Those killer questions search committees ask

After 6 decades of ministry, I consider myself a veteran of pastor search committees.  In many cases, while I did not relocate to their church, I would have loved to have those committee members in my present church.  At in other cases, I’m glad the Lord did not choose to unite me with those folks and I have prayed for whoever did become their minister.

My friend Josh, who grew up in my last pastorate, is presently a medical student, following in his father’s footsteps. Josh is also a veteran of several game shows and quiz programs. At the age of 11, he was a contestant on Jeopardy.  Later, as a student at the University of Southern California, he hosted his own quiz program on the campus station.  He has been a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as well as the Wheel and a number of other shows.

Josh and I were discussing the question that tripped him up on Millionaire.  It went something like this: “At 7’7″, So-and-so is the tallest player in the NBA.  But he is slightly shorter than what portion of the Statue of Liberty?”  The choices were her right arm, her eye, the tablet she is holding, and her finger.  Using his final lifeline, Josh asked a buddy to help him, and they missed it.

Josh said veteran contestants (like himself) have a name for that kind of question, but perhaps he shouldn’t tell his pastor.  I said, “Come on. Give.”

“We call that a go to hell question.”

“A go to hell question,” he explained, “relies on such fine detail that no reasonable person should be expected to know it.”

The idea, it seems, is to get those contestants out of the game.

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The two sides of every resume

“But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God:  in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of the truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report, as deceivers and yet true; as unknown and yet well known; as dying and behold we live; as chastened and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).

I can imagine picking up this guy’s resume’ and having it say: “In one of the two churches I served as pastor, I endured a four-hour deacons meeting in which some wanted to lynch me for preaching the gospel.  Not only did I frequently preach revivals in some outstanding churches and baptized hundreds of converts, but my wife became the target of a gossip campaign because she wore a pants-suit to church one night.  So, I think I’m qualified for anything now.”

A full resume’ would tell both sides of our story.

When we hand our resume’ across to a prospective employer, we want them to learn who we are and the ways in which we are qualified to fill the position for which we’re being considered.

This is who I am.  These are my credentials. Read this and even though you won’t know everything about me, you’ll know a great deal.

My accomplishmentsI served these churches over these years, built these buildings, developed these programs, and achieved these things. I served on this board, led this organization, and participated in these works.

A prospective employer would want to know this.  Now, I would not–as many do–go into great detail tooting my own horn. Let those running their references on me hear someone say that “he didn’t tell the half of it.”  Best for my friends to brag on me than to do it myself.

My scars. Fully as much as my accomplishment, what confirms my identity as a minister of God is what I endured: persecution, hardship, suffering, and trouble. If all who live godly shall experience persecution as the Apostle Peter said, then that’s an essential part of my story.

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When leaders are afraid to lead

“Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you….” (Jeremiah 1:8).

A friend asked, “Why is it taking our church so long to get a new pastor?”

I said, “In my opinion, your search committee is afraid.  They know that certain members of your congregation are quick to pick apart any candidate who isn’t like (a previous pastor, now in Heaven). And they don’t want to take that chance.”

What would you say if I said most leaders of our churches operate from fear?

You would wisely ask how I know and where I got such information or arrived at such a conclusion. I would have to admit that I do not know this for a fact, that it’s from observing churches and their leaders all these decades. As a pastor of six churches for forty-two years and a minister for over six decades, I am well-acquainted with the practice of operating from fear.

What “operating from fear” looks like

–Leaders operate from fear when they poll the congregation to see what they want in the next pastor, the kind of program they want, what the next building should be, or what the congregation should do about some community issue.  In almost every case, it is safe to say that the congregation does not know what it wants.  We should quit asking them.

Lead or get out of the way.

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How the preacher can sound really smart

“I speak as a fool” (2 Corinthians 11:23).

Now, the solid born-again, God-called messenger of the Lord has no wish to sound particularly smart.  True, he does not want to come across as ignorant, but he is not insecure, has nothing to prove, and is not there to impress.  He is a messenger, delivering the word of God, then getting out of the way.*

However, a less than solid preacher just might want to impress his hearers.  An insecure, insincere preacher–one working for the paycheck and seeking the prestige some people bestow on a pastor–might want to bolster his image by dressing up his presentation in some way, and could use some assistance. That’s where we come in.  We can help.

Herewith then is our list of tricks which a poor preacher might want to employ.

Tongue in cheek, of course.

One. Insert the occasional Hebrew or Greek word into your sermon.  This is not hard to do, now that we have the internet.  If you really want to sound smart, after saying, “Now, in the original, the Greek word is” whatever, then you will want to say something like “in the pluperfect aorist tense, of course.”  No one will know you have no clue what you’ve just said, but it doesn’t matter. It sounds good, and that’s the point.

Two. At least once in every sermon, say “As my seminary professor used to say…”  You’ll find great quotes on the internet to attribute to the anonymous teacher.

Three. Google Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and find something good he said.  (He said a lot of quotable stuff, so this won’t be hard.)  In quoting him, be sure to pronounce his name correctly, otherwise the one person in the congregation who knows who he was will badmouth you and your efforts will be for nothing.

This also works for the German preachers Helmut Thelicke and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Unfortunately, it does not work for Joel Osteen or John Hagee.

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Pastors: What not to do regarding search committees

We’ve written on this website regarding pastor search committees and how they should be approached by alert pastors.  Perhaps it’s time to say a word on what not to do regarding these church leaders determined to find a new leader for their congregation no matter how many bruised and bleeding ministers they have to leave in their wake.

Just to be safe, you may wish to go ahead and plant your tongue firmly in your cheek.  While the subject is serious, my treatment of it will be only partially so.

Okay. Pastor, you’ve been invited to meet with the search committee from the First Church of Butterfly City, and you’re plenty excited.

You’ve been at your present church a number of years now and have about run out of ideas, patience, and life-savings.  A change would not only be good, it might save your life, your ministry, your marriage or all three.   In fact, your wife might start believing in God once more if you told her He was transferring you to a new church.

Now, pastor, simmer down.  Do not let yourself become too excited….

First, pastor, you must not assume anything.

–Do not assume the Butterfly committee has done its background checks.  It’s completely possible they may begin tonight’s meeting with, “And who are you again? And where are you serving?”  Assume they know very little about you.

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The best pastor is a broken man

The best kind of pastor is not one who has always had it all together.

The best shepherd of the Lord’s people is one who knows what it is to go astray and be found, to fall and be picked up, to be wounded and to heal, to sin and be forgiven.

If you have ever sat in a congregation where the pastor is without sin, where his sermons show no indication that he knows what it is to be tempted, and where no allowance is given for the human condition, then you know that is no place for a sinner like you.

As a sinner–one whose heart is a rebel, whose mind strays from the paths of righteousness more often than you would like to admit, who constantly needs to repent and receive God’s mercy–you have no business in a church made up of perfect pastors and sinless members. You stand out like an invalid at a body-building contest.

The best pastor is one who has sinned and been taken to the Lord’s woodshed for a time of discipline and chastisement. He will know how to warn the children from straying and to bind them up in love after they have learned life’s lessons the hard way.

The best pastor is one who has been in trouble and doubted and came close to slipping, but at the last minute was rescued by the hand of God. He will value the Lord’s mercy.

The best pastor is probably not the kind your pastor-search-committee is looking for. But it should be.

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Dear Pastor: Our search committee liked you. However….

There is no scriptural precedent for pastor search committees that I know of.  Yet, they are a necessary evil, if I may be permitted to say.  The alternative seems to be bishops appointing pastors or church bosses hiring them.  Both methods have been tried and found wanting.  But so has the search committee system been found to be flawed. There is no foolproof method.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

These days, some churches are hiring firms to conduct the initial searching and culling for them.  If they have found this system to be an improvement over the spontaneous-committee-of-the-untrained, I haven’t heard.

Pastors eventually conclude that search committees come in all shapes and sizes, all theologies and philosophies and agendas.  Ministers learn to take what they say with quite a few grains of salt.  Committees often function like the local chamber of commerce, giving their community and church the glamour treatment to the point that even their own members wouldn’t recognize it.  They make promises they never follow through on, and ask all kinds of ridiculous questions they ignore once the questionnaire is returned.

Not all, of course.  Once in a while, a pastor discovers a gem of a committee.  I once told such a team, “The Lord is not leading me to your church, but I want all six of you in my church forever!”

Alas, those are the exceptions.

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What search committees say when they mean something else

Never volunteer for the pastor search committee unless one of two things is true: Everyone agrees that a beloved former staff member, who is now serving a church in Podunk, is going to be the next pastor, making this the easiest job ever–or, you have a death wish.

It can be the hardest, most thankless assignment you’ll ever undertake.

It can also make a world of difference for good in a church that needs just the right combination of visionary pastor, anointed preacher, competent administrator, and down-to-earth friend.

If your church is selecting such a committee, pray big time for the Lord to lead in filling the slots. Never volunteer for it.  Accept it if the Lord leads you and those making the decision.  If you are a member of such a group, then this little piece is for you.  Think of what follows as a cautionary note, exaggerated in places, attempting a little humor at times, but with much truth.

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Those game-ending questions search committees ask

What started this was something my young friend Josh said.

Josh, who grew up in my last pastorate and is now a medical student, is a veteran contestant on game shows and quiz programs. At the age of 11, he was a contestant on Jeopardy.  As a student at the University of Southern California, he hosted his own television program on the campus station.  Later he was a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? In between, he did The Wheel and several other shows.

The question that tripped him up on Millionaire went something like this: “At 7’7″, (name) is the tallest player in the NBA.  But he is slightly shorter than what portion of the Statue of Liberty?”  The choices were her right arm, her eye, the tablet she is holding, and her finger.  Using his final lifeline, Josh asked a buddy to help him, and they missed it.  Anyway….

Josh said veteran contestants (like himself) have a name for that kind of question, but perhaps he shouldn’t tell his pastor.  I said, “Come on. Give.”

“We call that a Go To Hell question.”

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Help! Our committee is taking too long to find a pastor.

A friend wrote, “What do we do when the pastor search committee is taking so long that people are leaving? Some of our leaders are panicking.”

This is not a rare phenomenon. It happens.

The typical Southern Baptist church can expect the search process to take anywhere from 6 months to a year. If the church has unusual circumstances–a terrible reputation, poor finances, a history of infighting, or several candidates in a row have turned the committee down–the process could take longer than expected.

When people start leaving the church because no pastor has been found, seizing the first preacher available and recommending him is the worst of all possible options.

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