• Joel Hathaway

Work on the Heart

My 18-year old had his pre-college annual exam with the pediatrician. He shared he is trying to get stronger by lifting weight. The pediatrician replied, “People focus too much on strength and too little on the heart in their first 40 years of life. Then they focus too much time on the heart and not enough on strength in their last 40 years. This is backwards.” His advice to my college-bound son: work on the heart.

Focus on Strength

This reversal of priorities is mirrored in the vocational pursuits of ministry-bound men and women. Mostly men. For 15 years, I supervised cohort groups of seminarians. In our first year together, I asked, “Why did you come to seminary, and what do you plan to do immediately upon graduation?” The questions are entangled. How students answered the second question explained why they came to seminary.

Of these 77 students, ages ranged from 25-45 years. Most said they planned to become lead pastors upon graduation. Students said they came to seminary to gain the necessary skills to lead a church from that position. Asked what those skills were, they named the following: preach, exegete, teach, learn the Bible, translate. Furthermore, some of these students made dismissive statements about the heart-focused cohort group and courses in counseling. They saw these elements as extraneous or at least insignificant in their ministry preparation. This approach is called Work on Strength.

Heart Work is Harder

It is easier to learn new information than to learn a new way to respond to information. In “The Intelligence Trap,” author David Robson explores fallacies common among the most intelligent. He found that smart people are less likely to seek advice, more likely to build elaborate arguments, and pone to ignore their own biases (Acknowledgement: Randal Roberts, “Changing my thinking about change”). I would add, smart people are prone to draw conclusions on one subject using unfounded extrapolations from another.

People diagnosed with a disease quickly become “experts” in that disease. They read up on it to learn as much as they can. A friend diagnosed with cancer said he knew as much about cancer as his oncologist. He was pursuing alternative treatment after the failure of traditional medicine. After six months of positive results, he began planning his next year of life. He tragically died within a few short weeks, leaving behind a young family.

In the western world, we have inherited a model of problem-solving that is founded upon principles of the scientific method: try, fail, evaluate, repeat. Identify the problem; solve the problem. This is a technical solution. Many in the southern hemisphere hold quite a different perspective. An African teacher said to American visitors, “Americans see life as a problem to solve. Africans see life as a burden to bear.” These are not mutually exclusive, but his point remains: Work on the heart.

Evaluate the Heart

Evaluating the heart of a pastoral candidate is a challenge for search committees. Search committees can request a resume, a ministry data form, copies of sermons, and written self-evaluation. But there is no document that evaluates the heart. Heart evaluation is a relational, reciprocating process. It takes a long time. Five conversations over three months usually reveals more about a candidate than ten conversations in one month. This process requires deliberation and patience. Patience is at odds with most pastor search processes. One common trait of all search committees I’ve worked with is the sense of urgency. A search committee member recently shared that their last two pastors were narcissists. His question, “How do we not hire a narcissist?” My response: a thorough process conducted over a sufficiently long period of time. Evaluate the heart.

Most search committees want to identify, evaluate, and hire a candidate in the 6-18 month time frame. This may be enough time for a youth director or a general assistant pastor. I wouldn’t recommend less than a year to evaluate and hire an associate or solo pastor. But for a senior pastor—who has more responsibility, more influence, and more power (constructive and destructive)—the process should take longer. This discourages some search committees, whose members signed on to something they thought might run a little longer than a short-term mission trip. Instead, I want these committees to find the courage to slow down.

Slowing down is an expression of faith, for college students, seminarians, and search committees. We have a God who is slow—slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8). God sees, watches, intercedes, and is patient even in dispensing of judgment. And in Genesis 15:16, God says, “The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” In James, readers are urged to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. (1:19).

Practical Steps

If you are a student, don’t miss the opportunity to work on the heart. Information and knowledge will never been enough to succeed in life. Someone said, “You can pay now, or you can pay later. But we will all pay. Only it’s cheaper to pay now.” He meant, the sooner you start the heart work the easier it will be. Not easy, but easier. You can start by reading some good books on the subject, but you also must get a good counselor. It takes both. If you don’t know where to start, ask me.

If you are on a search committee, one of the best ways to explore the heart is through well-developed behavioral interviewing questions. These provide you the ability to broaden your perspective by assessing historical events from the life of the candidate. You can read more about behavioral interviewing questions here.


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