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.
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.
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.”
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.
I was the student minister in a fine church many years ago. We had a wonderful ministry. The single negative about the entire experience was the pastor. You never knew what he would do next.
Case in point. One night in a church business meeting, the pastor announced that the property the church owned, including the former pastorium, was being offered for sale. At the time, my wife and I were living in that house! And now we learn they’re selling it. This was the first we had heard of it.
That night, my wife was angry because she thought I had known about it and not told her. But that was the way this pastor worked.
Staff members were nothing to him. Just pawns to be manipulated.
I sat there listening to longtime friend Will tell of that experience from some years back and thought once again that the number one trait a staff member is looking for in his/her new pastor–employer, supervisor, and hopefully mentor–is integrity.
Without integrity, nothing matters.
Why do people do the things they do?
Try to figure that one out and soon your brain will explode from over-exertion.
Why did certain people leave your church? Why did that pastor search committee–that looked so promising, talked so excitedly, and seemed so certain–suddenly disappear without a word of explanation? Why did a friend turn on you and walk out of your life without a word?
People are going to leave your church, pastor.
You ministered to them faithfully, you thought you had a great relationship with them and they were happy under your ministry, then suddenly they were gone. Sometime later, you learn they joined another church a mile down the road. What happened? Ideally, they will come by your office to explain their actions.
But don’t hold your breath, preacher. Not going to happen. (This is not an ideal world.)
Recently, in one of our on-line magazines for ministers, a preacher friend gave twenty-five questions which pastors should ask of search committees before accepting their call. At the conclusion, he said, “I believe the Lord allows us tremendous latitude in where we serve.”
Tremendous latitude. Interesting expression. I assume that to mean “great flexibility.” Which implies, to me at any rate, that the Lord lays out all these choices and says, “It’s up to you.”
It’s your call. You can decide.
Take your pick.
I replied with a cartoon. A preacher sits at a table with his open Bible before him. He prays, “Lord, I’ve heard you give us extreme latitude in deciding where to serve. But Lord–please don’t do that. I don’t want latitude. I can’t trust myself to do this. You choose, Father. You choose!”
That’s how I feel. If the Lord were to say to me, “Choose from these three churches, all of them wanting you as pastor,” I’m afraid I would have to punt.
I can hear myself saying, “Lord, You know. I don’t. You know my little strengths and my glaring weaknesses. You know who is in each of those churches and how they make decisions. You know their secrets and I don’t. Please don’t ask me to do this.”
As a friend once preached on something similar, I do not have mentality enough, morality enough, or maturity enough for making such a call.
“Lord,” I said, “Most churches are afraid of me. If I’m such a good candidate for their church, they wonder why I am still unemployed?”
I had survived an attempt to oust me from leadership of the church I’d pastored the last three years. It had been the most difficult, up-hill period in my ministry. Then, when it appeared the coup had failed and the know-it-alls knew a lot less than they had figured, I was not given time to take a breath before the ringleader said in private, “It’s not over, Joe. It’ll never be over until you’re gone.”
He was determined to get me out of that church.
A few days later, the Father said to me, “You may leave now.”
Six months earlier, a church leader with ties to the little power group had taken me to lunch with an offer. “If you will leave, they’ll give you $100,000. And you can walk away.”
I said, “I would love to leave. The stress is killing me. But the Lord will not let me.”
A Midwest church twice our size had shown interest in me as a possible pastor. I’d sent them recorded sermons–this was before the internet–and we’d had extensive long distance conversations. They were about to send their search committee across the country to visit us when I stopped it.
The new pastor looks out at the congregation. He’s acting confident and looks the part. The search committee did a good job from all appearances. The pastor speaks well and seems to know what he’s doing.
Has someone removed the pulpit from the platform? And is that a rowboat the preacher is standing in? What is going on here? Am I in the right church? Have we entered the twilight zone?
I know of a pastor who did that on his first Sunday.