Help! I’m a New Pastor and Don’t Know How to Deal 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 you acquire by trial and error. Mostly trial, I can hear someone say.

Recently, on this website, we’ve been addressing this subject. (There are, scattered throughout the nearly 2,000 articles on this blog, occasional writings on pastors and search committees.) Last week we talked about what the search committee looks for when they show up in your congregation on Sunday and then, prompted by a pastor’s wife, what the pastor is looking at when visiting that church “in view of a call.”

Another friend mentioned something we’ve never addressed: What about a beginning preacher–not necessary a youngster–who is about to become a pastor? He finds himself sitting across from that search committee for the first time with a hundred questions eating at him. How does a beginning preacher deal with a search committee?

Since the world has changed in the nearly half-century when I sat in that boat, I asked my friend (David) to jot down specific questions. (Did he ever! He sent an even dozen. He’s serious about this!)

So, here, in the order in which David posed the questions, are my responses–such as they are–regarding a beginning pastor squaring off against a search committee. (Athletic, competitive terminology tongue-in-cheek.)

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

There is only one 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, as an older, more seasoned pastor for his counsel.

2. Since the committee will visit with us as a church member, not as one presently pastoring, how will we deal with the committee?

They will want to hear you preach, so you’ll ask your own pastor to let you fill the pulpit some Sunday night or to find a preacher-friend who will. If distance is an issue and you and the committee need to meet in the middle, you may need extra help finding a church. Usually your pastor can help.

When the committee wants a sit-down with you, simply call your church and arrange to use a meeting room.

The committee chairman takes the initiative in 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 meeting 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 them 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.

From early on, you should pray with each member of the family separately and then together, so all will feel a sense of God’s call and of being privileged to do this service for 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 invite them; not all churches 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., but eventually as reality sets in they toss aside 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 would be a better term. 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 offers 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 these 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 the most 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 confused, take the information to your pastor-mentor for a quick discussion.

8. Okay, I’m going to begin 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). II 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.

Last night on the plane from Dallas, I sat beside a young woman who has taken a job in sales and being assigned to the “northshore” above New Orleans. 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 is probably the operative term. Put it out there–“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 respond.

You will never ever want to stop sharpening your skills and growing.

11. I know we’re to be gaining wisdom from our pastors concerning the calling on our lives, but what would one do if the pastor is the ‘out of reach’ or ‘unavailable’ sort? This is a question I often hear around the campuses I attend.

I’m not sure what this means, David.

If you refer to your home church pastor’s not being available to talk with you about this new ministry, even though I find it puzzling–surely he’s proud of you and wants to encourage you–I would suggest you look around for another mentor or two.

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 probably fairly normal. Before coming to seminary–and just after graduating from college–I took a secular job and began pastoring a tiny church. Then, 2 years later, as a new seminary student, I was invited to pastor a church about twice that size. Having the first experience proved to be a real asset, and was probably the determining factor in the committee’s interest. Then, by the time I finished seminary with the masters degree, I had some 5 years of experience in pastoring.

Five years later, when I was back on campus to work on the doctorate, I bumped into a classmate in the cafeteria. He had recently received his Ph.D. but was having trouble finding a church to pastor. “I made a mistake,” he said, “in waiting until I finished my schooling to pastor. Now, the churches ask me, ‘If you’re so good, why do you have no experience?'”

The reality was that, for search committees, he was overqualified for a beginning pastorate but underexperienced for a larger, more demanding one.

Finally, my young brother….

This week, a friend with a lengthy history of excellent service in the Lord’s work told me he has planned the idea trip for his wife and him. “I want us to visit all the churches we served in our early years.” I nodded. Good suggestion.

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.

3 thoughts on “Help! I’m a New Pastor and Don’t Know How to Deal With Search Committees

  1. I can remember the first time a pastor search committee called on me. It was in my first year of seminary and the church was an hour and a half from the seminary campus (Buras, LA). They asked me some questions about my calling and then kept inviting me back to preach until they decided that i was the one for them. I spent two years there and it was a great group of people. My advice to young preachers is to go to the small churches first.They may not have much in the way of benefits but their hearts are precious.

  2. Thank you, Brother Joe! This is a very informative article, and one of which I will be adding to my collection. I am ever grateful for the Lord bringing our paths back around together.

    God bless,


  3. FYI–though NOBTS does not have a course devoted to dealing with search committees, they do have classes that cover the issue during the semester. In fact, when I teach this section, one important thing I tell the students is to get some of the important things in writing (something you covered in an earlier post). Specifically, financial package, agreement to continue education, time off, and any promises made by either party are important to have in writing. I’m afraid I learned this the hard way at a previous church. I also tell them that if a committee is reluctant to put things in writing, that is a huge red flag.

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