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.