First Church wondered if the agony would ever end. Would they ever find a pastor? The search committee (not to mention the congregation) were worn out and ready to quit. Membership had dropped; those remaining were discouraged.

The nightmare had begun over three years ago when their pastor of thirteen years announced he had taken another church. After the shock wore off, a search committee was elected and its members busily set about finding the very best qualified candidate for the position. Several members had their eye on one particular man and would consider no one else. Since the vote to call must be unanimous, the other committee members went along with the decision to hasten the selection process. Yet, after several months of research and interviews, the pastor decided that he would rather not move after all. With no other candidates to consider, the committee had to start all over again.

Other problems had nearly split the congregation. The assistant pastor, who had been at the church for nearly ten years, had always assumed that he would take the pastor's job if he ever left. When the search committee didn't even consider him, he was quite miffed. Half the congregation sided with him and wouldn't speak to the search committee members as he campaigned for the job.

And now the final disaster had occurred. After searching for more than a year and a half, the committee had discovered some six months ago what seemed to be the perfect candidate. The situation, however, was delicate; he did not want to let his current congregation know that he might be leaving, in order to bring to fruition several projects there. Confidentiality had been the committee's byword, but someone had made an offhand comment to a relative in the pastor's hometown and the gossip had spread like wildfire. He had just called to say he could in no way consider coming now. Two more years down the drain!

What you've just read is the all-too-frequent scenario that occurs in many churches searching for a pastor. It usually includes months of wasted search time, hurt feelings all-around, and sometimes a totally unsuitable match for both candidate and church.

"Frequently search committees operate in three stages," reveals Dr. L. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk for the Presbyterian Church in America and former Professor of Practical Theology at RTS/Jackson. "Stage One is Idealism. They have an unrealistic perspective on the true condition of the church, prepare a pastoral profile that only the Apostle Paul could meet, and seek only well-known candidates.

"Stage Two is the Cattle Auction. The committee realizes that the Apostle Paul will not be raised from the dead until Jesus comes, so they whiz through about a hundred resumes without objective standards. The final stage is Decision Time. By now almost a year has passed and the committee is fatigued. They know they have to make a decision, so they do one of two things: call candidate #77 because he is available and not a heretic or a pervert; or they back up, re-evaluate their process, and make corrections."

Searching for a pastor does not have to be a catastrophe. Your first line of defense is to get educated. Because pastoral searches occur fairly infrequently, people generally don't know what is required of them. However, detailed assistance is available from most denominational offices (see inset) with staff who will help you tailor the guidelines to fit your own specific situation. Churches that follow some basic rules, such as those below, have found a pastoral search to be a pleasant and rewarding experience that deepened their members' faith. They also ended up with pastors who adequately met the needs of their churches.

"I Wish We Had (Or Hadn't)"

Ten Common Search Committee Mistakes

PCA Stated Clerk Dr. L. Roy Taylor has watched search committees make the following errors over the years. Steer clear of them and you could save yourself much time and a lot of heartache.

  1. Failing to check out a candidate's track record. Dig deeper than his data form. How has he gotten along with people? Do his members feel he is accessible? Has his ministry been balanced? Check denominational yearbooks and make statistical charts of membership, profession of faith, giving, etc. over the space of his ministry.
  2. Requiring a unanimous recommendation from the committee. While unanimous consent works for some churches, one member can slow down or stop the search process for long periods. Moreover, many times a unanimous consent rule forces those with serious reservations about a candidate to suppress them just to end the search.
  3. Making a decision based on a first impression. What you see is not necessarily what you will get. Take time to check secondary references (other names given to you by the candidate's primary references) and give them greater weight.
  4. Choosing a candidate that the church wants rather than the candidate the church needs. Churches need ministers with different skills, gifts, and abilities at various stages in their development. A church planted five years ago does not need another church planter when its pastor leaves; it needs a minister for an established church to take it to the next level of growth. Look carefully at your vision for ministry to determine what your church really needs.
  5. Choosing a candidate who cannot adapt to the local culture of the community and church. Some ministers are flexible, others are not. An inner city pastor might not do well in suburbia, nor a suburban pastor in a rural area. Different areas of the country have different personalities; someone from Boston might have a hard time in Southern California. Concentrate on people from a similar background or who have gifts in cross-cultural adaptation.
  6. Failing to evaluate the church's true condition. All churches have problems. Beware the search committee who answers a prospective minister's query, "What are your problems?" with "Oh, we don't have any problems." Be honest about your church's condition.
  7. Choosing a candidate because he is either exactly like or exactly opposite the former pastor. Often a "clone" has a very short ministry when the congregation realizes they cannot replace his predecessor. When a committee calls a candidate to replace a pastor with weak skills in one area, they often concentrate only on calling his opposite, someone with strong skills in that area and ignore completely the candidate's competence (or lack of it) in other areas.
  8. Evaluating the candidate's sermons upon ones he has chosen, not the committee. Instead of saying "Send us three sermon tapes" ask for certain ones, such as the last four Sunday morning sermons. Always arrive unannounced to observe sermons.
  9. Having too large a committee. Large committees (some big churches have twenty-five) becomes unwieldy because everyone can't be at every meeting and material must be repeated for those who missed. Add the unanimous consent rule and you have chaos.
  10. Failing to be discreet and to maintain total secrecy during the search process.

WHERE DO WE START?

A search committee should be elected by the congregation, not chosen by the session. Their composition and size may vary considerably from congregation to congregation. Depending upon the size of the church, the best working number seems to be from nine to eleven people recognized for their spiritual maturity and discernment, in addition to holding key responsibilities. Larger committees are possible but can easily be unwieldy.

About half of the committee should be officers of the church; other large groups impacting the church's ministry should be represented, such as the Women in the Church and Sunday School. Some churches include at-large members from the congregation; others make sure committee members have different spiritual gifts.

An essential ingredient to the entire process is heartfelt prayer -- and a lot of it. The importance of prayer should be stressed regularly to the congregation, as well as to the search committee. "We were consistently on our knees before the Lord in prayer for His guidance during our year together," says Dr. Tony Neal, Chairman of the Search Committee for historic 1500-member First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. "We tried not to approach our job with presuppositions about who we should call, but to be willing to let the Lord lead and open the doors. As we did, God's leading was quite obvious as His choice was confirmed in our hearts."

Some search committees begin each meeting with a fifteen-minute Bible study led by a pastor. Search Committee Chairman Bill Seibert at 1000-member Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Miami feels the Bible emphasis was very effective. "The studies, initially from 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, helped us shed the worldly problems we brought to each meeting and focus on the fact that this was not a business meeting, but rather God's meeting, and we were doing His work."

DECIDE WHO YOU ARE AND WHERE YOU'RE GOING

The most important step to take in the beginning is to make sure that your committee is absolutely certain what kind of church you want to be. The Session should devise this vision, or church profile, immediately and the congregation should adopt it. Questions should cover all aspects of church life and should include:

  • What are your present strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are your priorities?
  • How do you wish to grow?
  • What is your philosophy of ministry?

Your denomination has a detailed questionnaire that will help you nail down exactly where your church is and where you want to go. Once you have clearly determined the kind of church you want to be, you can determine what kind of pastoral leadership you will require to achieve that.

"Visions do not come easily, but they are crucial," explains Seibert, whose committee searched for almost two years before finding a pastor. "The Session, the congregation, and the search committee all must agree to the vision; otherwise, the pastor who is called and the congregation will soon discover to their dismay that his gifts are not what the church wanted. Either he stays in misery or leaves, and the church is without a pastor again."

DECIDE WHOM YOU NEED, NOT WHOM YOU WANT

The next step is to develop a pastoral profile -- a description of the pastoral leader best suited to help your congregation achieve its goals. List the qualifications that you want to see in your new pastor (including negative ones that you wish to avoid), prioritizing them carefully. Include both spiritual and personal (personality, experience) qualifications, as well as gifts and abilities. List also the principal functions the person should accomplish. Again, your denomination has forms to help you.

Your committee must discipline itself to eliminate people who do not fit the pastoral profile that you have agreed upon. Impulsive decisions usually prove unsatisfactory. Be sure to get the person that the church needs at that particular stage in its life.

"Sometimes a church may want the pastor to have gifts he doesn't need to have," explains Taylor. "For example, I know of a rather large church that decided it needed to have a strong small group ministry. So the pulpit committee looked for a pastor whose primary gift was leading small groups. They found a man who was excellent with eight to ten people but had no administrative or preaching skills. They failed to realize that a senior pastor in a large church does not need to lead a small group ministry; an associate pastor on his staff can do that. The match did not work out because what they wanted and what they needed were entirely different."

MAKE A LIST AND CHECK IT MORE THAN TWICE

Armed now with a clear understanding of the church's goals and the profile of the pastor who can help achieve those goals, the committee can compile a list of candidates from various sources, including referrals from church members, pastors, the denomination's stated clerk, seminaries, or trusted individuals.

Take time now to defuse potential timebombs. Decide up front what you will do with emotionally charged suggestions for possible candidates. These include relatives of church members, staff ministers who want the position, and interim pastors presently serving. Failure to make this matter very clear from the outset can result in an embarrassing situation, causing extreme discord in the congregation and adding greatly to search time.

Next, trim the list of names by carefully examining each in light of the criteria established in your church and pastoral profiles. A short list of candidates will now become the focus of a much more thorough and intensive investigation. Assess each candidate regarding preaching, pastoral, and administrative skills in addition to his spiritual and family life.

Dig deeply into each candidate's background. Ask probing questions: How effective has been his ministry? How has the church developed? Has it grown significantly? What are the attitudes of the community toward the pastor and the congregation? What are his wife and family like? Is he a capable administrator?

Go beyond primary references -- those given to you by the candidate. No candidate in his right mind will give you negative references. Ask the primary references if they know anyone else to call for information on the candidate. There you are likely to get a more realistic appraisal of his gifts and weaknesses. One of the most helpful ways to gain information is by an unannounced visit to the area to visit the worship service unobtrusively and talk to people in the community.

NARROW YOUR LIST

When you have narrowed your search to a small group that seem to come closest to meeting your criteria, make an appointment with each candidate to meet with the committee for evaluation. Share the church and pastoral profiles with each candidate and discuss them. In order for your meeting to be as productive as possible, plan any questions well in advance. Let each candidate know what to expect from your committee and advise them periodically whether or not they have been eliminated from consideration.

The committee should then hear the short list of candidates preach in person. The best way to get an accurate report is to visit the church unannounced. However, be sure to find out beforehand whether your candidate is in the pulpit that Sunday; otherwise, you may travel a long distance for nothing. You may want to send only part of the committee who can report back about their findings.

"We developed a Sermon Observation Form which was quite helpful," says Charles Moore, who has served on two search committees (chairman and vice-chairman) for 2800-member Central Presbyterian in St. Louis. "Among the many questions were: Was the sanctuary quiet before the service? Did the service run smoothly? Were the music, prayers, and sermon well integrated? Was the Scripture clearly explained? Was the sermon easily followed? Was the congregation attentive? Did they bring their Bibles? Did they open them? We also picked up a bulletin and any literature available."

Conduct personal interviews with the short list of candidates and their spouses -- at least one interview with all short list candidates and at least two with the primary candidate and his spouse. This can be done in conjunction with a trip to hear him preach. Some churches interview the candidate first; if this is positive, they talk with his wife.

"The candidate should do most of the talking initially so the committee can listen and not influence his answers," explains Moore. "We took notes, assigning a section of the interview to each member. At the end, we arranged an exact date to get back to the interviewee."

Central Presbyterian divided their interview questions into five categories: General Background --high school and career; Preaching -- process of preparing a sermon; Worship -- worship service preferred and many administrative matters; Family Life -- spouse and children; Personal Life -- hobbies and interests.

TO TALK OR NOT TO TALK

Confidentiality is key to the entire process, to protect both the church and your candidate from rumor. Total secrecy should reign within the committee. Pastors who are being considered should be free to discuss matters with the committee without it getting back to their churches. Although some of the congregation feel it is their God-given right to know who is on the committee's list, it is not. Any pastor you consider takes a significant risk in his own church. He must know from the beginning that you will honor him and communicate with him at home, not through the church. Be cautious in contacting references; he must indicate when you can contact someone. If word gets back to his church that you contacted him -- even if he has no interest -- his desires may be totally misconstrued.

Having said that, however, the committee should communicate regularly with the session and congregation. Give general reports on the progress, using no names. At this time you should always encourage members to pray for the committee and the entire process.

HOW LONG IS THIS GOING TO TAKE?

Don't get in a hurry," advises Jeff Lamb, search committee member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi for two years. "Setting a false time frame for yourselves can only cause frustration."

Mabry Phillips, who spent three years as Search Committee Chairman for Trinity Presbyterian in Montgomery, concurs. "Choose godly people who are seeking the Lord's will because they must be willing to serve for the long haul. You don't want people who say, "OK, we've got ten names and we're going to pick one soon as possible."

Although serving on a search committee is a huge responsibility and may take a great deal of time, most people find the rewards more than make up for the hard work.

Says Ken Wingate, Search Committee Co-Chairman at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, "The Lord knows how a search will turn out, yet He's very interested in how we go about it. We tried to focus on building relationships and bonding together; out of that bond comes a trust and respect for each other when we must ask the hard questions such as, "What are we really all about here? As we gained new insight into each other, we also began to see our church's possibilities for future growth and ministry. That was exciting."

Still Don't Know What You're Doing?

Sources abound for those who want to get educated about efficient and godly search committee practices. Your denominational headquarters is the first stop for quality information. Below are three, plus additional resources.

Stated Clerk/Administration
Presbyterian Church in America

1852 Century Place, Suite 190
Atlanta, GA 30345
Phone: 404-320-3366
Email: ac@pcanet.org

Associate Reformed Presbyterian
Church Center

1 Cleveland St., Suite 110
Greenville, SC 29601
Phone: 864-232-8297, ext. 223
Email: ehogan@arpsynod.org

Office of the General Assembly
Evangelical Presbyterian Church

29140 Buckingham Ave., Suite 5
Livonia, MI 48154-4572
Phone: 734-261-2001
Email: epchurch@aol.com

In Search of a Leader: The Complete Search Committee Guidebook by Robert Dingman . Order in multiples of ten from
Lay Renewal Ministries, 3101 Bartold Ave., St. Louis, MO 63143.
Ph. 1-800-747-0815. Email: layrenew@aol.com.

"Guidelines for Your Pastoral Search Committee" by Dr. Luder Whitlock. Brochure available from
RTS/Jackson, 5422 Clinton Blvd., Jackson, MS 39209.
Ph. 601-923-4455. Email: bbailey@rts.edu.






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Last updated 6-28-1999.