“God is clearly at work through your life and ministry. But at this time we are pursuing other candidates for the position and wish you nothing but the best as you live out your gospel call.”
“You are so gifted for ministry, and we appreciate all your gifts. Our committee, however, feels your gifts aren’t the right fit for our church.”
“We have enjoyed our conversations with you, but we are going in another direction.”
“Our process is taking a little longer than we thought. We will be back in touch with you should we decide to go forward.”
“You are a very strong applicant. We regret that we aren’t the church for you at this time.”
Words you never want to hear . . . or read in an email. Rejection is never easy or fun, but rejection by a church’s search committee can be especially painful.
Let’s start at the beginning. Rejection comes in many forms and at various stages in the ministry search process. After years of conversations with unsuccessful ministry candidates, I think there are at least four stages of rejection during a search process.
Most everyone who has been involved in a search has encountered the first-level of rejection: Your resume is sent out to a church, and you hear nothing. No email. No phone call. No form letter. Nothing. The search committee never acknowledges receipt of your materials. The no-response rejection is incredibly frustrating, incredibly, incredibly frustrating. If you endure multiple such rejections, pesky questions about self-worth soon follow. “Was my resume so bad that the committee didn’t think I even deserved a form letter? Am I kidding myself in thinking that I am qualified to be a serious ministry candidate? Should I quit now and go work at Starbucks for the rest of my life?” No-response rejections are extremely discouraging.
The second-level of rejection is the immediate negative response. “Thanks for sending your resume. We are grateful for your interest, but we have moved in another direction.” The impersonal form rejection email or letter. This kind of rejection can also be discouraging, but there is relief in at least having an answer, knowing where you stand in the process.
The third-level of rejection happens after some investment by the candidate. You send in written responses to questions, or you participate in a Skype interview. Then comes the “We think you are great, but you aren’t the one for us.” Suddenly the rejection is no longer impersonal, and the pain runs deeper and lasts longer. At this point, you may experience self-doubt and question your abilities. “Were my answers all wrong? Did I come across as too shallow or too analytical? Were my answers too spiritual or not spiritual enough? Did I talk too much? Did I say too little? Am I not good enough, smart enough, experienced enough, or theologically astute enough?”
The final level of rejection is perhaps the most painful of all. You make it through to the final round. You have given this process your all, invested fully in sharing yourself, telling your story, creating a vision for your ministry at the church with the committee, and as a result, you are one of two or three final candidates. The committee promises to contact you in a week. The call doesn’t come. You wait. Then you wait some more. When the wait turns into three weeks, you realize that the answer is going to be no. Finally, the phone finally rings, and you know what is going to be said but hearing the words brings tears: “You are extremely gifted. Our committee was so impressed with your gifts, and many of us wanted for you to be the one, but in the end, we decided you aren’t the one after all. We are so disappointed.”
I have sat with and talked on the phone with many, many candidates who have experienced rejection. Here is what I usually say, “Rejection hurts. Go ahead and feel your feelings. Be sad. Be hurt. Be discouraged. Be angry.” Call a few trusted friends and ask them to just listen. Then vent all those feelings. Say out loud all the harsh words you are thinking. Speak the truth you are feeling. Cry and rant and cry some more. Do not do this with each and every friend you have and certainly not with every stranger you meet. Limit your venting to one or two, maybe three, people, but do it!
Once you have spent some time grieving the loss, prepare yourself to move on. Don’t get stuck in your grief. There is work yet to do if you are going to find a position, and you cannot stay in the sad, mad, terribly hurt mode for very long (and “very long” varies from person to person—I talked with a young minister who confessed that she cried for a full week after she got the rejection call, but then she said, “I finally got tired of being so sad and realized that I couldn’t sustain that kind of unhappiness for too much longer).
Eventually, you need to recognize that the rejection is not nearly as personal as it immediately felt to you when it happened. Remember that over the past few months, the committee has been talking to and spending time with a good number of candidates. At every level along the way, the committee has had to cut names from their list, and while they have done so prayerfully and thoughtfully, they have made hard decisions and moved on in the process. Now they are near the completion of their work, and they again have made a hard decision, one that eliminates you from consideration. In the end, the committee members together have chosen another candidate based on their desire to follow the leadership of the Spirit and their best understanding of what their church needs. For these committee members, their decision is not a rejection of you but a selection of someone else. While the committee’s decision seems really personal to you, try hard to remember this (and this won’t make you feel better at first, but after a while, you will realize it to be true): The committee’s decision is not a negative statement about your giftedness or your calling or even your validity as a minister. Indeed, the fact that you made it into their final round is a statement of their affirmation of you.
Rejection is never easy or fun, but it happens to most every minister. There is some comfort in knowing that you are not the first to be rejected. Others have walked through this dark valley before you, and because you know that rejection is likely to happen somewhere along the way, you need to surround yourself with supporters, encouragers, mentors, coaches, colleagues, and friends, who will listen to you and cry with you, cheer you on, and stand beside you on hard days. The search process is too emotionally and spiritually demanding for you to do it alone.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.