The inside dope on some search committees and some preachers

“So, pastor, why are you looking to change churches right now?”

“I’m not. I’m simply making myself available to the Lord for whatever His will may be in my life.”

Short answer. To the point. The simple truth.

Even if it’s not the whole story.

The whole story may be that you, the pastor of First Church of Embattlement, are having the dickens of a time where you are, that this divided congregation is about to be the death of you, that they have run off the past five pastors in a row and a little group is hard at work to make you number six. But since you are willing to stay where you are now if the Lord leaves you here, you give this answer and hope it satisfies them.

If it doesn’t, you gather up your gear and return home while telling yourself the Lord “wasn’t in this move.”

They don’t teach this stuff in seminary.

The art of dealing with certain pastor search committees. The art of knowing what the pastoral candidate is really telling the committee.

It’s a wonder to me why some seminary hasn’t come up with a specialized advanced degree in “Search Committee Negotiating.” No doubt they would be flooded with applications from pastors wishing to master that mysterious discipline and more than a few laypeople wishing to learn what’s going on here.

From what follows, you might conclude that I see myself as an expert on pastor search groups. Believe me, I don’t and I’m not. In fact, anyone who does is suspect in my book.

They’re all different, these little teams of church members assigned to “go find our next preacher and bring him back alive.”  They subscribe to a thousand different philosophies and generally will plot their modus operandi according to the will of their strongest member or the say-so of their chairman. As a result, pastors run up against some bizarre methods and interesting approaches from committees wishing to interview them as candidates.

And–trying to find a balance here–I am well aware that not all pastors are as forthcoming with committees as they should be.

In both cases, they reason that “If I were to tell the whole truth, no one would want to (come to this church) (employ me).”

In a half-century of ministry, I dealt with somewhere around one hundred search committees. During one three-year stint on the staff of a large church, I counted exactly 36 committees that contacted me concerning their vacant pastor’s office. So, while I’m no expert, I’m not without a certain amount of experience on these little roving bands of pastor-hunters.

Likewise, I know pastors. So, let’s see what we can do here…

Here are a few thoughts on how “some,” possibly “most,” search committees and prospective pastors do things in this strange mating dance (please smile at that)…

1) The committee will begin their work with a strange blend of humility and arrogance.

The humility has its roots in the fact that they have never done this before and are feeling their way forward, unsure of what they are looking for and how to go about it.

The arrogance comes from their confidence that pastors are lining up to come to their wonderful church and they are in the power position here. (We used to say all search committees began with “a Billy Graham complex.”)

Six months into their search, after a  thousand phone calls, hundreds of letters and emails, dozens of dead-ends, and all kinds of fruitless detours, the humility still be there–stronger than ever, even–but the arrogance will have been replaced by fatigue and frustration.

This is a dangerous time for a committee; fatigue can cause many an error of judgment. This is when the church needs to double and triple its prayer for them. The problem, of course, is that by now the church is tired of waiting, tired of special prayer meetings for the committee without seeing results, and tired of being tired.

The committee which began their work with such high hopes and fresh energy now just wants to get it over. Pray for them. They may end up grabbing the next guy just to “get ‘er done.”

2) Churches do not always put their best people on the committee; often it’s only the most outspoken ones. A wise pastor quickly figures this out.

This is not a slam against friends and other fine people who have served on these pastor search machines. Most of the committees I’ve dealt with at length have been the cream of the crop.

But not all.

Pastors go into these things thinking they are dealing with the sharpest and godliest people in the church when they sit in a room with a search committee. Sometimes, they learn the hard way–and too late!–that the chairman was chosen because he lobbied for the position, bullied the others into submission, or intends to hand-pick a pastor whom he can control. When the preacher investigates a little, he may find that one or two families make up the entire committee. None of this is good.

There are clues available as to the quality of the committee’s makeup if the pastor will pay attention. Notice how they relate to one another, who does most of the talking, and how they sort themselves out into a pecking order. Notice the promises and guarantees they’re willing to make to get him as their pastor. (Keep in mind that the more mature a committee, the less likely they are to promise the moon and to guarantee anything. They see themselves as servants of the congregation, and not the rulers.)

Be wary of promises made by search committees. Get agreements in writing and ask for them to be signed by every conceivable officer of the church.

3) You sometimes get the impression the committee wants to get this job over with as soon as possible. Not good for them and definitely not good for you. Take your time, pastor, and encourage them to do likewise.

When a search committee invited me to meet them for lunch at a cafeteria (a cheap one at that!–smiley face goes here) and invited me right off the bat to become their pastor, I had no difficulty declining. These folks were simply interested in bringing in a warm body, it appeared, and I was handy.  What was their hurry? I wondered, and never found out.

I counsel search committees against falling in love too quickly. If they do–they return from their first visit swimmy-headed, certain they have found the pastor of their dreams–they shut down the process too quickly. Like any lover captivated by another person, they do not want to hear anything negative, and will want to get the other to the altar before he/she changes their mind. Not good. Not good at all. The stories I could tell you!

4) They may ask you some hard questions, and take pride in that great list of questions. As a general rule, however, the members cannot tell whether your answer was excellent, flawed, or awful so long as you respond with style and grace. This is not good at all.

“So, pastor…(ahem)…tell us your position on Calvinism.”

Every pastor in our denomination gets asked that by search committees. A generation ago, it was: “What do you believe about the inerrancy of Scriptures?” A generation before that, committees wanted to know your eschatology. Before that, it was creation/evolution.

Laymen reading this will want to know what a “response with style and grace (but no substance)” looks like. It will look something like this….

“Ah, yes. I’m glad you asked that question. The issue of Calvinism and Arminianism has been plaguing our churches and dividing the Kingdom for hundreds of years and it’s a burden to those of us on the front lines for the Lord. I was telling a friend just the other day….”

He’s giving you concern and stories, smiles and words, but no answer. I suggest you let him go on, then, when he finishes, Mr. Chairman (or Madam Chairperson), you smile sweetly and say, “Now, tell us your position on Calvinism.” And wait.

Don’t let yourself be snowed by a smooth talker.

Search committees need sharp people on their membership and training from experienced pastors and/or denominational leaders who can prepare them on what to watch for and how to tell when they’re being scammed.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “A pastoral candidate will try to scam you?” Answer: Only the dishonest ones will. When a man does not believe Scripture but wants the job, he may find language to convince you he does and count on you not being sharp enough to tell what he’s doing. When he does not believe the fundamentals of the faith–and knows that to admit it would mean ending this interview–he may (not always, but “may”) camouflage his real views by wordiness or cleverness.

Many a committee has been taken in by a skilled wordsmith.

5) It is a truism that the committee will not tell you all the facts about their church, although they want to know every detail about you.

Members of search committees will agree among themselves that certain details about their church history reflect poorly upon them and would be better off left unspoken. They reason that those things are in the past and have nothing to do with the next pastor and his tenure.

Sometimes they are right. Often, they are wrong.

Since the best prediction for future behavior is past actions, the fact that this church has ousted the last five preachers in a row is most pertinent. That a little unelected group has made life miserable for the last two pastors is something a prospective pastor needs to know. That the senior members of the congregation shot down the last attempt to hire a full-time youth member because they resented the young people getting a large share of the church budget is valuable information to the next preacher.

I asked a search committee why the sign in front of the church said nothing about the times of the Sunday services. Someone blurted out, “The previous pastor tried to put up a sign with that information, but the grounds people took it down. Said it detracted from the beauty of the campus.”

In so few words, I just found out who is calling the shots around that church.

Every church has its negatives. But don’t look for the typical search committee to reveal any of them. You’ll have to develop other sources for that.

Call the associational director of missions and also his predecessor if he is relatively new.  Phone the last two pastors of this church and any former staff members you can find. And one more group: call neighboring pastors and ask for their take on this church. (Do this by phone and not by mail or email. Anything leaving a paper trail will make them cautious. You want to hear the inflection of their voice, the pauses, everything.)

Little by little, you are forming a complete picture of this church.

Note that we are NOT saying you should not go to a church with a troubled past, only that you should know what you’re getting into before you go.

6) Finally, in many cases, the pastor search committee will want to keep functioning after you arrive on the field and to serve as your advisors. Not a good idea.

On the surface, it looks like a plan. These people know you and have a vested interest in your doing well. The problem is other members of the church, particularly the leadership, will resent it. It will appear to them that this group does not want to give up their intimacy with the new pastor and is attempting to set themselves up as an ongoing center of influence.

If you need a team of advisors, work with the church leadership to form a new group composed of representatives of the search committee and a number from the membership at large.

Then, pray it will be a long time before this church has to choose another pastor search committee or that you will have to deal with one.



15 thoughts on “The inside dope on some search committees and some preachers

  1. I have discovered in 40 years of minstry dealing with search-committees are a lot like dating. You only see each other, if not careful, in your best of times and appearances. While dating my wife I never saw her w/out make-up or that old t-shirt no one else sees which she uses on the Saturday mornings when she does her monthly “dye job” to make her look beautiful on Sunday. We are “doing the mating dance” when dealing with search committees many times because of reasons you listed above. Of all the committees in churches I have served along with some God gave the wisdom to stay away from, my current church seemed to possess the most spiritual maturity and wisdom of all. They readily admitted past failures and short comings but were optimistic with God’s help and the right man, there could be a new day for the church. Result, unity and a spirit of cooperation exist today.. Though we are not a large church, and yes there are a couple of detractors, we are seeking to carry out the Great Commission to our community and to the ends of the earth. I share this because your article is on target about the subject. Thanks!

  2. Great Article Joe.

    I have served two churches, in very different ways neither committee has given me an accurate picture of the church. Not because they were dishonest, but because they didn’t have a very accurate picture of the church themselves.

  3. Search committees often act as used car salesmen. They feel like they need to sell the church to the man they see as most qualified and will tell him anything he wants to hear to come to that church. Often committees are untrained and are judging men by resumes alone. Too many committees miss what it means to be seeking God’s man. My wife and family were out of town recently and visited a church that was pastorless. The committee stood up to give a report and named off all of the things they were seeking in a pastor. They then told the congregation that the man they were bringing in view of a call was none of those things but they knew without a doubt that he was God’s man. That committee was willing to change their preferences (older man, done with seminary, previous experience, etc.) to receive the man God has for them. My wife left encouraged about the future of that church.

  4. Excellent material, Joe! I’d emphasize that part about “getting it in writing.” I’ve had promises made that were not kept. It made it difficult for me later when I had to inquire about those promises.

    • And, David, one point I failed to make is that church leadership rotates. The leaders today may not be in positions of influence tomorrow. Unless the agreements are in writing and approved by the necessary groups, you could be in trouble.

  5. I have always been sensitive about asking (or giving) information about the past church position or future church position due to the issue of gossip. I did not know if that was an acceptable practice. Where is the line?

    • Not sure what you’re saying, Brother Jerry. “Past church position?” Do you mean the church’s experience in certain areas? If so, that’s always fair game.

  6. Bro. Joe,

    Great stuff. You are right. They should teach this at seminary. I am interviewing with a church on Saturday. Thanks.


  7. This NEEDS to be a required course in every seminary! You should write the textbook AND teach the class. Wisdom of this practical nature is much needed. I dealt with a committee who “conveniently forgot” to tell me about a split the church had, leaving a “remnant” to carry on. Had I not done my homework between initial contact and next meeting, I would have never known this vital information. Both the candidate and the committee needs to commit to honesty and transparency. Only then can a genuine match be made.

    • Oooh, Doug. I’m afraid of what that textbook would look like. Too many scary stories like this might scare off those young preacher boys. Best to let them keep their idealism a few weeks longer, I suppose. 🙂

  8. Your advice will be very helpful to our search commitee as we share it with one another. Thank you for sharing it with us and with others. Pray for us as we continue to seek God’s leadership .

    • Thank you, Les. Also, if you need our other things re pastor search committees, google “pastor search” on my website and see what’s there. Thanks.

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