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FIRST-PERSON: 6 tips for prospective pastors

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — It’s a wonder to me why some seminary hasn’t come up with a specialized advanced degree in “Search Committee Negotiating.” No doubt they would be flooded with applications from pastors wishing to master that mysterious discipline and more than a few laypeople wishing to learn what’s going on here.

From what follows, you might conclude that I see myself as an expert on pastor search groups. Believe me, I don’t. In fact, anyone who does is suspect in my book.

They’re all different, these small teams of church members assigned to “go find our next preacher and bring him back alive.” They subscribe to a thousand different philosophies and generally will plot their modus operandi according to the will of their strongest member or the say-so of their chairman.

Moreover, I am well aware that not all pastors are as forthcoming with committees as they should be.

In both cases, they reason that “If I were to tell the whole truth, no one would want to (come to this church) (employ me).”

In a half-century of ministry, I dealt with somewhere around 100 search committees. So, while I’m no expert, I’m not without a certain amount of experience on these pastor-hunter teams.

So, here are a few thoughts on how many search committees function.

1) The committee will begin their work with a strange blend of humility and confidence.

Six months into their search, after a thousand phone calls, hundreds of letters and emails, dozens of dead-ends, and all kinds of fruitless detours, the humility will still be there — stronger than ever, even — but the confidence will have been replaced by fatigue and frustration.

This is a dangerous time for a committee; fatigue can cause many an error of judgment. This is when the church needs to double and triple its prayer for them. The problem, of course, is that by now the church is tired of waiting, tired of special prayer meetings for the committee without seeing results, and tired of being tired.

The committee which began their work with such high hopes and fresh energy now just wants to get it over. Pray for them. They may end up grabbing the next guy just to “get ‘er done.”

2) While most committees I’ve dealt with at length have been the cream of the crop, churches do not always select their most spiritually sensitive people. Sometimes it’s the most outspoken ones.

Pastors go into these things thinking they are dealing with the sharpest and godliest people in the church when they sit in a room with a search committee. A wise prospective pastor quickly figures out which is which. Sometimes, they learn the hard way — and too late! — that the chairman was chosen because he lobbied for the position, bullied the others into submission, or intends to hand-pick a pastor whom he can control. When the preacher investigates a little, he may find that one or two families make up the entire committee. None of this is good.

There are clues available as to the quality of the committee’s makeup if the pastor will pay attention. Notice how they relate to one another and who does most of the talking. Notice the promises and guarantees they’re willing to make to get a pastor. (Keep in mind that the more mature a committee, the less likely they are to promise the moon and to guarantee anything. They see themselves as servants of the congregation, not rulers.)

Get agreements in writing and ask for them to be signed by every conceivable officer of the church.

3) You sometimes get the impression the committee wants to get this job over with as soon as possible. Not good for them and definitely not good for you. Take your time, pastor, and encourage them to do likewise.

When a search committee invited me to meet them for lunch at a cafeteria and invited me right off the bat to become their pastor, I had no difficulty declining. These folks were simply interested in bringing in a warm body, it appeared, and I was handy. What was their hurry? I wondered, and never found out.

I counsel search committees against falling in love too quickly. If they do — they return from their first visit swimmy-headed, certain they have found the pastor of their dreams — they shut down the process too quickly. Like any lover captivated by another person, they do not want to hear anything negative, and will want to get the other to the altar before he/she changes their mind. Not good at all. The stories I could tell you!

4) They may ask some hard questions, taking pride in that great list of questions. Often, however, the members cannot tell whether the answer was excellent, flawed or awful so long as it was given with style and grace.

Every pastor in our denomination gets asked certain questions by search committees. Currently, it’s something like, “So, pastor … (ahem) … tell us your position on Calvinism.” A generation ago, it was: “What do you believe about the inerrancy of Scriptures?” A generation before that, committees wanted to know your eschatology. Before that, it was creation/evolution.

“Ah, yes. I’m glad you asked that question. The issue of Calvinism and Arminianism has been plaguing our churches and dividing the Kingdom for hundreds of years and it’s a burden to those of us on the front lines for the Lord. I was telling a friend just the other day….”

He’s giving concern and stories, smiles and words, but no answer. I suggest they let him go on, then when he finishes, Mr. Chairman (or Madam Chairperson), smile sweetly and say, “Now, tell us your position on Calvinism.” And wait.

Search committees need sharp people on their membership as well as training from experienced pastors and/or denominational leaders who can prepare them on what to watch for and how to tell when they’re being scammed.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “A pastoral candidate will try to scam you?” When a man wants the job, he may find language to convince you he believes what you believe and count on you not being sharp enough to tell what he’s doing. When he does not believe the fundamentals of the faith — and knows that to admit it would mean ending this interview — he may (not always, but “may”) camouflage his real views by wordiness or cleverness.

Many a committee has been taken in by a skilled wordsmith.

5) The committee will not tell all the facts about their church, although they want to know every detail about the candidate.

Members of search committees will agree among themselves that certain details about their church history reflect poorly upon them and would be better off left unspoken. They reason that those things are in the past and have nothing to do with the next pastor and his tenure.

Sometimes they are right. Often, they are wrong.

The fact that this church has ousted the last five preachers in a row is most pertinent. That a little unelected group has made life miserable for the last two pastors is something a prospective pastor needs to know. That the senior members of the congregation shot down the last attempt to hire a full-time youth minister because they resented the young people getting a large share of the church budget is valuable information.

I once asked a search committee why the sign in front of the church said nothing about the times of the Sunday services. Someone blurted out, “The previous pastor tried to put up a sign with that information, but the grounds people took it down. Said it detracted from the beauty of the campus.”

In so few words, I found out who is calling the shots around that church.

Every church has its negatives. But don’t look for the typical search committee to reveal any of them. You’ll have to develop other sources for that.

Call the associational director of missions and also his predecessor if he is relatively new. Phone the last two pastors of this church and any former staff members you can find. And one more group: call neighboring pastors and ask for their take on this church. (Do this by phone and not by mail or email. Anything leaving a paper trail will make them cautious. You want to hear the inflection of their voice, the pauses, everything.)

Little by little, you are forming a complete picture of this church.

Note that I’m NOT saying you should not go to a church with a troubled past, only that you should know what you’re getting into before you go.

6) Finally, in many cases, the pastor search committee will want to keep functioning after the new pastor arrives.

On the surface, it looks like a plan. These people know him and have a vested interest in his doing well. The problem is other members of the church, particularly the leadership, will resent it. It will appear to them that this group does not want to give up their intimacy with the new pastor and is attempting to set themselves up as an ongoing center of influence.

New pastor, if you need a team of advisers, work with the elected church leadership to form a new group composed of representatives of the search committee and a number from the membership at large.

Then, pray it will be a long time before this church has to choose another pastor search committee or that you will have to deal with one.
Joe McKeever, on the Web at www.joemckeever.com, is a Baptist Press cartoonist and columnist, a former longtime pastor and former director of missions for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Joe McKeever