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FIRST-PERSON: Look out for these red flags when searching for a pastor

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A red flag is a metaphorical warning sign. It signals a potential problem with a particular situation that will require attention to address. Red flags are everywhere. You can spot them in business situations, in relationships, and in emails that claim the sender wants to share their multi-million-dollar inheritance with you!

During the pastor search process, there is a strong probability that the Pastor Search Committee will encounter multiple red flags. As they review resumes and conduct interviews with potential pastoral candidates, there will be moments when a potential problem rises to the surface. 

These red flags do not indicate in any way that a candidate is a bad person. They also don’t necessarily mean that there’s an actual problem. It’s simply a signal that further investigation may be required on the part of the Pastor Search Committee to discover if a candidate is a good fit for their particular church.

Red flags can come in many shapes and sizes. As I have worked with numerous Pastor Search Committees throughout the past decade, I have seen and heard about dozens of red flags. If you have ever served on a Pastor Search Committee, you probably have some stories to share as well. While this is not an exhaustive list by any means, here are some of the most common red flags that Search Committees may encounter during their search for a new pastor:

Gaps in a candidate’s resume. During the resume review process, Pastor Search Committees may encounter a situation where the candidate has one or more “gaps” on his resume. These gaps are extended periods (months or even years) between ministry positions. While there might be a logical explanation such as a family emergency or personal illness, the gap is undoubtedly worth further investigation.

A pattern of brief tenures. I once heard the story of a candidate applying for a new ministry position, and he stated that he had 30 years of ministry experience in his cover letter. While reviewing the candidate’s resume, one Search Committee member observed that it was more accurate to say that the candidate had three years of ministry experience, repeated 10 times in 10 different churches! If a candidate has a history of short tenures, it probably won’t be long before his next church is searching for a new pastor once again.

Hypercritical of current or past churches. Having served in ministry leadership for more than 15 years, I understand that some ministry experiences are more positive than others. Sometimes, a particular church and pastor are not a good fit for one another. However, if a candidate has nothing good to say about his current church or other churches from his past, that may be a sign of a problem. It could signal that he has trouble getting along with others.

Overly concerned about finances. I understand the financial burdens with which pastors often struggle. Many pastors need more money for their families than the church provides, but most of those pastors would never make it known to their church. I’m a strong proponent that churches should be as generous as possible with their compensation packages and should communicate what they can offer to a candidate at the appropriate time. However, be wary of the candidate that is overly concerned about how much he will be paid. It might be a red flag if he brings up the money conversation repeatedly during the initial interview!

Divisive theological positions. Many biblical doctrines form the foundation of the Christian faith. Doctrines such as the virgin birth, the Trinity, and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ are not up for debate. However, there are many other doctrines and biblical teachings in which Christians interpret things differently. Suppose a candidate elevates any tertiary doctrine to primary status (such as a particular view of the end times). In that case, he may cause unnecessary division in the church with anyone who disagrees with him. This scenario could be a recipe for disaster.

Failure to comply with reasonable requests. The Search Committee may ask potential candidates to fulfill specific requests throughout the search process. They could send a written questionnaire with a deadline to return the completed form. They could ask for a list of additional references. They could seek permission to complete a criminal background check. If a candidate refuses to comply with any reasonable requests such as these, this could signal his unwillingness to work with folks in the church.

Inappropriate comments. A pastor is called to be above reproach. While no one is perfect in their speech (other than Jesus), churches should be cautious with moving forward with a candidate who makes inappropriate comments during interviews or on social media. Those comments could be in the form of dirty jokes, inappropriate comments about someone else’s physical appearance, or racial or ethnic insensitivities.

Excessive eagerness for the position. Some candidates (especially those just starting in ministry) can be a little too eager to become a pastor. I have heard stories of candidates sending text messages to members of the Search Committee multiple times per day. I have heard of candidates who engage church members on social media before hearing back from the Pastor Search Committee. While it’s natural for a candidate to desire to connect with the church, it becomes a red flag when that eagerness becomes excessive.

Special revelation. I have heard stories when a pastoral candidate has had a dream or some other experience in which he believes that God “tells” him that he will be the church’s new pastor. If the Pastor Search Committee doesn’t share that sentiment, the candidate may indicate that they are somehow outside the will of God. This is a major red flag! When God calls a pastor to a new church, He will make it abundantly clear to the candidate and his family, the Pastor Search Committee, and ultimately to the whole congregation. There is no need to play the “God told me”card as an attempt to manipulate the work of the Search Committee.

When You Spot a Red Flag

What do you do when you spot a red flag with a potential candidate? Here are four tips for how to move forward.

Don’t ignore it. When you identify a red flag, don’t ignore it. Don’t sweep it under the rug and act like it doesn’t exist. Failure to deal with it could cause significant problems for your church later.

Don’t assume the worst. We live in a culture that is quick to judge and slow to listen. Don’t make that mistake. You shouldn’t rush to judgment just because you spot a red flag.

Ask for clarification. When you spot a red flag, you need to investigate. Ask good questions to see if you can understand why the red flag exists. 

Determine if the red flag is a dealbreaker. After you have asked for clarification, your Pastor Search Committee will need to determine if the red flag is a dealbreaker. Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. The Search Committee will need to decide through much prayer and discussion. 

Red Flags Fly Both Ways

Encountering red flags are a normal part of the pastor search process. This reality is valid from the perspective of the Pastor Search Committee but also the perspective of potential candidates. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the red flags pastoral candidates need to look out for when working with a Pastor Search Committee.

    About the Author

  • Jason Lowe

    Jason Lowe is associational mission strategist for the Pike Association of Southern Baptists in southeastern Kentucky.

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