The Pastor and Wife are Visiting a New Church; What to Look For

Each denomination has its own approach to pastor-finding. Most Protestant churches will have variations of the way we Southern Baptists go about replacing preachers.

The church selects and commissions a small group of its finest as the Pastor Search Committee. Their job, in brief, is to sift through the resumes and letters of recommendations coming their way in order to find a few good men (in our denomination, pastors are almost always male) and prayerfully whittle the number down to the one they present to the congregation as “God’s man.”

Now, you’re a pastor. You’ve been serving the Middlesize Baptist Church in Smalltown, USA, and mostly loving it. You’ve been there several years, your wife is settled in, your kids are well-established with friends and activities, and the church seems reasonably satisfied with you. You have no reason to want to leave. But something happens.

A phone call informs you that the pastor search team from Bigtown is interested in you as a possible pastor since Doctor Reverend Powers retired. At their request, you send your resume, they follow up your references, and phone calls are exchanged back and forth. The committee visits your services several times, and last Thursday night, they met with you and your wife.

Today, the phone call from the chairman informs you the committee wishes to invite you to Bigtown. If you agree, one Sunday soon, you are to preach in their pulpit, after which the congregation will vote on you becoming their next shepherd. The salary, which you are just now learning, is only slightly more than what you’re making now. But that’s no matter.

You and the family begin making arrangements to be in Bigtown that weekend. You secure a pulpit replacement for that Sunday, you tell one or two of your leaders what you’re up to (pledging them to silence!), and you get serious about praying.

The decision you and that church are about to make is critical. Since one road leads to another and there’s no returning to this spot to start over, you want to act cautiously and to seek God’s will in every detail.

When you get to Bigtown Church, here’s what to look for.

We probably need to explain up front that we sought the counsel of many pastors, staffers, and spouses on Facebook in preparing this. Several listed points about the prospective church they would want to know before making a move–such as, “Why did the previous pastor leave?”–but what we’re talking about here are the “things to look for” during your visit.

1. Generally speaking, does this church seem a good “fit” for you and your family?

That’s hard to quantify. Mostly, it means, “How did you feel there? Did you like the people you met? Can you see yourself serving in that church?”

As a pastor searching for ministers for staff positions, a few times I have turned down good men for the simple reason they would have been a good fit with our staff and/or membership. It may have involved a lack of education (He used poor English) or manners (he stuck his gum under the plate in the dining room) or too much interest in social position (country club membership, e.g.) or a poor understanding of the ministry for which he was interviewing.

2. Does the pastor search committee seem representative of the church family as a whole?

Pastors will tell you, this is a biggie. Now, churches will always want to put their best people on this committee, and that’s fine. But it’s not uncommon for the committee to run far ahead of the congregation and make promises that they are not able to fulfill later. (I suggest to pastors that as matters are formalized, they ask the committee for a letter of employment in which the terms they discussed and agreed on are spelled out. Get it signed by several leaders. Since lay leadership comes and goes, you don’t want misunderstandings later.)

3. Walk around the church. Look at the facilities.

What’s your general impression? How’s the “curb appeal?”

a) The condition of the childrens and nursery areas will speak volumes about the church. If your church is to reach young families–and what church doesn’t feel a strong need to do this–this area is of critical importance.

b) Are the facilities well kept? Bathrooms clean? Well stocked?

We’ve discussed on these pages before that no area speaks so eloquently to visitors and guests as do the bathrooms.

4. In the worship service–regardless of its type (traditional, contemporary, etc)–do members of the congregation enter in?

If the people are not singing, if they seem bored and unengaged, this is no reason for you not to come as pastor, of course. But how much more excited you will be to find that members of the congregation seem glad to be present, fully involved in the service, and reluctant to leave when it ends.

5. How are decisions made in this church?

You’re probably not going to know this by observing. You’ll have to ask around. And not just the chairman of the search committee.

If the church has a ministerial staff, you will schedule a time to visit with them separately from the search committee. This is when you can ask about decision-making and the role of various groups within the membership. Listen closely, not only to what is said but what is not said.

No matter what you find out, these are not deal-breakers. But you will want to go in with your eyes wide open.

6. How are the people dressed?

One pastor’s wife said, “I want to know if those who are dressed up and those who are poorly dressed are both treated with respect.”

The congregation where every man on the premises is wearing a suit and tie is usually very conservative in its approach to all matters. Likewise, if no one is wearing a tie and most men are dressed as though they just came in from a game of touch football outside, you will know a great deal about this church, too.

7. Does the church plant seem user-friendly?

Notice the signs. As a first-timer, could you tell where to park and which door to enter? If you were looking for the nursery, could you find it easily?

Are greeters out front, are they smiling, and do they seem to have time to help out a questioner?

Inside, does the worship bulletin give newcomers the information they need?

8. Get copies of the printed materials the church makes available. Take them home to study.

a) The Sunday worship bulletin will speak volumes about the church if you study it closely. (If other printed materials are available, ask the chairman to have someone assemble a packet of it. You do not want to appear to be sneaking materials into your coat pocket.

b) You will want a copy of the Constitution and By-laws. Inquire discreetly if the church abides by them or are they woefully out of date? One pastor suggested you also ask for printed copies of the last several church business meetings.

If you are unfamiliar with Bigtown, pick up a copy of the Sunday newspaper on your way out of town. Keep the real estate section. These days, fewer and fewer churches provide homes for the minister, but give him an allowance to purchase his own. So, you’ll want to start early studying the housing market.

9. What is the role of the deacons in this church?

No Baptist church I’ve served–there were six–did deacons the same way. Sometimes they were the board of directors, other times they were spiritual ministers and prayer warriors. In the earlier, smaller churches, they didn’t seem to know what their function was.

Either way, as pastor, you will want to know what you will be dealing with. Some of the best friends and encouragers I’ve ever had in ministry were deacons. Some of the meanest people I encountered over four decades of pastoring were deacons. So, try to learn who the deacons are in this church and what they do.

10. During the standing-around time, what is the main topic of conversation?

One pastor said, “If they are talking about nothing but fishing or golf or yesterday’s ball game, that’s a signal to me they’re not particularly invested in what’s happening here at church.” That might be a little harsh–I talk about the ball game myself sometimes–but if that’s all they speak of, he has a point.

Laymen reading this might think we are suggesting if a church is not all it ought to be, the prospective pastor should decline the invitation and remain in Smalltown. Not so. We’re merely saying the pastor needs to know how things are.

If, for example, he finds that a small group of unelected leaders call the shots in that congregation and that they ran off the last three ministers for refusing to cooperate with their plans, that would be a vital piece of information to have. (Just before declining!)

It’s all a matter of going into our assignments with our eyes wide open.

6 thoughts on “The Pastor and Wife are Visiting a New Church; What to Look For

  1. Great reading Bro Joe. I am a Vocational evangelist but served in the pastorate for 18 yrs. Back then, I wish I would have had something along this line to have as a guide.

    God bless, David

  2. We all have our blind spots – including pastors and churches. I often feel that when people look at the physical building, they aren’t seeing it as it is, they are seeing its history: who sacrificed and fought for it, what it cost, how they feel about what’s happened there. When they look at a pastor, they almost universally compare them to the pastor that meant the most to them – good OR bad.

    And pastors? When we look at a church, we look at the people and how they respond to us. And we tend to think people are telling us the truth about things, when they are really telling us their opinion about things. It’s a good idea to know the difference!

    How to choose?!? We look, we think, we compare, and we pray. And if we’re smart, we make the last one the first priority.

  3. These are all excellent points, but if you happentobe Methodist, the District Super introduces the pastor-parrish committee to someone, says, “Here’s your new pastor, hope you likehim(or her). Since I’m a Methodist pastor, I feel qualified tomake these observations

  4. Bro Joe, I’ve got a question. I’ve seen you use the expression church plant here and at least one other time to refer to the physical facilities, building or campus of a church organization. Is that a common usage of the term?

    My understanding of the term church plant would be more along the lines of planting as in sowing, and sprouting up as in birth. Not buildings.

    Being a missionary working on coming back to the US as a pastor again after a decade on the field, I want to get my vocabulary straight

  5. As usual, pertinent words of wisdom. I would add just one thing. When a minister is retiring and willing to serve part-time, usually the church is smaller. Unless the situation is unusual, be prepared to assist the key leader in how a ministers compensation package works according to IRS. There are great resources in the state convention web site or or experienced people in the baptist building in the state where one is serving. Just a thought.

  6. True, Bryan. The older minister can often render great service to smaller churches where the leadership tends not to be aware of resources available to them. Thank you.

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