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Pastor Search Committee; Pastor Seeking Committee; Pastor Nominating Committee

Advice for Pastor Search Committees

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2009 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

Advice for Pastor Search Committees: An Introduction

Part 1 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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For some odd reason, these days I seem to have several friends who are serving on church committees charged with seeking a new pastor. They have asked me, not only for suggestions of potential pastoral candidates, but also for any advice I might have for them and their committees. In this blog series I want to collect and share a few of my thoughts about pastor search committees and what might make them successful. I realize that this series won’t be directly relevant to many of my readers. But you may know people who are in the midst of a pastor search. Or you might want to read this series out of curiosity, or to prepare for your own future service on a committee.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we call such committees “Pastor Nominating Committees” because their goal is to nominate a candidate for a pastoral position. Only congregations in the PC(USA) have the authority to call a new pastor (with concurrence of their presbytery, the local governing body). But I’m calling this series “Advice for Pastor Search Committees” because it will be more easily understood by Christians from various denominations and independent churches. For the most part, what I want to share is not relevant only to Presbyterians. (Obviously, if you’re in a church where pastors are assigned by bishops with no input from congregations, or where pastors pick their own replacements, this series won’t be especially relevant to you. But even bishop-led denominations often rely on pastor search committees to assist in the calling of pastors.)

I mentioned that I have several friends on pastor search committees. One obvious reason for this is that my former church now has such a committee in place in order to find my successor. It’s no surprise that several of my friends are on this committee. But I also have a number of friends and acquaintances from other churches who are on pastor search committees. Some of these have asked for my counsel about their process as a committee. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I grew up and where I served on staff for seven years, is looking for a new senior pastor.)

What I offer in this series is not meant to be some sort of definitive guide for a search committee. Rather, I want to share some random ideas in the hope that these may be helpful to my friends, and perhaps also to others who are in the pastor seeking process.

My advice here is based on a number of things. First, I’m reflecting on my own experience serving as a member of a pastor search committee. Four times while I was senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church is was a member of such a committee as we were looking for associate pastors. (Different presbyteries have different expectations for pastors. Los Ranchos Presbytery required me to serve on the associate pastor search committees.) I have more limited experience as the person being sought by a committee. Only twice have I had more than an initial phone call with a pastor search committee (once with Irvine and one other time). But I have spent lots and lots of time throughout my life listening to pastors and members of search committees. I have watched search processes that have been successful. And I’ve watched those that have failed. (A successful search, in my opinion, produces a pastor who serves fruitfully in a church for at least five years.) So, what you’ll get in this series is the compilation of my experience and that of many others.

A Word for Individual Committee Members

Before I get to my first bit of advice for committees as a whole, I want to say a word for individual committee members. Most folks join pastor search committees because they care deeply about their church and its future, and they want to help their church to have a good pastor. They see the committee process, therefore, primarily as a task that will lead to a positive result for the church.

This perspective is fine, and substantially true. But I want to suggest another dimension of serving on a pastor search committee. It has to do with the individual member’s spiritual growth. Over the years I have heard from many people that serving on a pastor search committee helped them to grow significantly in their faith. Such growth is a result, in part, of members gathering on a regular basis to talk about the kingdom of God and its implications for their lives. Also, growth comes because committee members tend to spend much more time in prayer during a search process as they pray with the group and on their own. Then there’s the whole matter of trusting God. Given how much rides on the decision of a pastor search committee, members often feel overwhelmed. They find that they have to trust God more than ever, and such reliance on the Lord is essential to spiritual growth.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting that somebody should volunteer to serve on a pastor search committee primarily as a means to grow in Christ. The first motivation should find the right pastor for their church. But, if you’re ever on a search committee, I’d encourage you attend to what God is doing in your life through the process. How are you being challenged? Encouraged? Stretched? Reassured? How might you be different at the end of the process, by God’s grace?

In my next post I’ll offer up my first piece of advice for committees. Stay tuned . . . .

Seek First the Kingdom of God

Part 2 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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In my last post I began a series for pastor search committees. Today I begin offering some bits of advice for those who are charged with seeking a new pastor for their church.

My first word of counsel will sound familiar: Seek first the kingdom of God. As you may know, this is a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:33). Jesus was not advising pastor search committees in this sermon, but his exhortation to seek first the kingdom is, in my view, both relevant to and essential for such committees. In fact, I think it should be their #1 priority.

I know this language will be confusing to some people, especially if you tend to think of the kingdom of God as Heaven, or as some blessed state of affairs on earth, or as an internal feeling of peace. None of these captures Jesus’ meaning of the kingdom of God, however. (If you’re interested in my long answer to the question “What is the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus?” please see my series What Was the Message of Jesus?.)

Here I’ll give a short answer to that question. The kingdom of God is God’s reign over all things, including ourselves. Thus it is not primarily a place (Heaven, Israel) or a state of affairs (universal justice) or a feeling (peace), but God’s sovereign rule. Where individuals on a pastor search committee seek first the kingdom of God, they commit to discovering and doing God’s will above all else. They surrender their personal desires and preferences. They are able to pray, truly, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” (Photo: Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1990, when I first started talking with their pastora search committee.)

Similarly, when a committee determines to seek first God’s kingdom, they agree together to pursue God’s will for their church and for their new pastor. Now, in most cases, pastor search committees have agreed to follow certain guidelines, perhaps their denominational polity or the results of a church mission study. I’m not suggesting that committees should disregard these sources of direction. But I am saying that they should give God first place, believing that he will work through their particular process if they are eagerly seeking his will.

If pastor search committees seek first the kingdom of God, they will also broaden their vision of what their church needs in a pastor. They will be less inclined to search for a manager who will maintain the status quo, or a caregiver who will help congregational members “feel the love.” Rather, a kingdom seeking search committee will look for a pastor who can lead their church forward in the soul-saving, world-transforming, community-building, creation-healing mission of God. (See my series: The Mission of God and the Missional Church.)

This bit of advice for pastor search committees – Seek first the kingdom of God – gets first place in my series not only because Jesus said it, and not only because Jesus said it was to take first place, but also because a healthy and productive search process needs this sort of individual and corporate commitment. Committee members, as normal human beings, begin the search process with their own dreams and desires, priorities and prejudices. Many of these may indeed reflect God’s own purposes. But it’s likely that at least some do not. Only when committee members surrender their agendas to God’s agenda will they be ready to find the pastor whom God has chosen for their church.

Before I move on, I should mention a couple of implications of the “seek first the kingdom” principle. One is that members of search committees should, in general, not have close relationships with potentially strong candidates. For example, in one of the associate pastor searches in which I was involved at Irvine Presbyterian Church, we had an “internal” candidate for the position (a member of our church who was eligible for and interested in the open position). One member of our search committee was one of this inside candidate’s best friends. Not only was it impossible for him to be objective about the search, but also it almost killed him when, in the end, he felt compelled to vote not to call his friend. In fact, this man ended up leaving our church because the committee experience had been such a difficult one for him emotionally.

A second implication of the “seek first the kingdom” principle is that members of pastor search committees should be people who are already seeking God first in their lives. A pastor search committee is not a place for immature Christians to grow up in the Lord, even though, as I have already written, most committee members will, in fact, grow considerably in their faith through the committee process.

Tomorrow I’ll press on to the next point.

Pray Without Ceasing

Part 3 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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Today I continue to offer some advice for pastor search committees. And today, like yesterday, my counsel is a brief quotation from Scripture. Yesterday I urged pastor search committees to “Seek first the kingdom fo God” (Matt 6:33). Today’s exhortation comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.”

Of course this is something all Christians should do, both on the basis fo common Christian sense and in response to the clear teaching of Scripture. “Pray without ceasing” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything other than kneel before God in prayer for all of your waking hours. Rather, it involves staying in consistent communication with God, keeping the channel open at all times. If you tend to stop praying when you say “Amen,” then perhaps you should stop saying “Amen” rather than stopping your prayers.

Although all Christians should learn to pray without ceasing, this practice is especially helpful to pastor search committees. Why? To begin, prayer helps us to seek first the kingdom of God. When we come before the King of kinds, when we remember his greatness and holiness, we find it hard to hang onto our own agendas. Yes, I know that we generally approach God with our own needs and wishes. Indeed, Scripture invites us to do this very thing. But as we pray, as we spend time with God in prayer, as we allow the Spirit to pray through us, we discover that our grip on our will loosens as our desire for God’s will increases. Thus, in prayer, we find an increased desire to seek first God’s kingdom.

For this reason and for others, it’s essential that pastor search committees spend ample time in prayer together. Opening and closing each meeting with prayer are good starting points. But sustained group prayer will help a committee to seek God’s kingdom together. Moreover, such prayer fosters spiritual unity, a crucial quality of a health search committee. In the context of a committee meeting, you may engage in a heated conversation with another member. This can lead to division and anger. But if you both come together in humble prayer, with the support and accountability of the other committee members, you’ll find your differences shrinking and your anger subsiding. After prayer, it will be much easier to apologize and forgive.

Search committee members should pray, individually and together, for each aspect of the search process. When it’s time to consider applicants, each individual should be lifted before God in prayer. Committee members can ask, not only for God’s guidance for themselves, but also for those being considered for the position, that they might know and do God’s will.

Given all the work search committees – and there is plenty of it! – some folks may be tempted to shortchange prayer. But this is risky, indeed. Perhaps the best argument for spending extended time in prayer comes from the example of Jesus himself. As you may recall, before he selected his disciples, he spent the whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12-16). (Wouldn’t you love to eavesdrop on that prayer!) The way I figure it, if the sinless Son of God spent so long in communication with the Father before choosing those who would minister in his name, surely we ought to devote ourselves to prayer when we’re seeking a pastor. (Photo: Christ Praying in Gethsemane by Heinrich Hoffmann)

Times of personal and corporate prayer can be enriched through reflection on Scripture that leads into and gives shape to prayer. You might, for example, begin a time of prayer with a slow reading of Psalm 97, letting your prayers focus on the kingly reign of God. Or you might let the story of the call of Moses at the burning bush become the holy ground of your prayer.

Although most pastor search committees will not (and should not) function as a primary support group for members, committees will be strengthened if the members prayer for each other, both in group time and when they’re apart. There is a danger, here of letting personal sharing consume too much corporate time. But if members support each other in prayer, group cohesiveness will be increased.

Finally, as the search committee begins to focus upon a few strong candidates, prayer for each of these people is essential. Many times (almost always?) candidates are wrestling with god on their own. They’re confronting their own “demons” of fear, ambition, pride, inferiority, etc. They need God’s help, not only to discern his will about their particular calling, but also to grow more deeply in relationship with him.

The season of my life when I was considering coming to Irvine Presbyterian Church was one of the most spiritually challenging of my life. I was struggling with more than the question of whether God wanted me to take a particular position or not. This was a time of defining who I was and what was my life’s purpose. I was wrestling with God over the issue of trusting him. How grateful I am that the members of the Irvine search committee were praying for me as I found myself in a lion’s den of confused emotions and perceptions.

To be continued . . . .

Nurturing Openness and Avoiding Exhaustion

Part 4 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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So far in this series I’ve served two morsels of advice for pastor search committees:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.

2. Pray without ceasing.

Today I’ll add two more morsels to the list.

3. Be open to God’s surprises

Most search committee members begin the process of seeking a pastor with an image of the kind of person they’re seeking. Often this image is colored by their perceptions of the previous pastor (if there was one). If they liked that pastor, they’ll tend to envision someone quite similar. If they didn’t like that pastor, they’ll imagine someone quite different, often an idealized version of some former pastor. Sometimes committee members start with somebody like the former pastor in mind, only without that pastor’s perceived weaknesses. Perfect pastor here we come!

I don’t think it’s wrong for search committee members to begin with a picture in mind of their next pastor. But if you’re serving on a search committee, don’t let this image keep you from being open to something or someone unexpected. In many cases, committees end up being led by the Spirit to someone who is not at all what they at first anticipated.

Take, for example, the committee that brought me to Irvine Presbyterian Church. Not surprisingly, they began by looking for someone quite a bit like my predecessor, Ben Patterson. They wanted a strong preacher and leader, a person committed to Christ and to prayer. They also envisioned someone who, like Ben at his time of departure, had senior pastor and parental experience. (Ben had four children and had been Irvine’s senior pastor for fourteen years.) The committee that eventually nominated me was not expecting to call someone who was only 33 years old, who had been an associate pastor for just three years, and who didn’t have children. Yet, because the committee was open to God’s surprises, they came to believe that I was the surprise. And, looking back at my sixteen years of ministry at Irvine Pres., I would say that the committee rightly discerned God’s will, both for the church and for me. (Photo: Ben Patterson, Lloyd Ogilvie, and me at my installation as pastor of Irvine Pres.)

4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), the process of searching for a new pastor usually takes at least a year. It can take twice as long if the search committee is also responsible for doing a large-scale mission study as the first part of the discernment process. Furthermore, unlike ordinary church committees, pastor search committees meet often, perhaps even weekly. During certain seasons of committee work, members are also busy on weekends, visiting the churches of potential candidates or hearing them preach in “neutral” pulpits. (“Neutral” means “not the candidate’s home church and not the committee’s home church.”) Of course most committee members have a life outside of committee work. When you put all of this together, you have a formula for exhaustion, and exhaustion can lead to unhappy results.

I have seen this sort of thing happen several times in churches, and I experienced it once myself. Years ago, I was part of a search committee for an associate pastor. We worked long and hard for many, many months. As we neared what we had hoped would be the end of our labors, we had two decent candidates. But neither one really seemed quite right. Nevertheless, after so much effort, we just couldn’t face the possibility of starting from scratch. Se we ended up deciding upon a particular candidate, even though we all had some reservations. The result was a dismal one both for this individual and for our church. As I look back on our search committee process, I’m convinced that our exhaustion led us to make an unwise decision. In fact, I think physical, mental, and emotional tiredness weakened our ability to think clearly.

So what can a search committee do to avoid letting exhaustion negatively influence both the committee process and the result? First, if all members of the committee are aware that the road ahead will be a long and tortuous one, then they’ll be better prepared to keep on going when there’s no end in sight.

Second, the committee should help itself avoid exhaustion. Too many long and late meetings can add up. Sometimes a committee needs to take a break. Members should be especially attentive to exhaustion in themselves or in others.

Finally, I think it’s better for a committee to call nobody rather than to call the wrong person as a pastor. The pain and damage that come both to church and pastor when there’s a bad match should be avoided at all costs. If a committee comes up empty, it should take an extended break before beginning again. In some cases, a committee might even need to disband, and a new committee be formed. I know this sounds terrible. The good news is that, in most cases, search committees will come to a positive conclusion.

Represent Your Church Accurately

Part 5 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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So far in my series, Advice for Pastor Search Committees, I’ve suggested the following:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.
3. Be open to God’s surprises.
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.

Today I want to address an issue that I was going to cover later in the series. But one of the comments on last Friday’s post encouraged me to address this subject now. In that comment, Bill Goff told a story about an experience he had with a pastor search committee and the church they represented. Here are some excerpts:

When I interviewed with a committee in Colorado, they shared their aspirations to move the church forward, to develop the youth program including bringing on a youth pastor, and generally to reinvigorate the church. They were excited about the prospects of the church and positive about me. They saw me as someone who could bring the changes they wanted and they called me to be the pastor of the church. I began my ministry there trying to implement the wishes of the PNC only to discover that there was great opposition from the old guard of the church which had not been represented on the PNC. I also discovered that there was significant opposition to me from some members of the rather small Presbytery who had hoped to be called to this position. They were in contact with some members of the old guard and intentionally stirred up trouble for me. I left that church after less than two years as pastor. I think that if the PNC had been more candid with me about the deep divisions in the church, I may not have accepted their call or I may have approached my service there quite differently. Several years after I left the church, I had occasion to speak by telephone to the new pastor. I asked him how things were going. He said, “I’m going through hell.” About that time I received a booklet regarding the 100th anniversary of the church. As I read this history, it became apparent that from the beginning this church had consistantly given pastors a very hard time. This was an historic toxic church. I wish I had been warned

What advice would Bill offer to a pastor search committee in light of this experience? Be candid about the particular congregation to which you are calling a new pastor. I’ve put it this way: Represent your church accurately.

Thanks, Bill, for sharing this story so honestly. Unfortunately, as you know, your situation is not unusual. I have several pastor friends who experienced something very similar to what you describe. I suppose in some cases pastor search committees intentionally hide elements of church life that they fear might turn off potential pastors. But in many cases, the search committees truly mean well. They spend months praying for God’s vision for their church. In this process, they often get excited about their church’s potential. They see what God wants to do with them and are ready to get going. This is great. But search committees sometimes don’t realize just how far ahead they are getting of the congregation they represent. They are accurately in touch with God’s vision for their church. But they overlook the fact that most of the rest of the church, including many influential leaders, do not share their vision.

For example, a friend of mine was called to be the senior pastor of a church, in part, because he was young and the search committee wanted to reach out to young people in their community. The committee rightly sensed that their church was in danger of perishing because its membership was getting old and not being replenished with younger members. Moreover, the committee realized that the church would need to change in many ways if they were going to connect with younger people. So they brought my friend to their church with a clear vision of outreach and renewal. Unfortunately, the church wasn’t ready for any such thing. Most of the established lay leaders opposed the very changes that were necessary to reach younger people. My friend tried to do exactly what he had been called to do, but faced stern opposition and criticism. After a few frustrating years, he finally resigned.

Now if you’re on a search committee, the thought of being honest about your church’s foibles might seem counterproductive to you. You might wonder: “How will we ever get a good pastor if we air all of our dirty linen?” To this I would say: The right pastor for your church will not be scared away by the truth. In fact, this person will be impressed with the committee’s honesty and engaged by the genuine challenges facing the church. Moreover, the forthrightness of the committee will help prepare the new pastor for success, rather than failure owing to misperception of the real issues and challenges.

Notice that I’m encouraging committees to represent your church accurately. This means, of course, sharing the good things in addition to the bad. Moreover, it means embodying those plusses, not just talking about them. Years ago, when I was interviewing with the search committee of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I watched the members closely. I paid attention to how they treated each other, not just to what they said about how much they loved each other. What I say with my eyes more or less fit with what I heard. And it represented the congregation accurately. To be sure, in terms of vision, the search committee was years ahead of the rest of the church. I think the committee members underestimated how much work it would take to get the whole church ready to move forward in its mission. But, all in all, they did a fine job helping me to get ready for reality in Irvine Presbyterian Church.

Let me offer an example. One of the first things I heard from my search committee was the need to reach out to youth in the community. The youth ministry in 1991 was pretty small and dysfunctional. The high school group comprised about a dozen students, in spite of the fact that Irvine Presbyterian Church was located right across the street from a major high school. Two thousand high schoolers were within a couple hundred yards of the church campus. Many were parking their cars in the church parking lot. Yet we had contact with only a handful. So the committee and I talked at length about how I might strengthen our youth ministry as a top priority.

When I began my pastoral work, the committee’s zeal to reach students was shared by many in the congregation and lay leadership, but not all. I was unprepared for the negative responses I received from some of the parents of kids in the church. One father said to me, “If there are more high school kids here, then my son will get less attention. I want the group to stay small and intimate.” Yet, in the end, the church embraced its outreach to youth in Irvine. In fact, the dad who once opposed me so pointedly ended up being a strong supporter of our efforts to bring the good news to more students. (Photo: Friday Pizza lunch at Irvine Pres. When I left the church in 2007, we were hosting about 700 high schoolers every Friday for Pizza lunch. This ministry had been envisioned and was staffed almost entirely by lay leaders in the church.)

There’s something else my committee did to help me succeed in my pastorate at Irvine. I’ll address this in my next post.

Get The True “Downside” on Candidates

Part 6 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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So far in my series, Advice for Pastor Search Committees, I’ve suggested the following:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.
3. Be open to God’s surprises.
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.
5. Represent your church accurately.

Once again, I want to build today’s recommendation a comment submitted in response to a recent post. Yesterday I suggested to pastor search committees: Represent your church accurately. John Schroeder commented:

You know, this advice runs both ways. I know situations where a candidate’s info packet and even the advisory letters from former Presbyterys downplayed or even failed to mention a candidate’s foibles - leaving the church that ended up calling him with any number of easily avoided issues had honesty been the order of the day.

In other words, the church did not get what it bargained for. As a result I typically advise PNC’s to go “outside the loop” when they think they have a candidate they really like. That is to seek information about the candidate in ways not typically available inside the PC(USA) process.

John is absolutely correct. If I were writing this series for folks seeking pastoral positions, I would say: Represent yourself accurately. But since I’m currently writing for pastor search committees, I’d say, instead: Get the true “downside” on candidates.

I realize that doesn’t sound very nice, but it is essential. No potential pastor is perfect. Nobody does everything well. Everybody has weaknesses. Every candidate has a true downside. Committees need to know this, not only so that they can weed out candidates who wouldn’t be a good match for their church, but also so that their expectations are reasonable. Moreover, if a church is aware of the weaknesses of its new pastor, it can help provide support to work around those weaknesses. If, for example, the new pastor is a great preacher and kind caregiver, but somewhat disorganized, a church can work with the pastor to provide systemic personal and organizational support.

But it is hard for a search committee to get negative input on candidates. Nobody likes to say bad things about people. And these days, fear of lawsuits can keep people from saying negative things that really ought to be said. I’ve had legal experts encourage me to say almost nothing about people who used to work for me who didn’t work out. I’m supposed to confirm that they worked for me at such-and-such a job for a certain duration, and that’s about it.

So what’s a search committee to do? John Schroeder advises search committees to go “outside the loop,” that is, “to seek information about the candidate in ways not typically available inside the PC(USA) process.” I’d be interested to know some of these ways John recommends. I can think of a few. For one thing, when a search committee rep calls the list of recommenders, that person could ask for others that might be called. This can be delicate, however, because pastoral candidates are generally trying to keep their intentions secret. For another, a search committee should scrutinize a candidates resumé to look for potentially problematic items. For example, if a pastor has moved around a lot, this may well reveal problems in that pastor’s performance.

In my experience in the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the best channels of truthful information is what we Presbyterians call the Executive Presbyter. Other denominations have District Superintendents, Bishops, or similar roles. In our system, Executive Presbyters are the leaders of regional church structures. They tend to have a high level of mutual trust and openness. If an Executive Presbyter asks another Executive Presbyter about a potential candidate, the whole truth is generally told: the good, the bad, the ugly. I have found that input from Executive Presbyters can be extremely valuable.

I realize that what I’ve just said won’t be helpful to those who are in independent churches and the like. So let me note one other source of potentially crucial negative information on a candidate: the feelings of committee members. Yes, yes, this is quite subjective. And, yes, yes, sometimes committee members won’t be fair. But I have found, on the contrary, that search committees are often too fair to candidates. It is easy for a committee not to give sufficient weight to misgivings of committee members. (Photo: Should pastor search committees use one of those pain charts found in hospitals?)

For example, I have referred earlier in this series to a search committee on which I served. We were looking for an associate pastor. The person who ended up at the top of our list had many positive attributes. But several members of the committee just “had a bad feeling” about this person. They had a difficult time explaining this “bad feeling,” so, in the end, they were persuaded to call the candidate. Well, as it turns out, their “bad feeling” was 100% on target. In retrospect, I wish we had taken what they felt more seriously.

I realize that what I’ve said in this post could be abused. Sometimes committees are dominated by immature members whose feelings make a mess of things. And sometimes denominational officials haven’t been fully truthful. Perhaps some of my commentators will have some wise input on this matter.

Of course, if a committee is looking for the “perfect pastor,” it might well give too much weight to the “downside” of a given candidate. I’ll talk about this in my next post.

Realize That You Can’t Have It All

Part 7 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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To this point, my Advice for Pastor Search Committees includes the following:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.
3. Be open to God’s surprises.
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.
5. Represent your church accurately.
6. Get the true “downside” on candidates.

Today I’ll add a seventh point:

7. Realize that you can’t have it all.

What I mean is you can’t have the perfect pastor because such a being doesn’t exist . . . apart from Jesus, the Church's true Pastor. Unfortunately, Jesus rarely applies for church positions these days.

Search committees usually begin with great expectations. This is fine, just as long as they face reality. No pastoral candidate combines everything a church wants. You just won’t find somebody whose equally great at preaching, leadership, discipleship, and pastoral care. Every pastor will have strengths and weaknesses. Necessarily.

Of course this is true in any other field that requires people to have complex skill sets. In the NBA, for example, the best point guards won’t be the best centers, and vice versa. In the NFL, wide receivers would make poor linebackers. In business, those with ample creativity are rarely expert bean counters. Great salespeople often make poor managers.

So it is in pastoral work, and even more so when you consider the diverse tasks pastors are expected to perform. They need to be strong in the scholarly discipline of biblical study and in the field of oral communication. Pastors as preachers must be theological, practical, intellectual, and emotional. They are expected to be visionary leaders but also attend to pastoral and managerial details. Pastors are supposed to be tenderhearted with church members but tough when dealing with staff who are not doing their job well. Pastors should be present with the congregation and active in the community.

Not only is it rare, if not impossible to find a single person who is able to excel at all the tasks in a pastoral job description, but also you have a time prioritization problem. For example, it takes a substantial chunk of time to prepare a good sermon. I used to plan on devoting about twelve hours a week to sermon preparation. I know many pastors who need more time. My mentor, Lloyd Ogilvie, has said that a pastor needs to devote at least an hour of preparation for every minute of preaching. Unfortunately, many churches that want an excellent twenty-minute sermon aren’t willing to give their pastor twenty hours for preparation, unless that pastor is willing to work 60-70 hours a week. (Photo: Lloyd Ogilvie, one of the finest preachers in America in the last forty years)

If you’re on a search committee, and you’re looking for a senior pastor, and you want someone who is equally excellent in preaching, teaching, visionary leadership, management, discipleship, and pastoral care, you’re fooling yourself. And candidates who present themselves as equally competent in all these areas are fooling themselves, or trying to fool you, or both. I’m not suggesting that pastors can’t be fairly strong in all of these areas. But most visionary leaders are, by nature, not equipped to be excellent managers. And most outstanding preacher-teachers are not the best at pastoral care. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

If it’s true that you can’t have it all, then, obviously, pastor search committees need to work very hard on defining priorities. What do you really need in a pastor? What do you want, but are willing to give up if necessary? What are the essentials that must be in place if your new pastor is going to work out well in your church?

Years ago I was on a search committee for a high school director. This person would have been called a pastor in many church settings, but we were not seeking someone who was an ordained Presbyterian pastor. In the early stages of our search we came up with a long list of things we wanted in a youth leader. Some were clearly essential, like “A love for God and for kids.” Some were less so, like “The ability to speak a relevant foreign language.” At the end of our initial discernment process, the committee agreed that we needed our high school director to be strong as a guitar-playing worship leader. But, along the way, we found an outstanding candidate for the position who couldn’t play the guitar and couldn’t sing. (We’ll he could sing, but it wasn’t an especially pleasant experience for those nearby.) This candidate clearly fell short in a qualification that we had deemed essential. But we realized that we didn’t need him to be a musician/worship leader so much as we needed him to be someone who could recruit musician/worship leaders to work alongside him in ministry. So we called him to the church. And, before long, he had helped to build a strong worship-leading band.

In sum, I believe that search committees can’t have it all when it comes to pastoral candidates. (Likewise, I believe there are no perfect churches, by the way. Candidates need to be realistic, too) If committees recognize this, then they’ll work hard to define what is really essential in their next pastor. Moreover, they’ll be ready to be realistic in calling a new pastor, and in helping their church get ready for their new pastor to thrive.

Don’t Swing Too Far on the Pendulum

Part 8 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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I’m going to wrap up this series today, at least for now. As always, I reserve the right to come back to this subject in the future.

So far, I’ve suggested that pastor search committees should:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.
3. Be open to God’s surprises.
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.
5. Represent your church accurately.
6. Get the true “downside” on candidates.
7. Realize you can’t have it all.

Today I offer this bit of advice:

8. Don’t swing too far on the pendulum.

The pendulum of which I speak is that of change. In particular, I’m recommending that pastor search committees do not overreact to the weaknesses of the preceding pastor, thus swinging way too far out on the pendulum of change.

I’ve seen it happen too many times. To cite one example, about ten years ago I watched a church call a new senior pastor. The preceding pastor, a man I’ll call Vince, had been a fine teacher/preacher and an expert in pastoral care. But he was an abominable administrator. In fact, he didn’t even pretend to have administrative gifts. He left that to others on the staff along with some gifted lay leaders. Under Vince’s leadership, the church grew in size and in depth. But when he moved on, the search committee saw an opportunity to call a pastor with more administrative ability and interest. They intentionally sought such a pastor. The person they found, whom I’ll call Eric, was a decent preacher and an outstanding administrator. He was not especially strong in pastoral care, but he had done well in his previous church, which thrived under his leadership. So the search committee called Eric as the new pastor of their church, convinced that he would be outstanding.

No doubt you can see where this story is going. Eric’s time at the church was a train wreck. The congregation missed Vince’s strong preaching and teaching. The staff and lay leaders of the church were not at all ready for Eric’s administrative leadership. And everybody missed the highly personal care they had received from Vince. Though Eric did exactly what he had been told was needed at the church – provide visionary leadership – he found that few wanted to follow him. He lasted a couple of years in the church, years that were painful for all concerns.

I’m glad to say that the next time around, the search committee for this church took a more balanced approach. They called a pastor, Jim, who was a strong preacher, much as Vince had been. Jim was a solid administrator, but not as assertive as Eric had been. Jim was also strong in pastoral care, though not as involved in the lives of the congregation as Vince had been. In sum, Jim was more administratively capable than Vince, but much more like Vince than Eric had been. His tenure at the church has been a positive and productive one.

Sometimes search committees err by looking for someone just like the preceding pastor. Sometimes they err by looking for someone way too different. In my opinion, committees need to evaluate very carefully the positive impact of the former pastor. If, for example, that pastor was a strong preacher, chances are that the congregation values preaching highly, and will need the next pastor to be a strong preacher as well. The same would be true for other pastoral qualities: visionary leadership, management, discipleship, pastoral care, evangelism, program organization, etc. I’m not meaning to imply that the new pastor should be just like the old one, whatever this might mean. But that which the congregation most valued in the former pastor certainly shouldn’t be a weak suit for the next pastor.

Sometimes the pendulum swing isn’t so much about pastoral abilities as it is about vision or mission. If a former pastor was perceived as being too evangelistic, thus neglecting care of the flock, the committee might be tempted to call a pastor who paid too little attention to evangelism. Or if a former pastor is perceived to be too conservative theologically, the committee might overcompensate by seeking someone too liberal for the church. Or of the predecessor is believed to have been too old, the committee might seek someone too young. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Of course if the former pastor had serious moral problems, then a search committee should go ahead and take a big swing on the pendulum. If, for example, the last pastor was dishonest, it’s absolutely right to seek a new pastor who is impeccable when it comes to honesty. I’m not suggesting that committees look for pastors who are mostly truthful, or mostly faithful to their spouses, or mostly legal in their approach to finances. When it comes to matters of moral character or theological orthodoxy, committees are well advised to be uncompromising.

I’ve already dealt with the problem of committees who think they can have it all. Naively, they want someone with all of the strengths of the predecessor, and none of the weaknesses. This is a formula for disaster. Once again, I’d recommend that committees work extremely hard on discerning the pastoral strengths that are most essential for their church. This kind of realistic evaluation will enable the committee to seek and, by God’s grace, to find a pastor well-suited to their congregation.