MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP) — Churches face many daunting tasks in the pilgrimage of doing ministry. Arguably, one of the most crucial times in the life of a church is when a pastor leaves and the search begins for a new pastoral leader.
Among Baptists and similar faith groups, the process involves a pastor search committee. Each church determines how this committee or team is selected. Most often, that selection is driven by bylaws or some other codified means of choosing representatives to do the search for the church family.
During my pastoral ministry, I have had occasions to talk to pastor search committees — I was the one being researched and interviewed in the process of calling a new pastor.
In most instances, the experience was pleasant and informative, even when I did not make the transition to the church that a committee was representing. I did learn a few things along the way that might be helpful to those engaged in this calling process.
A couple of disclaimers need to be noted before I offer comments about the process of calling a pastor. I must admit I have never been on a search committee for a pastor or a CEO of an entity. I have had my share of experiences in ministry, but this one I have not yet encountered. Therefore, my views on the subject may come across one-sided or a bit biased. If that is the case, I apologize in advance.
Additionally, I have to admit that with all the potential downsides of the way we do the pastor search and calling process, I believe it is an excellent model. It is based on the congregational principle of church governance, even though a representative group makes the initial recommendation. By that, I mean the church makes the final decision as a local body of believers. In my view, this is an expression of solid ecclesiology or church polity and practice.
With all that said, let’s launch into a descriptive approach to calling a pastor, with the intent of hoping to make a good process even better.
Where does the process need to begin? After the church has selected the search committee/team, the group needs to get to know each other better.
They may be acquaintances or even friends, but most likely they have not worked together in a ministry assignment like this one. So getting to know each other more intimately is a must.
Praying together is one of the best ways to deepen relationships among people with such an important task before them. Praying for each other, for their families, for their church family and for the new pastor makes for healthy direction-setting as a group.
Obviously, prayer needs to permeate the process. It is not just a beginning place but a foundation on which to stand. Any committee/team wanting to do a good job needs to be empowered by the Spirit of God for sure. Prayer is the key to that sense of empowerment.
Practical and confidential matters have to be considered in the initial stages of the search process. If the church did not select or name a chair, which oftentimes is the case, then the group will need to take care of that matter.
The chair is certainly not a dictator, but this person is a direction-setter along the way. Other leaders may need to be selected as well, such as a vice chair and someone to keep good notes and information for the entire committee/team.
Another practical matter to be seriously considered is training for the assignment. Some committees do not think they need to be trained for this assignment. This is not arrogance; it is just the feeling that they are good leaders in the business world and in the church, and they feel they are already prepared to do the work. This is a misperception for sure.
Every committee/team needs some personalized training. Who does the training? There are more options than one might think. Local directors of missions often are experienced and prepared to do this specialized training. State conventions also can help.
A trainer can help the group avoid some problem areas in the search process. I cannot overstate the importance of having a coach or trainer to do at least some initial training for the work ahead.
Profiling the church
Doing a church profile can be helpful to the search team as well. Many who are called on to do a pastor search feel they know their church well. However, with multiple generations worshiping together and with all kinds of backgrounds represented in the church family, a survey of the church at this interim juncture is of vital significance.
No one really has comprehensive knowledge of a particular church until the person does some reflective study of the church family.
This kind of survey can be a part of the trainer’s role in getting the committee off to a good start. The survey or profile of the church can be a way of understanding how the church has changed since the calling of the last pastor. That is valuable information.
The experience of receiving resumés can be a confusing part of the search process. However, it is now the pattern and practice of most committees or teams. Let me say that I believe a search group needs to have this information. Many times it will come from a person recommending a prospect to be considered. That is a healthy way to receive information.
Personally, I would prefer to not receive the resumé from the candidate himself. By contrast, I know that is the accepted practice in the business world, but it is not my preference.
Resumés may be available from the offices of local Baptist associations and state conventions as well as seminaries. Also, there is no reason the committee could not request the information from someone in whom they are interested.
Patience with the process
Patience in the process is a necessity. There are times when the search group has an unnecessary feeling of being in a hurry. The church may have some problems, or there may be some outside pressure placed on the team.
This is a point of caution. A hurried approach to calling a pastor is fraught with danger signs. Space and time will not permit a discussion of this issue but, again, a trainer can help the committee understand the need for a patient attitude in this search process.
Regarding interviewing a prospect, let me say a few things that reflect my experience. First, do not oversell the church. Yes, you need to emphasize the positives and highlight the high points of the past and present, but most pastors with experience know that search teams have a high opinion of the church or they would not have been chosen for the task. If there have been problems recently, be forthright with the prospect.
Additionally, if you have questions about his past or present ministry, feel free to tactfully but truthfully pose them to him. This needs to be an open process. It is better to know the candidate and the candidate to know the church up front than to find out later that the situation from either perspective was not what those involved had thought it was.
Again, I just cannot overstate the importance of the transparency needed for the team and the prospect as they consider walking together in presenting a recommendation to the church.
Preparation for the call
When the search committee/team has made its decision, there needs to be some time for the group to prepare the church for the recommendation and the call of the potential new pastor. With mass communication in terms of social media and the like, confidentiality is really challenging for the process.
The pastor will be sensitive to the fact that he wants to be the one to tell his people about his departure. Therefore, the schedule for introducing the pastoral choice to the people and calling him needs to factor in all these variables. Every church is different, and so is every pastor. Careful consideration of how and when to go public with the announcement is something that demands the best of all involved.
After the pastor is called, the search committee/team may think their work is complete. That is technically true, but not in the relational sense. Let me make a suggestion to any search group. On the anniversary of the pastor’s calling, take him, his wife and family out to eat and have a time of fellowship with them. Let them know how much they are appreciated.
This was the practice of my last pastorate, and it was a good one. I wish I could say it was my idea, but it wasn’t. Try it, you will like it.
Well, this was a lengthy discourse, but my passion for seeing good marriages in the ministry has led me to share these thoughts with you. I regularly pray for our churches. I want the best for all of them.
This is my simple way of trying to help churches at a crucial time in their journey. A lot is at stake. This is a Kingdom concern, one which cannot be taken lightly. Thanks for your service.
Rick Lance is executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. This column first appeared on his blog at RickLance.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).