A young preacher asks about dealing with search committees

As far as I know, no college or seminary has a course in how preachers are to deal with search committees. It’s a skill acquired by trial and error. Mostly trial, I can hear someone say.
A young preacher named David asked about search committees. He’s never been a pastor and is about to meet with a team from a church in search of a pastor. Worries and thoughts of that are keeping him awake at night. He asks,  How does a beginning preacher deal with a search committee?

Since the world has changed since I first sat in that boat, I asked David to jot down specific questions. He sent an even dozen.

1. How do we know we’re being sent to a particular church?

There is only one right answer to this, my friend: The Holy Spirit tells you and them the same thing.

Some would add that “it just feels right,” or “it’s exactly the kind of church you were praying for” or “the church vote was unanimous.” None of those do it for me.

If you have trouble deciphering the will of the Lord in this matter, seek out an older, more seasoned pastor to help you think this through.

2. Since I am just beginning and not presently pastoring, how will we deal with the committee?

You need to  ask your own pastor to let you fill the pulpit some Sunday night or find a preacher-friend who will. If long distance is an issue, you may need extra help in finding a church somewhere in between. Usually your pastor can advise you on this.  Most pastors are willing to help a young preacher get started by providing him a place to preach so a committee can hear him.

When the committee wants a sit-down with you, arrange to use a meeting room at church.

The committee chairman takes the initiative in conducting the meeting, since they asked for this time. Even if it’s in your church, it’s their meeting. Usually, toward the conclusion they’ll ask if you have questions of your own or anything you’d like to share with them.

A few times, after the committee and I met and they were convinced I was God’s man for their church, I asked for one more session to clear up some matters. In that meeting, I took the initiative.

3. How can we prepare our family for the transition from secular employment to church employment?

If the wife and children are excited and supportive, you’re halfway home. If one or more children is balking, it can become a big problem.

If you are moving into church-owned housing in another city, involve the children as much as possible after your first visit. (The first visit, you and your wife check out everything and make plans to get the children excited.)

Do not put a lot of demands on the family at first, but let each one ease into full involvement at their own rate. Enlist committee members with youngsters the same age as yours to welcome them and show them around. (There is no way to overstress the importance of the host youth being warm and friendly and welcoming.)

Early on, pray with each member of the family separately and then together, so all will feel a sense of God’s call and share the privilege of serving Him.

4. How can we keep from being overwhelmed by the thrill of being courted and keep a cool head in order to hear from God?

Nothing will cool things down for you quicker than being turned down by a couple of committees you had been excited about.

Otherwise, the answer is: Much prayer to keep your eyes on the Lord.

5. How do I get ordained?

As soon as a church “calls” you, ask them to make an official request of your present (or home) church that you be ordained. Your present pastor then works with you on the scheduling, to set up an ordination council and followed by a service of ordination a day or more later.

Ideally, leaders from your new pastorate should attend the service since one feature of most ordination services in SBC churches is a “charge to the church” on their responsibility toward the minister. (You may need to personally invite them; not all church leaders know this.)

6. Is it all right to apply to a church where I do not meet the qualifications they specify they’re looking for in a pastor?

Sure. All they can do is ignore your resume.

We might add that in most cases–again, this is the Southern Baptist way–you do not want to “apply,” but have someone write that church with a recommendation of you and include your resume.

Many churches start out with grandiose visions of what their next pastor will look like, sound like, etc., what we used to call the Billy Graham syndrome. But eventually as reality sets in they jettison their list of requirements and begin listening to the Lord of the Church.

7. If the church invites us, how do we negotiate salary, benefits, etc?

Negotiate is not a bad word. But, talk over or work out makes it sound less like a business deal. After all, the committee knows full well that pastors need to be paid and they are prepared for this discussion.

In most cases, you will listen as the chairman tells you (usually not at a meeting of the full committee, but one on one) what the church is prepared to offer in the way of salary, housing, car allowance, health insurance, and such. When he finishes, he will ask you how this sounds. You may want to write down what he has told you and ask him to give you 24 hours to think about it, discuss with your wife, and pray about it.

Preachers doing this for the first time can be fooled by the numbers. Adding all the benefits up may produce an impressive number, a number which some chairmen are likely to bandy about. But as the head of your family with mouths to feed, a family to clothe, etc., you want to think about the actual dollars in your pocket and whether you can live on that. (If a church provides a home and utilities, they will frequently figure out what that is worth–say, $20,000 annually–and tell you the “total package” is such-and-such. But once you deduct that figure, deduct the amount for insurance, car, books, convention etc., what’s left is your “take-home.” And that is a mighty important number in the discussion.)

Do not hesitate to say if the salary figure is too low for you to provide for your family. If you are uncertain, take the information to your pastor-mentor for a quick discussion.

8. Okay, I’m going to begin at the new church on a certain date. What scriptures should I begin preaching from first?

This is the fun part. You will usually start by preaching your favorite texts, the ones you love the most, that have ministered to you best, that you are most familiar with. What you must not do is delve into a long series of sermons on anything, not until you have established a rapport with the congregation and “gotten the feel” for preaching there. After a couple of months, you’ll sense what the Lord wants you to preach to them much better.

Here are a few other “no-no’s” for those first few sermons:

–Do not make these messages about yourself (your vision for them, your story, your hopes and dreams). Second Corinthians 4:5 applies to new pastors as well as veteran ones.

–Do not establish any new directions for the church yet. You are new there, and still learning who they are. Only when they trust you will they be willing to follow you.

–Do not pledge yourself to a grandiose program of visiting every member or preaching through the entire Bible or anything else too ambitious at first. Give yourself a little time to get your bearings.

9. How much should I limit the geographical area of my search for a church? If I’m most comfortable with southerners or with blue-collared folk, should that be where I’m most open?

Each veteran preacher might give you a different answer, but mine is: Do not limit your search at all. Now, if you need to stay close to your dependent, elderly parents, that’s a consideration. But if you are simply hesitant to go somewhere different, I suggest you attack that head-on. Otherwise, your “comfort zone” will shrink and shrink until it’s the size of your bedroom. Get out, expand, grow.

On a plane back home to New Orleans from Dallas, I sat beside a young woman who was born and raised in our city and had taken a job across the Causeway in Covington, Louisiana. She expressed fears about leaving her comfort zone, even though it’s not more than 30 miles from her house. So, it’s all relative, I suppose.

10. Should I insist on being able to continue my education in some way so I can keep growing?

Maybe insist is too strong a word. Ask or plan are better.  Say something like “I’d like to continue my education from time to time, and I’d like to know how the church would feel about that” and get their reaction. More than likely, they’ll ask what this means (whether you are asking the church to pay your tuition to Tulane or will be studying online or traveling out of state for classes), so you should be prepared to give the details.

Never stop sharpening your skills and growing. Continuing education is not just for the beginning pastor.

11. I know young preachers are to look to their home church pastors for guidance and wisdom, but my pastor is never available.  What do I do?

Not a problem.  Look around for another mentor or two.  The Lord has them in every direction.  Most pastors would be delighted if a young preacher called asking for a few minutes of his time.  When you do that, I suggest you have a specific question or two.  Perhaps you are working on a sermon and are stumped by some scripture.  Perhaps–like my friend David–you are wondering about an upcoming faceoff with a search committee. (When I was fresh from seminary and a committee from Mississippi called to say they were coming, I drove to the next town to talk to the pastor of a larger church, asking for his counsel and suggestions. It was a lifesaver.)

If after a brief visit with an older pastor, you feel a good connection, try a repeat visit in a few weeks with something similar in mind. Thereafter, you and he will know if the Lord wants this to be an ongoing mentorship.

12. How much education should a minister have before he begins pursuing a ministry position? Is there a minimum?

You want all the education you can get. But you must not wait until your education is complete before beginning to minister in a church.

My experience was fairly normal in our denomination. After graduating from college but before heading to seminary, I took a secular job and began pastoring a small church. Two years later, as a new seminary student, I was invited to pastor a church slightly larger. The experience in the first church proved to be a real asset, and was probably the determining factor. Then, three years later, by the time I had completed seminary, I had some five years of pastoral experience.

One day, when I was back on campus for something, I bumped into a classmate in the cafeteria. He had recently received his Ph.D. but was having trouble finding a church. “I made a mistake,” he said, “in waiting until I finished my schooling to take a church. The committees all ask the same question: ‘If you’re so good, why do you have no experience?’”

My friend was overqualified for a beginning pastorate but underexperienced for a larger, more demanding one.

Finally, my young brother….

A friend with a lengthy history of excellent service in the Lord’s work told me he had planned the idea vacation trip. “My wife and I are going to visit all the churches we served in our early years.”

Good. That’s interesting.

But he wasn’t through.

“…and apologize.”

We laughed. I knew exactly what he meant. Those first couple of pastorates were difficult for us and tough on the members too, as we were learning our way. Every new preacher makes mistakes. If he is blessed by a patient, mature congregation, he is blessed indeed.

I wish that for you, David.

1 thought on “A young preacher asks about dealing with search committees

  1. GOOD PRACTICAL SOUND COUNSEL!! This should be a required course in most seminaries. Most of us file this under “things they never taught us in seminary.” I would add (from experience) “take all statistics with a grain of salt” 🙂

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