EN article: Qualified for the role?

I have been asked to write a regular column for Evangelicals Now. The latest article (my original, unedited version) is below.

I was faffing around on Twitter (as you do) and made a startling discovery. Somebody has seen fit to give Richard Madeley an ‘agony aunt’ column. I won’t shame the paper that thought this a good idea, but the mind boggles. This is a man so gauche that many believe him to be the inspiration behind Alan Partridge. To give him a column designed to help people with real life problems – albeit a vulgar form of its own – feels, on the face of it, like a hiring misstep.

Of course, the more cynically minded of us feel we know better. The paper is not unaware of Madeley’s inglorious track record. It’s hard to believe they really think he is the man to dole out carefully crafted, helpful advice. But Madeley is a man so prone to gaffes that he draws crowds. But the crowds aren’t keen to hear him dispense his wisdom, they wait expectantly for him to say something so exceptionally insensitive and crass you forget he is not a comic creation, but a real man who seems to believe he is hired for his incisive interview technique. And that only makes the whole thing even funnier.

Now, you may wonder what that can possibly have to do with the church. But how many elders and pastors have you met and wondered, ‘who thought that was a good appointment?’ Now, I’m an independent and believe in the independency of the local church. So, it’s not my place to police who other churches appoint. But much as it’s not my place to tell a national newspaper who to hire, it doesn’t stop people looking on and thinking, ‘you hired HIM to do THAT!’

Sadly, it is rare to meet pastors who are excellent at both preaching and personal pastoral work. There are some; they’re just not the norm. Usually, you get the sense that someone got their job mainly on the strength of their preaching or their personal pastoral work. But just occasionally, you meet those who seem terrible at both and wonder how on earth they got the job (I am painfully conscious of the glass house in which I am standing right now).

But in those latter circumstances, there is often something else going on. Just as the paper hiring Richard Madeley to do an agony aunt column has an ulterior motive behind the appointment, so the church who appoints the pastorally inept, less than excellent preacher almost certainly has other things going on too. The question is, what could be underlying such an appointment? Let me land on a few possibilities.

Sometimes, historical issues sway the decision. The church may have suffered in some way. Perhaps difficult issues arose in the church. Maybe a previous pastor left a sour taste in the mouth. Whatever the specific issue, people are sometimes appointed because they don’t look like they’ll repeat the painful episode. Or, if not that, they won’t be opening up any inquests into what happened and won’t be calling anybody culpable. The preaching and pastoral work take a significant hit but they are viewed as collateral damage of the historic problem.

Other times, the problem stems from a poor recruitment process. We think it’s credible to invite somebody to preach two or three times, we get the gist of their views, and that’ll do. We simply don’t reckon that we need to spend much longer with someone, seeing them in different settings and how they engage with a variety of people. Sometimes we get lucky and appoint somebody great, but we often wonder why our process – which is less than robust – doesn’t yield best results.

Last, and perhaps more common than we like to think, we just don’t know what good ministry looks like. We all know churches that think their minister a great preacher. So, we turn up to hear them only to wonder if the pastor wasn’t ill, on holiday or having a bad day as we try to make head nor tail of how that could be deemed quality. Given the frequency with which this happens, we can only assume many of us don’t know what good ministry should look like. The same goes for pastoral work. We kind of think we know what it should look like, but we’re so often conditioned by whatever we’re used to and, sadly, many of us seem used to what isn’t much cop.

So, what’s to be done? How do we avoid Madeley-style appointments? We need to be swayed by a Biblical understanding of good preaching and pastoral ministry. We need to have recruitment processes that are credible – viewing a man in the round, looking at more than a couple of perfunctory sermons. And, most importantly, we need to have a real grasp of what quality ministry really looks like. We shouldn’t simply settle for a guy who will fill half an hour by speaking slowly in a special church voice.