My wife and I were being shown around town by two ladies who were members of their church's committee assigned to locate and sign-up the next pastor for that congregation. I will never forget something Jane said from the front seat where she was driving.
"I told our committee, 'I want us to bring in a handsome pastor, someone who will look good behind our pulpit.'"
Had she slapped me, the blow would not have hurt more.
That shallow assessment of what they needed in the next pastor turned out to be rather symbolic of where most of the committee stood.
How does that old line go: "Too late smart, too soon dead."
Most search committees, I want to assert with no evidence at all other than my own convictions, do not take that superficial an approach to their task. Most of them--at least in their own minds and hearts--really do want to find the person God has chosen for their church.
Just as long as God's person is a male, between the ages of 35 and 50, with a doctor's degree from somewhere official-sounding, and with a beautiful wife by his side who clearly adores him.
Sorry for the little cynicism there. I'm really not disparaging what they do. Most committees, once they find "the" person, even if it's not what they originally set out for, are willing to change their requirements and go for it. That's why sometimes a committee will bring in a 27-year-old as pastor and sometimes a 70-year-old. Sometimes they decide this preacher is so fine the absence of a doctorate is not that big a deal. And once in a while, all requirements are jettisoned and they really do go "outside the box."
All that being said, there is one huge reminder which needs to be passed along to pastors now at the point in their ministry where they are courting search committees.
Here is what the pastor search committee is looking for when they visit your church.
1. The committee is looking for evidence God has His hand on you.
That could be indicated in a hundred ways: the power of the sermon, the strength and freshness of your announcements or casual remarks, the way you lead the total worship experience, or even your greeting before or after the service.
In the car on the drive back home, someone in the back seat will volunteer that, "I just felt the Lord there today." Or not.
2. The committee is looking for signs of a healthy church.
The only way they have of anticipating the kind of ministry you would have in their church is by looking at the congregation you're presently leading. They look at the finances, the attendance, the appearance of the buildings from the outside (what realtors call "curb appeal"), and the general mood of the congregation as they arrive and depart. They take the worship bulletin home with them and study it closely for signs.
3. The committee is listening for God to speak through your sermon.
Now, some will have a narrow definition of what that means. They will have been conditioned by their previous pastor to believe all sermons must be expository or topical, timely or timeless. Nothing you can do will change their expectations. What you can and should do is focus on being true to the Lord, the message He laid on your heart, and to yourself.
Others--hopefully most--are more open to God's voice to be heard in any way He pleases. This is something not measurable, not quantifiable. Committee members will speak of whether they "felt" God or not.
4. The committee is trying to decide on the character of the man in the pulpit.
Do they like you? Do you come across as someone they can trust? If you tell a joke that disparages women or relate something which puts your wife in a bad light, that is one search committee you can forget about. They'll not be back.
If you are desperate and change your style in order to impress your visitors, they will know it. Don't do it.
Be yourself. Otherwise, if they end up calling you as pastor and you are not the person they thought you were, nothing good will come from it.
5.The committee is studying your congregation.
Fair or not, they want to know who makes up your membership. They wonder if the people are supportive of your ministry. Do they value your preaching and follow your leadership? When you open the Word, do they open theirs? Do you claim their whole-hearted attention?
Are the people in your pews discerning? Could they tell heresy if they heard it? Do they appreciate and encourage depth in sermons?
6. The committee is looking at your church plant.
Is the bathroom clean? Do the walls need a fresh coat of paint? Do the front steps need the leaves cleared off?
No one expects the pastor to clean toilets, paint walls, or sweep steps. But a clean building reflects well on the organization a pastor has put in place. Likewise, a poorly maintained campus says his mind is not on the job.
7. The committee has something else in mind too. But only they know what it is.
One committee I dealt with years ago was being guided by the unseen hand of their recently retired pastor. He was on a fundamentalist kick and was seeing liberals behind every tree. When the committee asked for my views on the Bible, sensing what they were searching for, I refused to play the game. I used every strong word in my vocabulary to testify to my love for, belief in, and commitment to the Bible as God's Word. Every word except the one they wanted: "Inerrant." And true to form, the old man assured his spies on the committee that I was dangerous and they moved on. In so doing, they saved us both many a headache and heartache.
When David Uth was pastoring the First Baptist Church of West Monroe, LA, a committee from the First Baptist Church of Orlando came calling. As they drove around the city the night before, they found it unimpressive. One man said, "I don't think there's anything for us here."
Another man said, "Let's give him a chance. In fact, I've laid out a fleece. If the preacher uses the word 'mission' tomorrow, that will be a sign to me that we are to go further with him."
What these people had no way of knowing was that each year, Dr. Uth prayerfully chose one word as the theme of his ministry for the coming year. And, this being the first Sunday of the year, his one-word-theme for that Sunday morning's sermon was "Mission."
David says the Orlando committee which entered their church hoping to hear "mission" spoken once, heard it a hundred times in that sermon.
He is enjoying a fruitful ministry in Orlando, by the way.
And so, pastor, you're anticipating that committee from Bigtown next Sunday? May I pass along a suggestion or two? First, stay on your knees and close to the Father. Seek to please Him above all. Second, go over that sermon repeatedly so you will know it so well, the distraction of distinguished guests in the worship center will be no hindrance to you. And third, pull together a small team and walk over your campus to make sure it's clean, attractive, and welcoming to all visitors.
Come to think of it, do those things every week. You might begin enjoying your ministry so much, you'll want to stay right where you are and tell the Bigtown committee is keep on going. (It's a wonderful feeling to be in your rightful place and know it.)
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About Joe McKeever
Joe McKeever says he has written dozens of books, but has published none. That refers to the 1,000+ articles on various subjects (prayer, leadership, church, pastors) that can be found on his website -- joemckeever.com -- and which are reprinted by online publications everywhere. His articles appear in a number of textbooks and other collections. Retired from "official" ministry since the summer of 2009, Joe stays busy drawing a daily cartoon for Baptist Press (www.bpnews.net), as an adjunct professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, writing for Baptist MenOnline for the North American Mission Board, and preaching/drawing/etc for conventions and churches across America. Over a 42 year period, McKeever pastored 6 churches (the last three were the First Baptist Churches of Columbus, MS; Charlotte, NC; and Kenner, LA). Followed by 5 years as Director of Missions for the 135 SBC churches of metro New Orleans, during which hurricane katrina devastated the city and destroyed many churches. Joe is married to Margaret, the father of three adults, and the proud grandfather of eight terrific young people. He holds degrees from Birmingham-Southern College (History, 1962), and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (Masters in Church History, 1967, and Doctorate of Ministry in Evangelism, 1973). Joe's father was a coal miner who married a farmer's daughter. Carl and Lois McKeever, both of whom lived past 95 years of age, produced 6 children, with Joe and Ronnie being ministers. Joe grew up near Nauvoo, Alabama, and attended high school at Double Springs. Joe's life verse is Job 4:4, "Your words have stood men on their feet."
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