The process took 18 months. The previous pastor was here for 16 years, his predecessor for 14, so a lengthy search was anticipated. However, I can honestly say that the length of time wasn’t necessarily connected to the length of the previous pastor’s tenure. There was a learning curve, an a process that the search team had to go through before they were ready to make a choice. Once they got to the point of readiness, the search itself took just a few weeks.
In the free church tradition, especially among Baptists in America, the reality of the situation should affirm for us that the job we are doing in calling and supporting pastors in our churches is mediocre at best. On the average, a Baptist church forms a search team and spends a large amount of its time seeking a pastor every 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years. Among seminary graduates who indicate they are preparing for pastoral service in the churches, one fourth of them serve fewer than two churches and drop out of ministry after less than a decade, and more than a third drop out of ministry service altogether by the time they reach retirement. Does that sound like the process of calling a pastor in most churches involves the leadership of the Holy Spirit and the divine will of God?
Most of our search team members will now tell you that the substance of the search is definitely enough material for a lengthy book on the subject. I suspect that most pastor search teams feel the same way, and the content would be unique to each team, and each search. That’s the nature of the assignment, and the nature of the organization of the church. A few team members may have mentioned in passing, after particularly lengthy meetings, that they might have preferred the church to be Methodist, at least with regard to the way the pastor is called. As the ex-officio advisor, I would like to share a few of the things that we learned, from my perspective, which may help some other team somewhere in their work.
1. You are not your new pastor’s next step “up” the corporate ladder, so don’t act like you are. Please bear with the explanation of this particular point. It’s important.
The church is not a business, and as much as a well meaning search team member might like to apply a set of principles to finding a pastor that would work very well in a corporate environment, the fact of the matter is that you can’t do that with the church. Sorry, but it doesn’t work for one very good reason. The Bible already contains the qualifications and requirements for church leadership, and the Apostle Paul was inspired to write them down in at least two places, including I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. They are corroborated by Peter in I Peter 5, including confirmation of the fact that a pastor is an Elder.
It’s tempting to add what seems like simple common sense, and a little bit of business administration to the list, but that not only complicates the process, it also serves as an obstacle to the Spirit’s call and leadership. The only experience that is required is that which can be obtained through the church’s discipleship over a period of time. New converts don’t have that kind of experience, but if God thinks that someone who has been a growing, maturing member of Christ’s church is eligible for service as an elder, then the search team shouldn’t insert the additional requirement of previous pastoral experience. That’s something you leave up to the Lord.
Most search teams are prone to disagreement over where, and what kind of formal training their prospective pastor has. Again, the scripture is clear that there is a level of maturity that comes from membership in Christ’s church which is considered qualification. In practice, it is impossible to distinguish “successful” ministry among pastors who have completed formal education as opposed to those who haven’t. A Ph.D or a DMin doesn’t guarantee pastoral success in your church, nor does an MDiv as opposed to a ThM or an MACE. Even in the business world, a degree is more a sign of a person’s trainability than it is their level of qualification. The pastor of your church needs to be called by God to serve it, and if that is the case, then he will have been equipped in terms of discipleship to do the job. Rely on Him and don’t close any doors because of a few arranged letters.
Lastly, don’t worry about whether the salary and benefits your church can afford stack up with other offers your candidate may receive, or with his previous job, or with his personal expectations. The “moving up the corporate ladder” attitude is especially not applicable in this regard. If God has called and equipped someone to serve your church as its pastor, then he will be blessed by whatever resources and compensation you are able to offer, because God has already taken care of that in his heart. Technically, his salary and benefits are not negotiable, the church is able to pay a specific amount, and that should be the exact amount that is offered. If you offer him less, thinking you are “saving some money” you are not honoring God. If you offer more, thinking that you must compete in this regard with another potential church, you are not honoring God. If he’s genuinely called to your church, then he’ll accept what you offer. If he can be enticed by a bigger salary elsewhere, let him go, he’s not your man.
2. Don’t compare candidates to each other, or to your former pastor(s). You aren’t calling someone to live up to the expectations of the person you think was your church’s “best” pastor. You’re calling a man who will lead the church in a different time, in a new day, and quite possibly, in a different direction. If you want someone to be exactly like one of your previous pastors, then get in touch with him and see if he’s interested. Don’t expect your next pastor to be like one of your former pastors.
And when you are considering candidates, just take one at a time. One of the most confusing and time consuming periods of a pastor search can occur when the team places two or three resumes side by side and then tries to determine which one is the “best” choice. Choose the best one, and pursue him prayerfully as if he’s the one being called, until you hear differently from the Lord. Don’t select someone as an “alternate” in case this one doesn’t work out. Give consideration to one man at a time, and if you reach the end of the road with him, then go back and make another selection.
Never discard a resume from an interested candidate until one of two things have happened. Either he came to the top of the list and you went as far you could go with him and determined the Lord wasn’t in the decision, or you did find God’s man and you still have some resumes in your file. I’ll repeat that. Never. Don’t limit God.
3. You cannot consider a candidate or call a pastor until you are certain there are no personal agendas left on the search team. Terms like “I want…” or “We want…” must be eliminated from all discussions before you can proceed. You cannot allow personal preferences with regard to leadership style, preaching style, or even personal appearance interfere with the team’s work. You are not looking for the “best fit” or “the guy we want.” You are looking for the man God is calling to serve your church, and that’s a monumental difference.
Nor is this about “what can he do for us.” Look at some of the pastoral transitions in our megachurches if you want to see a good illustration of why the pastor’s personal ability to attract people to your church, or lead it in the same way he has led other churches in the past, is not a good criterion for you to evaluate his ability to lead your church. There are some high visibility examples of pastors who have been successful in leading one congregation to grow into a megachurch in a relatively short period of time, but when they moved on to another megachurch, their presence created controversy and dissent, and they saw thousands of members leave because of their leadership. The pastor’s ability to “attract people” is temporal at best, egocentric at worst, and is way off base. If you use that as a criterion, it will lead to failure.
4. Keep the whole process simple. The two biggest mistakes that our church made at the beginning was selecting a team that was too large, and attempting to represent every age group and constituency in the congregation, and exposing the team to too many potential candidates too soon. Nine is too large, seven is probably pushing it, and in the end, the process itself created situations which prompted three members to quit before the search was complete, which actually contributed to a speeding up of the process at the end.
It didn’t take very long, once word got out that the church had selected a search team, for the resumes to start rolling in. More than 300 came through before it was all over. Most were from candidates who, once they found out about the position, potential salary and ministry, took themselves out of the running. In hindsight, it would have been far better for us to limit the time in which resumes were received, and the scope of the media making individuals aware that we were looking for a pastor. Instead of always being open to receiving resumes, the team should limit the window of receiving them to a two week period, and then don’t take any more that come in afterward. That would have given them about 45 or 50 candidates to work with, which would have been plenty to discern God’s will, and an almost 100% likelihood that the man God had chosen was in that group. It was very easy for the team to be overwhelmed by looking at resumes over and over, not really being able to distinguish between candidates.
5. Prayer, focus and togetherness are the key to success. Do you believe that God is in charge of this process? If you do, then you trust that he will lead you to the right person, and that will happen when your team understands that it needs to pray, and seek the will of the Lord through a consensus of the team members. The man our team finally called wouldn’t have been selected in the first or second cut, didn’t meet several of the original “requirements,” and didn’t come from a traditional church setting. It took a while to figure out that what the team thought we wanted wasn’t exactly what God wanted.
What’s really important to you in this search? The longer you are able to keep a pastor, the more effective his work, and your ministry as a church, will be. Smaller churches often resent the fact that they wind up with a pastor who they feel used them to move on to bigger and better things, and that during his tenure, he always had, as the saying goes, the for sale sign polished and his resume circulating. You can find someone willing to stick with you for as long as God wants him there, if you’ll just follow the direction and prompting of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t easy, but you can do it right and it works.