This is more or less part two of an article I wrote on this blog more than a year ago entitled Inside a Pastor Search.  Though I didn’t actually serve on the team, I did serve as their advisor, and I’ve observed the process on more than one occasion.  What I’ve learned, and observed, is that for many Baptist churches who pursue calling a pastor in this way, it is a miracle that they arrive at a conclusion and are successful in finding someone who meets their qualifications.  The average length of tenure of a pastor in a Baptist church may very well be an indication of the level at which this process is flawed and ineffective. 

There is a lot of talk at the beginning about prayer, seeking the Lord’s will and sense of direction, and following Biblical qualifications and directives.  At some point, in some cases, those elements may eventually make their way into the search, but only when they apply to a specific candidate that two or three of the search team members favor.  What usually happens is an acknowledgment at the beginning of the search that the team is “sticking to the Bible” with regard to the qualifications and set of spiritual gifts it desires to pursue in its next pastor, and then a departure from those qualifications in favor of more worldly standards that have crept in from the business and corporate world, blended with personal preferences. 

Generally, when the resumes begin coming in, and the team begins looking at them, there are several factors which become almost completely dominating in the search process, and none of them are really related to the Biblical role, calling or qualifications of the man called to be the elder, the overseer, the shepherd of the body of Christ.  The blending of generations on a pastor search team causes all of these factors to come to the surface, and also creates an atmosphere in which individuals from very different backgrounds, with different experience and different sets of spiritual gifts come to the top of the pile of hundreds of resumes. 

First, some members of the team are working under the conviction that the new pastor should be a younger man, with a nice family, in order to attract younger families to the church.  The very premise that it is the pastor who attracts members to the church is not derived from scripture, and laying this expectation on the shoulders of any pastor leads to an immediate deterioration of the “capital” he needs in a church in order to develop his ministry, but it sounds logical.  Of course, among the pile of several hundred resumes which eventually come to a pastor search team in a reasonably sized church with a full time pastor, there are going to be fewer than a dozen who fall into the “under 40” category, and fewer who fit the experience demands of the rest of the team members, but there will inevitably be a few candidates who will surface.  They will be the ones who have their seminary graduation face shot attached, showing a full head of hair and a broad smile with straight, white teeth.  If he’s photogenic enough, his lack of experience will be overlooked.

Second, in Southern Baptist circles, a deep voice and a southern accent are critical.  In evaluating preaching styles, content is, unfortunately, not nearly as critical a factor as presentation.  There is a very theatrical style that includes hand motions, voice inflections, specific pronounciations of specific words, a sprinkling of southern colloquial sayings, and for lack of a better way to describe them, pregnant pauses, that causes the super spiritual to say “Amen,” and provokes a reaction from even the most shy member.  The new thinline Bibles that Broadman and Holman produce come in handy, because the pastor can hold the scripture open to his text with one hand, fold back the cover and the preceding pages with the other, and wave it in the air without losing his spot or dropping it. 

Third, candidates which exhibit a relatively high level of what might be called panache, will inevitably come to the top of the pile.  I’ve seen this happen with virtually every search team I’ve ever observed, including the one that my father served on back in the late 1970’s.  It explains how a candidate who has pastored four or five churches in two decades, leaving each one of them smaller and with fewer financial resources than when he arrived, can still be one of the top contenders for the current opening.  A few conference phone calls, a personal interview, and the information on the resume and in the denominational record book is quickly forgotten. 

In recent years, there’s a new approach to the Baptist pastor search that has become very prominent and influential in the process.  There is now a lot of open campaigning for the job by the candidate himself, and far more “lobbying” on his behalf by his friends and associates than I have ever observed.  That has always been part of a pastor search.  In fact, in the past many churches got names of potential candidates by asking a denominational leader or an influential pastor for a recommendation, and of course, they were provided with a list of their closest friends and associates.  In fact, for a candidate to send a resume directly to a church with an open position was considered improper and self-promoting.  Now, I would guess that 95% of the resumes come to a church that way. 

It takes a while for a good search team to work through personal agendas and preferences, superficial appeal and self promotion to get down to the business of actually calling the pastor that is being spiritually directed and prepared to serve a particular congregation.  Some search teams never do.  As Baptists, we always resort to our use of terms like “God’s will” and “spirit led” to describe the end results, but I’ve been in vocational ministry for 30 years, and I know the code words that are used to convince people that the choice being made is the one God wants us to make.  It’s that short average tenure of a pastor in our denomination that leads me to believe the language at the end of the process is not always describing the conclusion that is reached. 

Friends who serve in ministry in other denominations have a difficult time understanding why we do things this way.  Frankly, so do I.  The fact that the process varies from church to church makes it even more baffling.  It doesn’t seem to be a very efficient process, and it is often not effective or satisfactory for either the church, or the pastor.  Most of my Baptist colleagues have multiple experiences with churches that they would call a mismatch, and most church members would agree that, over time, most of the ministers who have pastored or served their churches were not well suited for their particular position. 

There are churches, however, which are able to get beyond the superficial and the personal preferences, and come up with the individual they feel has been directed to their presence by God’s Holy Spirit.  Ultimately, I’m not sure whether I believe that there is just one person for the job, or that, in the church, most of those who are gifted and equipped for the ministry of equipping the saints and called to be the overseer could serve anywhere they happened to be planted at the time.  I don’t believe a church ever has to use language like “settling for their second choice,” if the first person they selected happened not to be available or turned down the opportunity.  That’s almost like limiting God’s sovereignty to circumstances.  The fact that individuals who do not have “penache,” who do not fit the image associated with a flashy smile, a dimple in the cheek, or a slick business suit, who are not well connected self promoters, and who are not “young” by the world’s standards not only make their way into church vocational service, but who more often than not are successful in it by the way God measures success would be an indicator that there is indeed something else at work here.  Maybe it happens when a team becomes so tired of looking at resumes and so weary of meeting together, watching videos, listening to DVD’s and visiting churches that they are ready for the process to end, and that’s when God can get past the worldly influences and go to work.  Maybe God’s sovereign will is always at work, even through the personal preferences and personal agendas that get brought to the table. 

It is pretty clear that, once on the job, if the search team bought the superficial image of the pastor candidate and that influenced their decision making process, it will not be long before the very real demands of the job cause him to either become completely dependent on the Holy Spirit, or to move on to the next place.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

4 responses

  1. Sam Swart says:

    Surely you’re not suggesting a Baptist hierarchy appoint ministers? I assume not, though you tend to sometimes sneak up on these momentous shifts in stance through multiple posts. The process you describe is messy and very Baptist. Like a lot of things we do, it’s flawed but in the final analysis a reasonable method for a lay led body of believers.

    Just as you question the authenticity of pulpit committees claiming to rely on the Holy Spirit, I sometimes question ministers who invaribly feel ‘called by God’ to accept higher paying positions at more prestigious churches. How come God never leads one these superstar preachers back down to a small struggling church in need of a superstar?

    • Lee says:

      Oh no! The last thing we need would be a Baptist heirarchy to make pastor selections. That would virtually insure that the games which are played around prestige, prominence, influence, celebrity status and “penache” would become standard practice in who gets which pulpits. I really think the answer lies in getting the search team educated and committed to the process before they start flipping through resumes in an intentional process that may last eight to ten weeks before they even look at a potential candidate, and perhaps even in the way the search team is selected by the church. In our situation, the chairperson kept the team on track, and the diversity of age and life experience on the team kept it from reaching unanimity on the candidates who had a flair for self-promotion or a particular “celebrity” kind of style. In the long run, the diversity was what more or less pushed them to a candidate whose basic set of spiritual gifts and experience is suited to the church, who looked at the situation as it exists and saw potential for ministry, rather than a place to be comfortable until retirement, or big money. What surprised me was the number of resumes we got from candidates who were after a six figure salary and had a high list of demands in order to serve.

      This is only the third pastor search in our church in 34 years, and the combined tenure of the previous two pastors, very different men with very different ministries, but both very humble and very focused on service and not on their own comfort or advancement, would indicate that we’ve done something right. There was not a single search team member this time around who had ever done this before, which was also an advantage. Still, there were close moments when the “worldly” values seemed as if they would win out. Our most recent former pastor did indeed accept a smaller church, a struggling church plant that got off to a great start and then had a bad fall.

  2. Gary May says:

    I have been working on some research in this area and one of the surprises I found was in pastoral tenure. According to a study by Ellison research a few years ago, the average tenure of a Southern Baptist Pastor was 7.6 years. Of course the real tenure is all over the map from 2 weeks to 40 years. Even so, that figure continues to amaze most Southern Baptist When the subject comes up. My own study, which is yet to be released, appears to reinforce their findings. A bright spot on the horizon is the use of intentional interims and transitional pastors. The idea of relay successions and more thought toward inside successions could offer great measures of hope.

  3. treenthedesert says:

    The process isn’t much better as one who is looking for a church to serve either. I’ve received emails from churches that have said basically, “thanks for your interest…we are currently going through the 300 resumes we have received…”
    Needless to say that I’ve quit sending resumes.
    Other times it has felt like an American Idol competition where you go preach, knowing that there was another candidate the week before and will be another after you, and it is based on their impression, or if you “spoke” to them.
    (Lee the part about them looking for a young, under 40, with a young family, is really hard to overcome if your a 41 year old, bachelor with more secular experience than church ministry.)
    Another interesting footnote that I have found interesting is to see on the seminary placement site is to see churches with 30 people wanting full time, seminary degree, and 5-10 years experience. :/
    But overall, I have to agree, the method is not at all perfect. And having a “bishop” like the Methodist, appoint pastors isn’t any better. (grew up with that-9pastors in 10yrs). But if our association DOMs would get involved with pastorless churches and give some training on what, how, and who (as in character, gifting, etc.) to look for in a pastor.
    Thanks Lee for the insight on the other side of the process.
    Blessings, Aaron L.