The Hardest Job You Will Ever Love: Serving on a Pastor Search Committee
To those who insist Scripture knows nothing about pastor search committees–or any other kind of committee for that matter–we respond, “Scripture was never intended to be a strait jacket hampering the movements and flexibilities of God’s family, but a light to our feet, nourishment to our souls, and the basis for all that we believe.” Anyone saying committees are not found in the Word might need to be reminded that neither are cushioned pews, stained glass windows, and toilet seats. But we have them and are glad to do so.
To friends newly assigned to serve on a pastor search committee, we say, “You can influence the direction of your church for generations to come by doing this job well. It’s a wonderful, scary assignment. So accept it gladly and go into it humbly.”
First, my credentials for speaking on the subject: In over 55 years of ministry, I have talked with a minimum of 100 pastor search committees. Some were in an advisory capacity but most were as the object of their inquiry at the moment. During one three-year period, I counted exactly 36 committees I’d had contact with. (Okay. I was in my early 30’s, on the staff of the greatest church in the state, and most of these contacts consisted of my telling the committee “thank you, but I’m right where the Lord wants me.”)
My suggestions for Pastor Searching….
One. Choose your chairperson well. The best choice is someone who is mature, wise, and gracious. The worst choice is someone with an overpowering domineering personality who has all the answers.
Two. Don’t get too large a committee. Six or eight is ideal.
Three. Seek advice. If your denomination has someone gifted and experienced in advising search committees, invite him/her to spend an hour with your team. The person will want to talk for 30 minutes, then answer questions for the balance of the hour.
Four. Go forward on your knees. Prayer should permeate everything you do. Get the church to praying for you. One church I knew would call one member of the search committee to the front and pray for him/her during the benediction. They did this every Sunday.
Five. Enlist one or two veteran pastors who are retired or in another line of ministry to serve as resources to your committee. After the committee has worked for a few months and read a hundred resumes and talked to numerous candidates, they will be ready for a visit from one of these veterans. The older man can help members understand resumes–what is being said, what is being left out–as well as the kinds of degrees which preachers often have (the difference in a Bible college and a seminary, or the difference in a D.Min and a Ph.D., for instance), and answer questions they have.
Six. Only after the committee has heard a couple of sermons from a pastor and decided they are interested in him, only then should you contact him. If he agrees to allow you to pursue this, you can make arrangements to visit in his church. Assuming that goes well, you may decide to visit with him and his wife. Then, assuming all is well, you start running references.
Seven. In running references listed on his resume’, ask the person, “Is there someone else we should talk to about Pastor Tom?” This individual may know of areas you need to be informed about, but which he/she does not feel free to speak about.
Eight. As your search continues with this one pastoral candidate, you will want to contact previous churches he served. Ask the present pastor to give you a name or two, people knowledgeable about that pastor. Also, contact previous staff members your candidate served with.
Nine. You’re not looking for perfection. You simply want to know who this person is, warts and all, as the saying goes. If all the references come back glowing–“He’s so wonderful!”–you’ve not looked long enough. Keep searching.
Ten. Do not ask the candidate’s wife if she plays the piano. Or if she will be teaching the older ladies’ Bible class the way the previous first-lady did. Simply say something like, “Mrs. Jane, please tell us a little about yourself.” And listen. (As chairman, I’d caution the committee ahead of time not to step into forbidden territory in interviewing the pastor’s wife. You are not calling her nor paying her a salary. She has every right to be her own person. Basically, you’re looking to know who she is and you want to know that she is supportive of her husband’s ministry.)
Eleven. Before you make a decision on the candidate, get his permission to run a background check. This should be standard with every person your church brings on staff. It involves a police check, credit check, etc. (There are legalities involved, I’m aware. So, get counsel from professionals on how to do this.)
Twelve. Tell the candidate the truth about your church and your community. Do not sugar-coat it or sound like a chamber of commerce brochure. (The committee will want to have a discussion on this subject early on.) I once had a committee from 500 miles away sit in my living room and open a notebook with photos and clippings about their church and their community. I found it most enlightening since I knew nothing about their city.
Thirteen. In your committee, decide in advance on questions not to ask of candidates. This may (or may not) include questions on lesser important doctrines or eschatology (“are your premillennial? post-millennial? pre-trib?”) or politics.
Fourteen. You will be listening to many sermons on the internet or from CDs the candidate sends you. The formula concerning these is this: Listening online may enable you to rule some candidate out, but you must not choose a pastor from listening to him online.
Fifteen. It should go without saying that you will be dealing with only one candidate at a time. Only after you have ruled out a candidate should you contact another pastor to initiate talks and interviews.
Sixteen. Once you have decided a pastor you’ve been dealing with is no longer a candidate, you must tell him. This can be by phone or letter, but never in any other way. Be gracious and appreciative. (If you did not contact the pastor, even though you considered him and talked about him in committee, there is no need to write a letter informing him that he is no longer a candidate.)
Seventeen. Once you have initiated contact with a pastor and he has agreed to become a candidate, do not drag out your dealings. Two or three months at the most should be plenty of time. If there are reasons for delaying the process, take the pastoral candidate into your confidence and tell him why. (Lay people often have no idea how these matters can upset a pastor’s home life. Will they be moving or staying here? Should the wife sign a contract to teach next year? Will the son or daughter be able to graduate with the class on time or will they be moving? The list is endless.)
Eighteen. Do not fall in love with a candidate too quickly. Do that and you will rush the process and omit some of the steps, and probably live to rue the day. Take your own good time to do all the background checks, to hear numerous sermons from this pastor, and to talk with him at least two or three times.
Nineteen. Do not let the congregation rush/panic you. Sure, they want a pastor in place, but not the wrong one. Better to take a year to find the one God is sending and he stay twenty years than to rush the process and bring in someone who tears up the church. Lay leaders (or other staffers) can help the congregation with this. Members should be told to go forward with their work. Nothing should be on hold “until a pastor is in place.”
Twenty. Have someone to check out the candidate’s social media activity. You will learn a hundred things about him by his tweets or Facebook posts.
Twenty one. When you and the pastor have reached an understanding that he is the one and you’re going forward with this recommendation, both the pastor and the committee should put in writing “Our Understanding.” Share it with church leaders to make sure everyone is on the same page. This will prevent misunderstandings in the future.
God bless you. Have fun with this. And may you do so well that for years afterwards, people will be coming up to you thanking you for “bringing Pastor Shawn to our church!” (I’m smiling as I type this. Fifteen years ago, I recommended Dr. Shawn Parker to the great FBC of Columbus, MS, and ever since members have been thanking me. As though I were responsible. He’s a wonderful pastor and I’m thrilled to have had a tiny part in God’s plan for his ministry.)
Photo Courtesy: Thinkstock