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.
Jim Mora was the popular coach of the New Orleans Saints NFL team from 1986 to 1996. On one occasion, as he and I shared an elevator, I introduced myself. I said, “Preachers can appreciate what coaches have to put up with. We both work hard all week and everything comes down to a couple of hours on Sunday. It’ll make or break you.”
He flashed that smile that charmed every fan, calmed many a sportswriter, and drove a few referees nuts. “But,” he said, “they don’t call radio stations the next week criticizing every little decision you made, do they?”
No, I guess not. A friend said, “If they’d pay me the zillion bucks these guys get, I could stand that.”
Now, football coaches and pastors probably have more that differentiates us than we have in common. A coach tends a small flock, usually no more than 50 players and a few assistants. At the upper echelon, he gets paid astronomical bucks, is answerable only to one or two bosses, and his actual season lasts just a few months. The typical pastor may have a flock numbering in the hundreds or more, while receiving a salary barely sufficient to keep the house heated and the children clothed and fed. Pastors are answerable to everyone and his brother, it seems, and work year round without a letup.
“And without parables (great stories!) Jesus did not teach” (Mark 4:34).
I once sat through a long session of a convention of realtors just to hear a motivational speaker. The story with which he opened quickly became a mainstay in my arsenal of great illustrations and sermon-helpers.
Time well spent.
I’ve read entire books and come away with one paragraph that became a staple in my preaching thereafter. It was time well invested and money well spent.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love (which I do not recommend), attended a party 20 years ago and heard something from a fellow whose name she has long forgotten. “Sometimes I think this man came into my life for the sole purpose of telling me this story, which has delighted and inspired me ever since.”
That’s how it works. One story; a whole lifetime of benefit.
Gilbert says the man told of his younger brother who was an aspiring artist. Living in Paris and struggling to get by, he seized every opportunity to get his name before people. One day, in a cafe’ some people invited him to a party that weekend at a castle in the Loire Valley. This was big stuff and he eagerly accepted the opportunity to hobnob with people of wealth and influence.
They’re voting on the preacher at the end of today’s worship service. He may be looking for a job before noon. Or, it could work out well. Either way, the pastor and his wife have turned it all over to the Lord, and while it would be catastrophic in some ways to have their lives turned upside down this way, their focus is on the Lord and not man. Here is some of what he told the church before the vote.
I’m glad to see so many in Weak Sister Church today. A friend of mine says there are two ways to get a big crowd in church: welcome a new preacher or run the old one off.
Some of you haven’t been to Weak Sister in a while. I am sincerely glad to see you here. I do have a special word for you, but not yet. Please bear with me a few moments while I address the believers in the room.
(Officially, October was Pastor Appreciation Month. But I don’t imagine it’ll hurt if we encourage our ministers at other times. Reckon?)
Don’t anyone tell the preacher we’re all going to encourage him.
Let him think it was spontaneous on your part.
What I want you to do is something you’ve almost quit doing. No, I’m not talking about praying for him, although there is that.
Write him a letter.
Handwrite it. Make it two pages, no more. Make it positive and uplifting.
And when you do, I can tell you several things about that letter once it arrives at the pastor’s desk….
“Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
You’re the captain of a mighty airship–a 747, let’s say. It’s a huge job with great responsibility, but one you are doing well and feel confident about. Then, someone alerts you to another plane that is approaching and has a message for you.
You are to transfer to the other plane and become their pilot.
So, you push back the canopy–I know, I know, the huge planes don’t have canopies, but we’re imagining this–and crawl into the contraption the other plane has sent over. You are jettisoned from your old plane to the new one.
As you settle into the captain’s seat in your new plane, you find yourself surrounded by an unfamiliar crew and you notice the controls in front of you are not the same as in the old plane. This is going to take some getting used to. Meanwhile, you and your crew and passengers are zooming along at 35,000 feet.
Your new flight attendants send word, “Captain, welcome aboard. Everyone is asking what is our destination? Can you tell us your goals for this flight?”
And you think to yourself, “You’re asking me? I just got here!”
This is an apt parable for what happens to pastors.
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.”
My friend Pastor Dave led a congregation in my neighborhood for two thirds of his life. This was a sweet fellowship and even though our denominational affiliation is different, Dave graciously invited me to fill the pulpit in his absence on several occasions.
One day over lunch, I asked Dave how he had managed to stay in one church over four decades. Were there not times when church members rose up and demanded new leadership? Did he not get the urge to try something new?
Bear in mind that I work with pastors. I hear the tales of midnight deacons’ meetings, of forced terminations, of pressure groups, of bullies and rogue church officers and, in the words of one, “the devil in pew number seven.” Dave had none of this?
Some power clique in the church is on your case. Some church member is leading a movement to oust you. The church has a history of ousting pastors every so often and it’s time, and some members are getting restless.
Or, perhaps, as the pastor, you did something wrong and it blew up in your face. People are calling for your head.
Or, you failed to act and some cancer has gained a foothold within the congregation and your job is in jeopardy.
What do you do now?
It would be foolish to try to offer a panacea here, a cure-all for what ails the church, a fix-all for what troubles the pastor. I will not attempt that. But here are 20 steps which many pastors can take to right the ship and set it back on track (to mix metaphors)….
1) Don’t hesitate to apologize if you need to.
“I blew it, folks. I’m sorry.”
Apologies should be as public as the act was public. If you did one person wrong and it’s known only to that one, go to him/her and admit what you did and ask for forgiveness. If your mistake was churchwide, stand in the pulpit and take your medicine.
When I asked some minister friends their advice and lessons learned concerning church staff relationships, here are some of the most interesting responses.
1. Jim says, “Be very careful whom you trust completely.”
Over several decades of ministry, Jim says he has been brutally betrayed at least three times. It has made him wary about trusting anyone with anything confidential.
I’m recalling a time two churches ago when the personnel committee and I were dealing with a sensitive issue, long since forgotten. I said, “Can I say something in here and it not go any further?” The chairman said, “Pastor, I wouldn’t say anything in here you do not want to get out.”