Dear Pastor Search Committee

Every minister with any experience at all could write a book to pastor search committees. They would urge them to focus on one pastor at a time, always keep your word, do not sugar-coat how things are in your church, bring along a packet of material on your church and community to leave with the candidate, and give him names and contact information on past ministers who have served your church so he can do his own background checking.

It’s a scary thing, being selected for a pastor search team, what we used to call the “pulpit committee.” That title changed when it finally got through to some people that they were searching for more than someone to fill the pulpit; they were seeking God’s shepherd for their flock.

Over nearly a half-century in the ministry, I have dealt with at least an average of one such committee per year. In fact, during one three year period, I counted up the number of contacts I had had from pastor-searchers: 36, one per month.

I’ve seen them all, from the absolutely fantastic to the disastrously inept.

Personally, I can think of a-hundred-and-twenty-three things I’d like to say to this little group of folks entrusted with the future of their church.

I’ll confine myself to three words of counsel.

–Don’t fall in love too easily.

–Take your own sweet time.

–Run lots and lots of references, then run a few more.

First, don’t fall in love too easily.

The pastor can tell you about the couples who come to him for pre-marital counsel and wedding preparation. He schedules appointments and gives them books to read and assignments to carry out. He tells them how to know if they are not right for each other, and urges them to call it off if they are having second thoughts.

He’s wasting his breath.

Once the hormones kick in and the juices are flowing and mother is looking for the right dress, it’s all over. The preacher is only so much window dressing.

When the pastor search committee visits a church and flips for a preacher–I mean, they go ga-ga for this guy, dead sure he is ideal for their congregation–it’s all over. In most cases, they quit praying except in a perfunctory way and stop seeking more information on him.

They do that for the same reason Elsie does not listen to the pastor when he counsels her to take a deeper look at Elroy: she does not want any bad news. She’s in love. This is “God’s will for my life; God’s man for my heart.”

This feels so good, it can’t be wrong.

Sometimes she’s right; sometimes she’s not.

Sometimes the pastor search committee is exactly right, that this is God’s man; just as often, they are mistaken and are misled by the pastor’s charm, his mannerisms, his way of saying all the right things, the surface stuff.

Once you move in together–once the relationship is formalized and finalized–you began to see what you had been overlooking.

When buying a house or a used car, the experienced will tell you: don’t fall in love too quickly. Be skeptical. Don’t be distracted by all the polish and shine. Look beneath the surface. Have a mechanic check out that pastor–uh, that car. Get an unbiased opinion from an outsider.

Be patient; take your own sweet time. That’s number two.

Nothing takes the glow out of the original ecstasy of romantic love like just a little time. And–I cannot emphasize this too strongly–you do not want to enter a marriage or bring a pastor to your church when you are still swept up in the thrill of the catch you have made. You want your eyes wide open and your brain engaged.

Take your time now. You both need a cool-down period.

Impatience has caused a lot of otherwise reasonable people to marry foolishly, purchase the wrong house, drive home a lemon from the car lot.

Impatience has ruined a lot of good churches.

A Christian college I know celebrated the retirement of their president, sending him off in grand style. Then, because the enrollment was down and finances were strained, the chairman of the trustees felt he had to assure both the alumni and his board with this strange promise: “We’ll have a new president in place within three months.”

Those who heard that rash statement wondered at it. The only way a search committee can be assembled and trained and accomplish such an important assignment is to already have the obvious candidate waiting in the wings–perhaps the assistant to the president, brought on board for this very purpose.

That was not the case, however.

Three months into the interim period, the board was no closer to selecting a new president than they had been at the start. Cooler heads prevailed over the chairman’s impatience and they were moving forward at a deliberate pace.

Church members do not like to wait. “Let’s get this over with. What’s taking so long? There are lots of good preachers out there.”

No question there are. But you’re not looking for just any good preacher. You are looking for God’s man.

A wise and mature congregation will choose the best people in their church to seek the next leader and then support them with prayers, encouragement, and patience.

Third: run lots and lots of references on the pastoral candidate. Then, run some more.

I’m tempted to say you cannot know too much about a possible shepherd for your church. And it’s almost true.

You want every possible question answered. You want to know everything you can about his background. After all, the best predictor about his future work is past experience. You want to talk with most of the staff members he has served with in previous churches.

You will eventually encounter someone who does not like him or has something negative to say. That’s good.

There is no pastor worth his salt who has not rubbed some people the wrong way. If he has been courageous in his leadership and bold in his preaching, someone was offended and is mad at him.

Find them. Listen to them.

Then, once you get it all together, prayerfully come to your own conclusions on the calibre of the man you are considering.

There are no perfect people and certainly no flawless pastors. Even if they were, God would not be sending them to a flawed congregation like your own. So, get over that illusion.

Deal with reality.

Before you go before the church with your recommendation, get the pastor’s approval to run a credit check and criminal background check on him. If he refuses, citing privacy rights, consider that the red flag that it is and back off.

Recently, in a meeting with several of my colleagues–that would be present and retired directors of missions from Southern Baptist associations–the discussion turned to pastor search committees calling us for information on pastors we know.

The question arose on what to tell a committee when we cannot recommend a man. One DOM told how a pastor in his area has just been terminated for abusing the church’s credit card. Even after he announced his resignation, he ran up thousands of dollars more in charges. The DOM said, “And he’s a good man.”

Some of us begged to differ. Jesus said, “If you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon (what the KJV calls ‘filthy lucre’), who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11) How a person handles finances is not incidental to how he will arrange the rest of his life.

One said, “We have to be careful of lawsuits today. The less said the better.”

Another said, “In situations like that, I tell the person who called, ‘Ask me ‘yes or no’ questions.”

“That ought to tell them something!” everyone agreed.

One director of missions said, “A friend of mine in our work had a phone call from an unemployed preacher wanting him to find him a church in that area. The DOM said, ‘I cannot get you a job. But, friend, I can keep you from getting a job!'”

What he meant was the search committee has its own mind and will make its own decisions as they sense the Lord leading–and we applaud that. However, someone in the know about a particular pastor, a leader like the director of missions (similar to a district superintendent or bishop in some denominations) can warn off a search committee from making a disastrous choice.

He can, if the committee calls him. To our utter amazement and consternation, churches call pastors all the time without their search committee making that single all-important phone call to the denominational leader closest to him and his church.

Some will read this and be horrified that I’m suggesting the DOM should have this authority. It’s not the authority I’m talking about–it’s the information. You need to know what he can tell you, then you can decide for yourself what to do with it or whether your team needs to do additional background checking.

Let’s hear it for God’s pastors and God’s churches being matched up together in great marriages!

8 thoughts on “Dear Pastor Search Committee

  1. The last search committee I had was by far the best. They took my wife and I out to dinner in a private dining room before they came to hear me preach. They asked intelligent questions pertaining to their own church’s needs. The one thing they forgot to tell me was about a specific person who created problems in the church. Two leading members, one on the committee, and the other one’s wife was on it, told me the first day to watch out for this person. Had they told me ahead of time, it would have been a condition of employment that they terminate the person before I came, or I was happy where I was. Frankly most search committees I talked with were ill prepared. I led the discussion in all of them, giving them information they should have asked for. I also surprised most of them by interviewing them about the church and whether we would mesh. They seldom told of the negatives, tho they knew at least some of them.

  2. One of the most daunting (yet rewarding) periods of service I have

    ever had was being on our church’s Pastor Search Committee. But what

    made it so great was that we had terrific leadership in our

    chairman, Dr. C. Whitlow, we had a very diverse committee who was

    brutally honest, and a great interim pastor, Dr. Mark Tolbert who

    kept our congregation from being impatient. And great counsel from

    our DOM-you:) Once again thanks!

  3. One thing you didn’t discuss that I think is very important: If your church has a serious problem, solve it BEFORE calling a new pastor. Search committees looking for a guy they think can fix the problem make VERY serious mistakes.

  4. One thing you didn’t discuss that I think is very important: If your church has a serious problem, solve it BEFORE calling a new pastor. Search committees looking for a guy they think can fix the problem make VERY serious mistakes.

  5. Another home run, Dr Joe! I felt uncomfortable being in “competition” with another pastor. I almost removed my name from consideration.

    In an earlier situation, my wife and I were treated exceptionally well and the head deacon promised that I would be called back to preach another Sunday. The next thing I hear is that Pastor x has been called. I talked to a friend and discovered that he had been promised the same thing at the same church, about a month earlier.

    The ironic thing is that the (pastoral selection from the earlier church) head deacon’s wife was in the singing group for the first fifth Sunday music program at the church that I was called to pastor. I am convinced that what happened was God’s will because the church where I am now is a perfect match.

    Dr J

  6. I was shocked at how little information my current church gathered on me. They called none of my references. It didn’t even occur to them to ask why I hadn’t listed my current pastor as a reference (I was a worship leader seeking my first pastorate). I’ve since talked to several of them about it.

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