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Where do ‘independents’ go to call a pastor?

Your pastor retires or resigns. You need another. Where do you turn? To your denomination, right?

But where do independent Lutheran congregations go?

That is the challenge facing independents, including St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church in West St. Paul.

Calling a pastor under any circumstances is daunting. At St. James, the Rev. Richard Stadler retires as senior pastor on September 1 after serving the congregation since 1990. The Rev. Michael Albrecht steps up as the new lead pastor and the Rev. Ralph Rokke will remain. But the thriving 1,300-member congregation needs a third.

How does the congregation proceed? St. James did a self-study: Members want someone who will focus on youth, family, and evangelism — “a younger version of Pastor Stadler,” summarizes Albrecht.

The Rev. David Wendel, NALC assistant to the bishop; photo provided by David Baer

Mark Vander Tuig urges calling congregations to write a job description.

Does a call committee check in with seminaries? No, St. James wants experience. Where, then? If the congregation has parted with an established denomination, don’t expect help there. St. James left the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in 1995. Conversely, diehard members who still like the old denomination may not countenance turning to another synod.

What’s a call committee to do? Here are some options:

* Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) has a list of more than 140 pastors — both men and women — seeking calls on its website. LCMC is an association of congregations that left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1999 over the ELCA’s ecumenical agreement with Episcopalians, Called to Common Mission. Later, others joined the association when ELCA approved partnered gay clergy in 2009. LCMC now has 550 participant congregations.

* Lutheran CORE provides a job board of congregations seeking a pastor. Go to lutherancore.org; click “Who We Serve” and then click “ClergyConnect.”

* The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) may be able to help independents by delving into its list of pastors seeking a call — men only, of course. The website of the LCMS is mnsdistrict.org.

* The North American Lutheran Church (NALC) includes 250 congregations that split with ELCA in 2009 over gay clergy and other issues. NALC’s list includes women pastors. NALC routinely works with 50 or more pastors seeking calls and 20 congregations in the call process. The NALC website is thenalc.org.

In short, independents aren’t out there on their own. the Rev. Per Nilsen of North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville, Minnesota, writes in an email interview that “‘independent’ does not mean exempt from relationship. North Heights, as an independent Lutheran church, is involved in many partnerships that afford multiple pipelines for ministry candidates.”

He lists the Alliance of Renewal Churches, the Master’s Institute Seminary, and the International Ministerial Fellowship. North Heights also supports students from Bethel University and Seminary, the University of Northwestern, and Luther Seminary, all in St. Paul.

Pray, pray, pray

Once you find a source of candidates, what next? Here’s guidance from the Rev. David Wendel, assistant to the bishop at the NALC: Pray. Form a call committee. Pray. Complete a congregational profile. Pray. Have a conversation with candidates. Pray.

Get it? “And be patient,” Wendel adds, “as the call process is about seeking God’s will and waiting for the Lord to reveal and unfold who he desires the next pastor to be.”

What do congregations get wrong? “They think calling a pastor is like hiring an employee,” Wendel writes in an email. Hiring a pastor is “more like finding a spouse you commit yourself to, rather than a hired hand. Best call processes remember and practice that.”

The Rev. Mark Vander Tuig, service coordinator with LCMC, works with congregations calling pastors. He urges calling congregations to write a job description: What exactly do you want the pastor to do?

Second, churches should appreciate the value of an interim pastor. LCMC has a list of “trained intentional interims,” says Pastor Vander Tuig. “The relationship between a pastor and a a congregation is unique,” he says in an interview. “Shared history, memories, significant moments, loss of loved ones, weddings, baptisms. Do they think they’re going to be getting a clone?

“An interim pastor can help clear the slate and prepare the congregation for the next chapter. Everyone knows it’s temporary.”

Meanwhile, an interim “looks for dysfunction and can help the congregation grieve” at the loss of the previous pastor. “We really highly recommend people go through an intentional interim ministry,” says Vander Tuig.

Andy Kalhoff leads the call committee at Word of God Lutheran Church in Canby, Minnesota, six miles from the South Dakota border in southwestern Minnesota. He returned a call in the middle of a busy workday, coming down from the roof of a water-treatment plant in Marshall, Minnesota. “I guess that every congregation looks for the perfect minister,” he says. “We haven’t opened up our eyes and found the right one yet.”

The thing about independents is that they are indeed free to decide about the right one. They tend to be conservative. But what if a significant group within an otherwise conservative independent congregation wants to call a woman as pastor? Or someone openly gay?

Are these long shots? True. But never say never. The Lutheran mix is as rich as it ever has been.

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