Those intangibles pastor search committees are looking for

(What follows has reference primarily within our Southern Baptist Convention and possibly a few other denominations. If this counsel does not work within your ministerial framework, please ignore it. Thank you. –Joe)

Pastor, this one is unusual in two respects. 1) I’m going to suggest that you and your wife read it together and discuss it. 2) It comes from my wife and me. (I wrote it, then read it to Margaret and added her comments, sometimes changing what I’d said for clarification.)

I think it was Freud who said no one has ever successfully answered, “What does a woman want?”

Maybe so. But what concerns many a pastor in our denominational framework is: “What is a search committee looking for?”

The answers will depend on who you talk to. Experience, age, college, seminary, glowing references, and denominational service are some of the mainstays on their lists. The joke is they want a 30-year-old preacher with 25 years of experience, someone with a loving wife and two-and-a-half children who adore him even though he spends 80 hours a week doing pastoral calling and 40 hours in sermon preparation.

That is overstated. Slightly.

They want the usual: a good preacher who knows the Bible, believes in it absolutely, has a warm heart and great pulpit manner, and can administer a staff. They want a man who can project a vision for a church, but not force it on the congregation, leading by consensus. They want a pastor who can select a staff of winners, then see that they do a great job and that they stay with the church for many years. Oh, and they would like the pastor’s wife to be lovely and charming without letting on that she has the slightest idea she’s lovely and charming.

Nail this down and you’re on your way, preacher.

Then, there are a few other things. What we call the intangibles.

My wife and I were talking about this just today, how that young pastors get their training and experience and send out their resumes in hope that the big church will come their way but often without a clue as to what they still do not have just right.

May I start the discussion on those other things which pastor search committees want in their new pastor?That means nothing here is meant to be the final word on the subject. Perhaps it can get you to thinking and even provoke a discussion around the breakfast table or over the table at McDonald’s the next time you and a couple of your preacher buddies meet. Even better, you and your wife invite another preacher-couple in for couple and discuss it. Whether you agree is not the point. Just talking about it will be a start in the right direction.

Give attention to your personality, pastor.

The searchers are looking for someone likeable, someone pleasant to be around, someone with a sense of humor who does not take himself too seriously.  Margaret adds, “With a wide range of interest. They want you to be well-read and up to date on the world around you, not just johnny-one-note.” She’s right.

Are you friendly? If so, get out there prior to the worship service and meet people. Hug the old ladies and laugh with the young families. Be happy, and communicate a spirit of love in this place.

If you are not friendly, then what in the sam hill are you doing in the ministry in the first place? Friendliness is nothing in the world but loving people and letting them know it. If you can’t do that, get help quick before you ruin a good church.

Your true personality is going to come through in the pulpit, my friend. There is no faking it. If you have been told you have all the personality of a sheet of wallboard, there is one thing and one thing only you need to do: Change. And we’re not talking about taking a Dale Carnegie course either, although that’s not a bad idea. The Holy Spirit is the One who specializes in transforming temperaments and adjusting attitudes and “making all things new.”

Go to Him in prayer–serious private, heart-felt prayer. Lay this before Him and stay until He begins to show the way out.

Nothing uncovers the pastor’s true personality better than watching how he handles something that comes up unexpectedly.  He’s preaching and someone heckles him? Good. Watch what he does now. It will tell you volumes about him.  He’s moderating a church business meeting and someone acts angry and makes a game-changing motion. Watch your pastor now. He’s about to show you the real person he is inside.

Pay attention to your clothing and appearance.

I am well aware “the times they-are-a-changing,” and that jeans in the pulpit are acceptable in many churches these days. I have no problem with that. Some churches will even accept the pastor wearing sneakers and a polo shirt in the pulpit.

My single thought on that subject is this: If your church is satisfied with that and you are happy with it, and if you have no desire to ever be considered by another church’s pastor search committee, then stay with it.

But if you want to be open to moving to another assignment–if the Lord should lead–then work on your appearance.

If you wear jeans in the pulpit, pick out the best-looking pair you have and send them to the cleaners. They will launder them and press into them the best crease you have ever seen. You will look so sharp on Sunday you’ll never go back to the old way. Now, if you want to dress that up a tad more, slip on a dark blazer. Oh, and leave off the sneakers. Really, I mean, what do you think this is, a youth basketball game? Come on, man. Time to grow up, preacher.

Speaking of shoes. Margaret says, “Don’t stop your grooming at the cuff of your pants.” Look at your shoes. Clean and shine them. Have a kit of some kind in your office so doing this will never be a chore.

If you wear a tie, stay away from silly ones, splashy ones, or ones that celebrate some team. Solid colors is best.

Get all the education you can. Never stop learning and growing.

I am aware there are committees that will toss your resume if you do not list a seminary degree. Some won’t even talk to you if you lack a doctorate.

The simple fact is that seminary diplomas and even doctor’s degrees for preachers are increasingly easy to come by and thus worth less and less.  In spite of the claims, they do not guarantee the holder to get a big church somewhere.

The fact is you’d rather not go to one of those churches that requires certain degrees before they will even put your name in the pot. Any church that superficial will have a ton of other headaches just waiting for the new preacher.

Nevertheless, get all the education you can. And when you cannot go back to school for more, see what is available online. And attend respected conferences and short-term classes to build skills. Our seminary in New Orleans has one-week intensives–I’ve taught some of them!–where you go to class from Monday noon until Friday noon. The schedule is exhausting, but many of those in the classroom are busy ministers in demanding churches trying to keep their skills honed.

Keep reading the best journals. Have yourself a few choice websites (if you are not sure which ones, ask the pastors you respect most for the ones they regularly read). And one more thing, perhaps most important of all: Find yourself two or three friends and do the Proverbs 27:17 number on each other. Iron sharpening iron, you know.

Watch the humor and silliness in the pulpit.

One pastor I know overdid the jokes in his sermons. But, it was a strong and mature congregation, so little was said about the matter–until he left. After he had vacated his office, someone ran across a book of jokes he had left behind. They were surprised and, let us say, disappointed, to see he had marked in the margin which joke he had used on particular Sundays. For some reason, that was over the top, and felt cheap to them. Soon the entire congregation knew of the book and dropped their estimation of that pastor a notch or two.

The best humor in the pulpit is what happens naturally and easily. Spontaneous humor–unplanned, surprising–is best if no one is injured or humiliated. A child speaks up with just the right word and the congregation bursts out with a roar. The rest of that worship service has just been elevated to a higher plane.

Near my house is a Christian school with a football team that constantly wins the state title. A couple of years ago, they journeyed up the highway to a large city and played a powerhouse high school team there, one that had been called the best in the nation. Our guys won. That was on a Friday night.

The next Sunday morning, as the local associational director of missions, I was visiting a church not far from that school.  Behind me sat a kid about 9 or 10 who was bored through most of the service. After the sermon, a layman stepped to the pulpit to lead a prayer time. He shared requests and invited members to share theirs. Then, before leading the prayer, he asked, “Does anyone have a praise report for the rest of us?”

Now for the first time, the little kid behind me came alive.

He called out loudly, “We kicked Hoover’s butt!”

The congregation was stunned into silence, then exploded with laughter. It was the best moment of the day.

The only thing that would have improved on that would have been if that had occurred early in the service. Something about that burst of laughter opened our spirits and bonded our hearts. Now, we were really ready for the service.

Pastor, never ever tell a joke that is borderline in any way–sexual, racial, or the least bit offensive or controversial. Any humor from the Lord’s pulpit should be honorable and appropriate.

Margaret adds, “The use of humor should be done very carefully. Our pastor (Mike Miller) isolates himself before the service to keep himself in the spirit of what he came to do.” (I remind her Mike does come out to greet people before church, a big deal with me. But she’s right that he has been in his study for hours that morning going over every detail of everything to follow in this hour.)

Show some class. Even some dignity.

Use correct grammar. Have your wife or another friend in the church help you if this is a problem. Believe me, if you violate the rules of proper English there will be people in the congregation willing to assist you.

Don’t use slang in the pulpit. You are a grown man, so act like it.

Nothing grates on my nerves more than a preacher who walks onto the platform to begin the morning service with silly remarks about “last Friday night’s game” or “good to see Chuck and Billy back from deer hunting” or “well, the attendance is really down today; guess everybody’s recovering from a big Saturday night.”

I suggest that the pastor always be the host for the service, whether he’s actually going to bring the sermon today or not. He should begin the service himself. And, I suggest that the first words out of his mouth be scripture, something calling us to praise or worship or godly living. Something like one of these….

This is the day the Lord has made! I will rejoice and be glad in it!

In thy presence there is fulness of joy; at thy right hands there are pleasures forevermore.

I will call upon the Lord who is greatly to be praised. So shall I be saved from my enemies. The Lord liveth, and blessed be the Rock, and let the God of my salvation be exalted!

When you do that, pastor, do not cite the reference. Do not read it. Say it loudly from your heart. Say it slowly and strongly and with a smile on your face. Then, go into a very brief–very brief!—prayer of worship. Then, the worship leader steps up to lead the first hymn.

It’s classy, and that’s the point.

If I were a pastor search committee, I’d be looking for a pastor who knew how to preach and did it well, who made a positive appearance standing in front of the crowd, who spoke well and left you with the impression that you would like to get to know this fellow better.

That’s the kind of preacher I always tried to be. And, you’d be interested in knowing, it’s the kind of pastor we have right now. (Mike Miller reads this and it won’t hurt for me to butter him up a little. Never know when I might need a favor.) However, search committees, stay away from Mike. His parole officer would not like him leaving the state.

Preach that sermon several times before you actually present it.

The pastor who is constantly fumbling for the right word in sermons is revealing a lack of preparation. And by that, we do not mean laboring over the text only, having a great outline and a couple of good stories. Preach the message several times in your office or in the car or on the streets while you’re walking around the block.

This one is such a biggie for me because it took me years to learn it. As a beginning preacher–particularly in the early days before seminary–I would enter the pulpit with only a vague idea of the shape this sermon would take. I had studied–well, “fretted” is more like it–all week long on that message. I’d reached the point of saturation when it felt like any further study was pointless. And finally, like a first-time skydiver or bungee-jumper, I felt like “let’s get it over with” and jumped.

That was no fun. Every week was a death-defying experience.

The solution is to study and pray, think it through, jot down some notes, and now try to express it in so many words. In other words, try preaching it. (Note that I am suggesting you try preaching bits and pieces of the message as you find them, testing whether this will work, whether you need this, whether you can do this.)

There are few better feelings than walking up to the pulpit with Bible in hand ready to preach a message you know the Lord gave you and for which you are fully prepared. You know the content and you feel good about the way you are about to present it.

And then there is the ultimate intangible.

This is something no one can put in words because it really is inexpressible: They’re looking for God in you.

The godliest–the most spiritually mature–in your congregation can tell when you have spent time in prayer in your study, when you are close to the Lord, when you are living a godly life.

Margaret agrees and adds, “That manifests itself in powerful preaching, in humility, in a seriousness about what’s taking place when preaching is going on.”

If you are foolish and shallow, you will take your own spiritual temperature (like a spiritual hypochondriac?) before preaching to gauge whether holiness will be evident today. But you can’t tell. The holiest person in the room, the godliest and closest to Jesus Christ, is the last to know it. Others will see the Spirit in you when you thought you did poorly.

Margaret reminds me to encourage you to keep trying on all these things, that no one has it down right all the time.




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