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  • Writer's pictureJoel Hathaway

What is the Value of Experience?

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

Most ministry job descriptions require applicants have a least five years of experience. There are two assumptions inherent in this requirement worth noting. First, the employer assumes all experience is the same. Second, there is something about five years of experience that is quantifiably different from experience gained in less time. There are shortcomings in this requirement causing ministerial search committees to miss out on some best-fit candidates.

Not All Experience is the Same

Right out of seminary, pastor #1, call him Joe, served 2.5 years as the solo pastor of a small church (under 100 members). In describing his departure, he said, “I’ve done all I can do here and need to make room for someone else.” He took another pastorate in a similar sized church only two leave after another 2.5 years. He said, “This church has no vision of its own and doesn’t want to follow mine.”

Pastor #2, call him Tom, took a position as an assistant pastor after seminary. Within a few months of arriving at the church, the senior pastor resigned and stepped out of ministry. Tom spent the next two years preaching and lining up preachers, facilitating leadership meetings, and administrating the church. He spent his last six months at the church helping the new senior pastor get acclimated to the church and connected to the people. Overall, he was at the church for 3 years.

Joe has five calendar years of experience, but in studying the ministry effectiveness of these men, Tom has more valuable, meaningful, and formative experience. Joe has five years of ministry that may be (and was) described by him and his church as disappointing, frustrating, or even ineffective. By comparison, Tom gained insight into leading an organization in a period of change, deepened his ability to preach in a short period, and developed leadership and relational skills necessary to sustain and grow a ministry.

Not all ministry experience is the same.

What is Special about Five Years?

Ministers who, after seminary, leave their first ministry position in less than 46 months generally expresses these traits:

  1. General discouragement in ministry.

  2. Less enthusiasm going into their next ministry position.

  3. Say, “I haven’t influenced people.”

  4. Say, “People don’t value my input.”

  5. Tend to remain in their second ministry position a shorter period of time, when compared with peers.

Ministers who, after seminary, stay in their first ministry position more than 60 months generally express these traits:

  1. More encouraged in and about ministry.

  2. Have a track record of meaningful ministry, conveyed in stories about people.

  3. Say, “I have seen the impact I can have on people.”

  4. Tend to move into a more focused area of minister, not just laterally.

  5. Tend to remain in their second ministry position for a longer period of time, when compared with peers.

There is something special about the 4-5 year mark in the life of a minister. I call it the season of “Active Learning, Practice, and Experimentation.” Here are some of the dynamics of this unique period of time. A pastor has been in a church long enough that he has grown in skill efficiency and begun to focus more on relational development. A pastor can no longer simply quote seminary professors or regurgitate second-hand information. Instead, he must become an active learner engaging with ever developing, complex situations. And the congregation no longer portrays a posture of unity and vision. Finally, both become aware of the difficulty of change.

Pastors in this season of ministry--46-60 months--experience challenges that do not fit their paradigms and do not respond to technical solutions. A constellation of challenges arise, the solutions to which lie outside the pastor’s skill to address them. Authors Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky, in their book Leadership on the Line call this an adaptive challenge. (referral link).

Adaptive challenges require active learning, practice, and experimentation. You cannot map a black hole without knowing how light responds to it on every side. Neither can leaders navigate the turmoil of organizational change without knowing how their people respond under stress. Change produces stress. Change requires experimentation. In my work, I help pastors develop a Personalized Leadership Development Plan to identify where the adaptive challenges of their ministry context are creating the greatest opportunities for change.

So there is something about the five year mark of ministry. But that is different from having five years’ experience in multiple places. Churches wanting to capture the quality of experience in potential candidates need to find additional avenues for assessment. I recommend a leadership assessment profile.

Better Approaches, Better Data

It is understandable to want a pastoral candidate to have demonstratable experience. Churches wishing to expose the nature and quality of that experience should expand the scope of their application requirements. They could state, “Five years of applicable ministry experience. Applicants with fewer than five years should be prepared to demonstrate aspects of leadership, organization, communication, and effective relational management.” Then again, aren’t these skills we would want in any potential applicant?

Churches should also employ behavioral interviewing techniques in place of traditional interviewing questions. Behavioral questions can get at the historic events that demonstrate particular skills and capacities, exposing the quality of ministry experience—the difference between Joe and Tom.

The takeaway for churches: Don’t make the mistake of thinking all experience is the same. Set a standard, but allow applicants to defend why the quality and scope of their experience prepares them for the unique ministry dynamics of your church.

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