Going Neutral – Part I

I pastor a church in the Baptist tradition. A key element of the Baptist tradition is it’s independence in the calling of the it’s pastors. The congregation, and the congregation alone has the power to call its pastor.

This has both obvious benefits and downsides. If a congregation is reasonably healthy and self-aware of it’s beliefs and values a church is able to call a matching pastor who lines up reasonably well with the congregation. It also avoids the possibility of a hierarchical structure trying to shove a church in a particular direction by saddling it with a pastor who is a really bad fit for the congregation (this is something I’ve seen done, in both liberal and conservative contexts, to brothers and sisters in more connectional settings).

The downside is, however, is a church is neither reasonably healthy nor self-aware of it’s beliefs and values the likelihood of calling a pastor who doesn’t line up with the church well at all. In baptist circles it is often referred to as, “a bad fit.” To be honest, I’m not sure if I prefer a more connectional or independent approach. I’ve seen the process go haywire in both kinds of settings so I doubt there is a “best” way to do it. People, as we so often do, just get in the way of our pristine theories of process.

The independent tradition, however, has given rise to an interesting practice that my connectional friends my not recognize, the “Neutral Pulpit.” This is pretty much what it sounds like. A potential candidate and a search committee agree to come to a neutral site in order to hear the pastor preach a sermon. An acquaintance from a Lutheran setting referred to this, most fittingly, as a “chaperoned date.” In recent years, Central Baptist has gotten the reputation for being an ideal location as a neutral pulpit site. The congregation’s laid-back nature, interactivity, and silliness create a welcoming venue for nervous courting partners. Having preached at a neutral pulpit, and now hosting one several times, I think I may have some worthwhile advice to give.

Today we’ll concentrate on the one who is preaching at the neutral site. Tomorrow we’ll give some advice to the search committees.

Don’t attempt to impress the committee

This could probably be summed up as “Be yourself,” but that really doesn’t do this idea justice. The sense that a neutral pulpit is a “one and done” relationship creates great pressure for the preacher to be at their absolute best and put on a show for the committee. Don’t succumb to this pressure.

I say this because any time we preach in order to impress people, for any reason, we’ve missed the whole point of preaching. The people in the congregation may not be “yours,” and the committee is listening to you with a critical ear (critical, not hostile) – but Holy Spirit isn’t so much concerned with potential job opportunities as with communicating the message of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we pay attention to the former, we too frequently forget the latter. The result may be a technical masterpiece filled with impressive stories, scores of cross-references, and original language insights – and yet fails to communicate anything of particular spiritual depth.

Even if your attempts to put on your best preaching performance succeed and the committee manages to be suitably impressed enough to put you on a path to a call, your “ordinary” sermons may make them wonder where the preacher you advertised disappeared to.

The best thing may to simply pull out a previously preached sermon, re-write it a bit for context, and preach as you are used to preaching. At least the committee will gain a closer approximation of your typical style taking that tack than if you agonizingly create a preaching masterpiece which has no relationship to your normal practice.

Do Try to Learn Something About the Host Congregation

It takes pastors years to feel as though they have some sort of genuine rapport with their congregation, so no one is expecting a “one shot” pastor to be able to come in and make everyone feel like you know them. No one is expecting you to. On the other hand, each congregation is different. They have all sorts of unwritten rules, shared history, and cultural identities. While you can’t expect to know everything about a congregation in two or three conversations with the host pastor 1, it’s a good idea to have some chats about the make-up of the congregation. Otherwise you might end up celebrating the Dallas Cowboys in front of a congregation full of Eagles fans without realizing it 2.

It would also be good to chat with the host pastor about worship expectations like attire conventions, sermon length, and theological bent. You don’t need to agree with everything the host church does, but you do need to be a good guest if you want to communicate effectively. Remember, while the committee is assessing your preaching skills, you are preaching to a congregation in need of Jesus’ love.

A few minutes on the phone, or several email messages, is all it takes to gain some context for your message. If you take the opportunity to do so you’ll grow as a preacher even if the committee decides to go another way with their search. It’s worth it!

  1. Yes, you really should call the host pastor. 
  2. If you do this on purpose, that’s a whole other issue (and it can be a lot of fun).