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Weird Ways to Choose a Pastor

How churches select pastoral staff is sometimes just weird—and counterproductive.

Some years ago I agreed to serve on a search committee for a new pastor. We began by establishing a set of traits and abilities our congregation needed in a pastor. It was a well-considered list.

But before we could find and interview even one candidate, we were cut short by a self-appointed group of members who campaigned for the current associate pastor. And I do mean campaigned. They set up a card table at the entrance to the sanctuary and solicited signatures on a petition. They printed and mailed flyers advertising their man. They declared a “Wear Red for Ed” Sunday.

The group demanded a congregational vote. Ed’s red-clad supporters (and dozens of recruits I hadn’t seen in church in years) showed up in sufficient numbers to tip the majority for their man. Ed was promptly named senior pastor, and the search committee was dismissed.

Following election day, the church hemorrhaged members, including most of the long-time lay leaders. It was a grotesque and messy way to select a pastor.

But I’m afraid this isn’t the only kind of oddity we see in typical processes for selecting pastoral staff.

A common practice is to parade candidates in front of the congregation for a Sunday inspection. The prospective pastors preach a sample sermon. And congregation members use this one-time performance as their primary or sole determiner of their vote for pastor.

The sermon show is a poor litmus test—for multiple reasons. It’s terribly unfair to judge a pastor’s overall worthiness on one sermon. It’s impossible to pick a sermon topic or style that connects with everyone. And, good pastors do far more than deliver a 20-minute weekly speech. To judge them solely on the delivery of one sample sermon is sort of like choosing a car based solely on the sound of its horn.

And, the full democratization of pastor placement also causes some dysfunction. Effective screening, scrutinizing and selecting the best candidate–for any job–requires a lot of time and discipline. Expecting an entire congregation to cast an informed vote without the background work is unrealistic.

In addition, church constitutions and bylaws often require a super-majority of 70 or 80 percent to elect a minister. The intent is good. However, I’ve seen elections come up a few votes short of the super-majority, leaving a large majority frustrated with their will being thwarted by a relatively small minority.

Those denominations that undemocratically place pastors without congregational votes may avoid some of these problems, but they create other problems and mismatches.

So what’s a better way? A few thoughts:

1. Actively engage the entire congregation in selecting and endorsing members for search or call committees. The more these members are known and trusted, the more their hard work will be respected.

2. In lieu of a sample sermon, consider a live, unrehearsed interview of the candidate in front of the congregation. Here, questions can probe the candidate’s values, vision, experience, approach to teamwork and leadership, etc. The way the pastor answers the questions will also indicate the ability–or lack thereof–to communicate effectively.

3. Whatever the process, invest time upfront in building congregational understanding, appreciation and trust in the process. Generate a we’re-all-in-this-together spirit. Spend abundant time in prayer. Build the expectation that, no matter what the outcome, everyone will support the new pastor and join together in ministry.

4 Responses to “Weird Ways to Choose a Pastor”

  1. I agree that pastor selection by committee is often about as effective as “let’s rewrite this by committee.” It’s messy, frustrating for everyone, and about the best that can emerge is for everyone equally disappointed and whoever is managing the process wondering which way the exit might be.

    I’m on a board that’s in the process of bringing on a staff member. So far it’s been some pretty solid due diligence and that experience—and your Holy Soup blog—are a reminder that I’m happy we’re independent of any denominational oversight. That is, nobody is artificially limiting our candidate search. Nobody is forcing us to give preference to a candidate because of denominational flavor or alma mater status.

    And—hidden benefit of working outside the church—we’re doing a better job of it because I was trained by an HR department to ask the right questions. I’m applying business standards to my piece of the process and that’s a good thing.

    But what about hiring pastors in denominational settings? The suggestions you give are good and apply to my world, but what about the world of Lutherans or Presbyterians or that KJV-Only Baptist Church down on the corner? Do those congregations have a prescribed process they have to follow—no matter what?

    A few years ago a buddy of mine was brought to a church and did the whole trial sermon, meet and greet, etc. Congregational vote was taken later and he got 90%.

    He refused the job. His experience was that if at least 95% of a church’s membership wasn’t on board, it would be disaster. I don’t know if his numbers are right, but his principle certainly was: if you’re hired by members and are there to serve them (not much of a definition of ministry, but there it is—that’s what’s being communicated by congregational vote) then it makes no sense to relocate one’s family, buy a house, move into a church, and then have a 10% drop in membership because you weren’t the first choice for pastor.

    That 10%, in his experience, draws another 10% and then there’s blame placed at the feet of the new pastor.

    Made me happy to not work for a church.

  2. Man! You must have been a fly on the wall at my last church. I was the chair of the search committee and chose from a cross-section of the congregation–women, men, seniors, young adults, parents, etc. We worked pretty hard for several months but when one interview fell through based on some information I received about the candidate, that’s when the backdoor deals started taking place. One of the people on my committee was a longtime member who had worked on other church campaigns. Well, little did I know, she was convening behind my back with her cohorts and one of them even slandered me in an e-mail. After all of this, I resigned and let one of them lead the committee. It was clear (to them) that they knew what was best for the church and anyone outside of their clique didn’t. The new chair appointed his own committee that included his brother, two people who were not members of the church and the woman who had served on my committee, among others. They did get a pastor in a few months by going to an outside agency and paying $30k in addition to the pastor’s salary. One thing that was very telling though, was the number of people who came up to me and expressed concern over the individual leading the committee. He has a reputation for getting things done his way, even if that means steamrolling over people. Sad that in some churches we can be so territorial that we don’t care how we get results as long as we get them. Trust in God gets pushed aside as the bottom line is all that matters to some people. However, I believe God cares not just about our results but how we get them. Are we kind to others? Do we manifest the fruit of the Spirit? Do we trust HIM to be in charge of the process?

  3. Thanks for your article Thom – there is some great wisdom in what you’re said. I would add a fourth item to your list at the bottom, and that is the importance of applying a little Matthew 18:15-20!

    To my eye, many of the difficulties you described (and others in their comments) seem to be seeded in unaddressed passive agressive conflict. I think it’s important to remember that conflict in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing – debate is often how we grow – but if the conflict is never addressed then it can bloom into things like the, “wear red for ed,” campaign you described. I find that too often we the church are afraid of having tough conversations for fear of the fall-out – unfortunately, the result of unchecked conflict is often 10 times worse! Further, when we don’t confront ungodly behaviour be enable it – and then we have nobody but ourselves to blame when things take a turn for the worse!

  4. Absolutely time someone addressed this. I too served on a Pastoral Selection Committee years ago…and the process was something that was very insightful. First off, resumes we recieved for that position were really quite vague, showed short term work history (good indicator that they were not committed to a long term position) etc. Several candidates did not include a cover letter or a vision statement. We ditched tons of resumes due to their lack of references, lack of experience (if they had it one would never know) etc. Our Pastoral Selection Committee was supposed to review all the resumes, and meet weekly with the Board -but in the end the Board ended up going over all the resumes which meant that 12 of us had to unanimously determine which was best qualified…and that never once happened…after 3 plus more months of this- the Pastoral Selection Committee volunteers all quit, threw in the towel and left the whole matter to the Board. This church also did the preach one sermon a month and one of the candidates wanted a 100% positive vote before they would accept the position, so he walked away when he carried a 95% vote. In the end, the church voted in a former Youth Pastor who had gone onto become a missionary in a foreign field. One piece of advice given me during this time- was to find a candidate who was already working in the field and who was busy….doing what they already loved. In otherwords, they weren’t jobless, and were already passionate about pastoring. Now the trick to that is finding the person who might change his locality-but other than that..they were already out there doing what God them to.

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