked at me and he said, You told me I needed counseling. And I was waiting for the upper cut. But he said, You know what, you're the only person that told me that, it caused me to make the best decision of my life. And he stepped out of ministry for a little bit, he went through counseling, he got healing from his church and now he's back in. And so that's the biggest change, man. The last two years has been night and day. Night and day.

Karl Vaters: The need for both pastors and churches to have emotional and mental health healing and counseling.

Matt Steen: We needed it before, but the pandemic turned it up to 11.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, absolutely. All right. Number two, is there a free resource, like an app or a website that's helped you lately that you would recommend for small church ministry?

Matt Steen: Okay. Not free, but relatively inexpensive. Just went and reread The Pastor, by Eugene Peterson. Really refreshing for me. Not the traditional resource or anything like that, but it just reminded me of what the pastoral calling is, reminded me of what our role as pastor really is supposed to be. I think we're in a season where we have gone from - the pendulum has swung from full-time pastor to corporate leader in the church space, and this has been really good for me to help me think through. Not just myself as I pastor in a local context, and as I pastor the people that we're shepherding through transition, but man, it has helped me to be able to help remind churches, Hey, this is what you're really looking for. You don't need Jack Welch, you need a pastor.

Karl Vaters: I think one of the lessons learned from this difficult season is I think we did swing the pendulum too far over to the entrepreneurial business manager model, and we need to come back to an understanding of the shepherding and pastoring model and how important that is, especially in times of difficulty, stress and crisis. But in any church at any time, that's our calling.

Matt Steen: Absolutely. And this is… So much for lightning round, but as I look at… This is conference season and I go from conference to conference, and one of the things that's really struck me lately is, how much damage are we doing with our conferences? Because so much of what we put out there is the large church guy, he is the quote unquote success. What I love about what you're doing is you're saying, Hey it's okay to be a small church. In fact, God may have called you to be a small church. And just because you're a church of 200, you're not a failure, even though nobody that's leading a church like you is gonna be platformed at whatever the big conference is this week. Read Peterson and it's just, Yes, this is what it's supposed to be. Now, we need to lead our organizations well. Don't hear me saying that we don't. But if we are not pastoral first, that's why the church is in the state that it's in right now. Sorry, I'm gonna go off of this soapbox. Cut me off.

Karl Vaters: No, I'm with you on that one. Absolutely. Let's go to number three. What's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?

Matt Steen: The dead cat theory of leadership. So you show up at a new church, day one, you notice a dead cat in the last pew in the sanctuary. You look at it and you say nothing for the first 18 months. And then somewhere around the 18-month mark, you look at somebody and say, Hey, tell me about that cat. And then you don't touch it for another six or eight months, right? Go slow. Don't make changes. Leave the dead cats.

Karl Vaters: Absolutely. Yeah. There's some things that just aren't worth fighting, especially when you first walk in the door. There's other stuff to deal with. And then number four, final one. What's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?

Matt Steen: Ever seen? So this was my own experience. So back, I was a youth pastor for eight years before I went and planted a church. In my first church, we had gone through a building campaign, built a big new building. The big new building had an elevator in it, and the elevator we later learned had questionable reliability. Part of my role on Wednesday nights was to go over to the new building, to get everything set up for our middle schoolers to show up and just wreak havoc on the place. And so I would go in, I would take the elevator down, I would load up the elevator, take it back up and set everything up. This one day I went into the elevator, went down and just couldn't get out. The doors wouldn't open. And so the clock's ticking and all that kind of thing. And so I'm sitting in this elevator and I've got nothing better to do, so I laid down and took a nap. Next thing you know, I hear people up the elevator shaft saying… They called me Snoop. I still don't to this day understand why. Young man in ministry, it's one of the better nicknames I guess I could have gotten.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, it could have been a lot worse.

Matt Steen: Yeah. I hear people running around, Where's Snoop, where's Snoop. And apparently I just let out a snore, because all of a sudden they heard this snore emanating from the elevator shaft and it's like, Oh, we found him. So that was one of the highlights of my time back then.

Karl Vaters: And the lesson is when you're early in ministry, take a nap whenever you have the opportunity, it's kind of like…

Matt Steen: Take the nap when you can, because yeah.

Karl Vaters: Sleep when the baby sleeps.

Matt Steen: That's it.

Karl Vaters: Alrighty. Hey Matt, how can people find you online or follow up if they need to follow up on anything?

Matt Steen: Yeah. Chemistrystaffing.com is the easiest place to do it. Go there, and I'll send you over a link too. If somebody wants to pick my brain about something we've said, I'll give you a link just so you can grab 30 minutes with me. I'd love to be able to have a conversation about your specific situation.

Karl Vaters: Awesome. And all of this will be in the show notes, of course, as it always is. Matt, I appreciate your wisdom, I appreciate your heart for pastors and for churches, and for the work you do to help advance the kingdom of God moving forward. There's a lot of overlap between what we do in some very, very good ways, and we're looking forward to doing even more work with you as time goes along. We'll continue to be in touch and folks are gonna hear Chemistry Staffing and Matt Steen's names coming up more in the future as we continue to work together to help you and to bless the body of Christ. So thanks, Matt, appreciate it.

Matt Steen: Always a pleasure, Karl. Thank you.

Karl Vaters: Oh, there was so much helpful practical information in that. I especially loved the idea of paying attention to what he called close-fisted and open-handed theological issues. So many problems would be answered if we would just pay attention to that. And I love the idea of giving churches time, both to get used to a pastoral departure and to get ready for the new pastor. That alone has the potential to save a lot of heartache for pastors and churches. So can this work in a small church? Obviously, yes. The principles Matt talked about are especially important in a small church context, given the fact that the smaller the church is, the quirkier it is. Those characteristics of how each church is different from another need to be identified, they need to be accounted for in a pastoral search. And if they are, if you can really identify the quirky parts of your church and how we're just slightly different than any other church around, then that so-called pastoral revolving door that many of you might be dealing with, may just slow down for a lot of churches. And we can prepare through prayer, through methodology, through asking the right questions, through taking our time. Through so many of the other principles Matt talked about, I believe we can have better transitions, we can have longer term pastorates, and all of this for the glory of God.

This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver, edited by Phil Vaters. The original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of Jackwilkinsmusic.com. The podcast logo was created by Solomon Joy of joyetic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

August 8, 2022

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