The Pastor Assembles a Staff: Scary

Is there scriptural evidence for church staffs?

There is no text that says “Thou shalt employ other ministers on your staff to take some of the work from you.”

However, there is plenty of biblical evidence for multiple pastors in churches, and that may be (or may not be; our information about those churches is sketchy at best) all we require to proceed in this area.

(Of course, that brings up the question of whether we even need scriptural precedent for every decision we make, every ministry we branch into. Last Saturday night, in a restaurant in North Alabama, I met a group of Primitive Baptists. They were plenty nice, but once they found out I was a Southern Baptist pastor, it got strangely quiet.

In the few discussions I’ve had with leaders of that denomination over the years, they were defiantly insistent that everything they did had scriptural precedent and such things which churches like mine do but theirs do not are without biblical justification. It makes me think of the business of some people not eating meat; one wonders just how far they want to push that. Animal rights advocates have to decide whether to wear leather shoes and whether to swat that fly. Primitive Baptists–and all who insist they do nothing except on scripture’s command–may want to show us where in the Word they find justification for electric lights and machine printed Bibles.

I mean, the Lord gave us a brain and expects us to use it. Excuse me, I digress.)

In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul met with the elders (20:17) and overseers (20:28) of the Ephesian church. They are told to “shepherd” (pastor) the “church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” This is one of several scriptures that imply a multiplicity of pastors in the early church.

John MacArthur says, “In the NT, the words ‘bishop,’ ‘elder,’ ‘overseer,’ and ‘pastor’ are used interchangeably to describe the same men (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-9; I Peter 5:1,2).”

So, are staff members pastors of the church? In the larger sense, they are. They are extensions of the primary teaching/leading pastor. They are under his authority and their ministries extensions of his.

Show me a church with staff members not accountable to the lead pastor and I’ll show you a church asking for trouble. If there are exceptions, then please note that they are just that: exceptions.

In this and subsequent articles, I’d like to pursue the matter of pastors and their staffs. First, let’s consider what happens when a minister decides to seek out an addition to his ministerial staff. Even though the process can be wonderful and inspiring and can result in significant growth to the church, it is also perilous. Scary, even.

Our advice to pastors seeking additions to their staff: choose assistants carefully. Take your time. Be deliberate.

When a church is pastor-searching, it will generally appoint a committee of leaders with various skills, experience, and maturity. However, when seeking staff members, the pastor will often function as a one-person committee.

Is that good or bad? Answer: it could be either. Working without a committee will speed up the process (dictatorships are the most efficient form of government), but without the input of others, the pastor might overlook some critical point which makes a great difference.

Here are our suggestions to pastors seeking staff members….

1. Always have an active, short list of prospective staffers in your mind. As you visit other churches, as you take part in denominational events, you will encounter staff members with various gifts and abilities, some of whom you will feel an immediate bond with. You will think to yourself, “Tom would make us a great student minister.” Then, when you find yourself in that actual position, you already have someone in mind.

Or even “several someones.” It’s best to have more than one in mind. Professional coaches in sports do this. If a player is hurt and out for the season, he will already have thoughts on who he’d like to bring in. Likewise, athletic directors in colleges have a short list of coaches in mind, just in case some big university snaps up their coach.

2. Pray. Pray intensely, deeply, specifically.

Let’s assume there are any number of people out there who could join your staff and do a reasonably effective job. You don’t want them. You’re looking for the one whom God has chosen. After all, He knows them all and no one knows your church or you better than He. So, ask Him. Seek His will, ask for His direction, plead for discernment.

Then, learn to wait upon Him, to do nothing until you know what He is saying.

3. No matter how well you already know a prospective staff member and how strongly you believe in them, once you begin considering them for your church staff, approach the process as though you don’t know anything. Because you don’t.

It’s one thing to admire someone from a distance, and another thing entirely to have them move into your office suite and become a part of your life.

I’ve been burned this way more than once. On one occasion, when my church was considering a staffer whom I had known two decades earlier–and had greatly admired–a friend cautioned me to go slowly. He said, “Just because you knew someone 20 years ago does not mean you know them now.” Being congenitally stupid, I ignored his words and we made a massive mistake in employing that guy. Over the years, he had developed addictions and quirks that soon ended his ministry.

4. Do not try this alone, pastor. You will want to get input from other leaders whose judgment you respect.

After arranging for a prospective student minister to fly in for an interview, I asked our minister of education to join us for lunch. Now, my tendency in interviews is to outtalk the candidate–which is not good, not good at all–so having a senior staffer along on the interview was the right thing.

As we ate, Bill, my associate, asked, “So, Jimmy, what is your philosophy of youth ministry?” Simple question, right? But Jimmy looked like Bill had slapped him. Although he had just graduated from seminary with a masters degree, he had given no thought to that.

The interview was over at that moment. A week later, I called another candidate to see if he wanted to come for an interview. He said, “Pastor, I might be able to save you and me some trouble. Let me tell you my philosophy of youth ministry.” Bingo. Bryan Harris and I served together in two churches and remain close friends to this day.

Pastor Mike tells me, “As soon as I narrow the choices down to two or three candidates, I pull in the lay leadership of the church to work with me. I want their counsel, and once we agree on someone, I want them on board with me to sell it to the congregation and to support him once he arrives.”

5. Run lots of references. Then run some more. Which is to say, get all the dope on this guy you can.

Pastor Al told me what happened with one staffer he hired. “This guy was highly recommended. But soon after he arrived, I noticed a rebellious spirit in him. He even admitted to wanting my job. Then, our leaders began telling me of his manipulations.”

“I decided to do a little further research. I called the seminary where he’d graduated. The placement person said, ‘I can’t tell you, but you ought to talk to his former pastor.'”

“That pastor thanked me for taking him off his hands. Among other problems was that the staffer had been on disability while at his church. That was a puzzle.”

“I checked into things at our church and found when we employed him, he gave his wife’s Social Security number as his. He said this happened accidentally.”

Al did not say whether he terminated this fellow or what the problem was concerning the disability. But he said, “This business improved my hiring process. I strongly recommend that churches do a thorough check before bringing a new minister on board.”

Pastor Mike tells me, “I don’t spend a lot of time interviewing the references on the guy’s resume. After all, they’re his friends or he wouldn’t have listed them. But what I want to know is: Is there anyone else you think I should talk to about this man? Usually, that will get some results.”

Mike adds, “I’m not looking for dirt on the guy. I just want to know all there is to know on him. I don’t want to be surprised.”

6. Even if he’s a good guy, pass on him (or her) if they are not a good fit for your church.

Pastor Michael tells me, “I look for someone who ‘fits’ with our church and ministry setting. Maybe this is another way to say he needs a specific call to our church. They need to buy into our vision and methodology.”

Michael continues, “I pastored a church for a while where I never fit. The people and I liked each other okay, but the specific context was not a good match, not for either of us. Where I’m serving now is completely different. I have a strong connection with the church, and I’m passionate about reaching this community. Experience and abilities are important, but more than that, I need staff members who fit.”

How do you know? For one thing, ask your wife.

That’s why I tried to involve my wife in the process, if nothing more than accompanying me when we took the candidate out to a meal. She is far more sensitive than I to subliminal things, and more than once warned me away from what would have been a poor match.

7. Listen to your own heart.

I debated about listing this. After all, it’s not far from saying, “Go with your gut (feelings).” And that may be what I mean. Not sure.

Here’s the thing. You are deeply involved in the process of bringing a new staff member on board. You’ve interviewed him at length, you’ve got references coming out your ears, and your leadership is okay with him. But something in your spirit is putting on the brakes.

What do you do? Some would say to back off, that your spirit has picked up on something you have missed.

I say do the following: wait on the Lord, make this a matter of intense prayer, and get to know him better.

If the candidate pressures you—“Pastor, I need to know something soon”–then tell him what’s going on, that you are waiting for one thing and one thing only: the green light from God. If he can accept that, it’s a good sign. If not, a negative one.

Some of the best decisions I made in nearly a half-century of ministry involved bringing new ministers to our staff. And some of the worst ones likewise. It’s a business with great promise and awful peril. Stay close to the Lord, listen to Him and to your best members, and listen to your heart.

3 thoughts on “The Pastor Assembles a Staff: Scary

  1. Thanks, Brother Joe. My church is right in the middle of this process and this post is something I’m going to pass on to our search committees. We’re currently searching for ministers to serve in two positions, so we have two committees that we have been bathing in prayer in every worship service and privately for months now. The wait has been hard, but we know that it’s worth it to find God’s man. We’ve seen several doors close along the way (some disappointing), but we remind ourselves regularly that we don’t want just anybody to fill these positions, we want the RIGHT bodies. We’re trusting the Lord to bring us just the right men at just the right time. Thanks for a little guidance and encouragement along the way.

  2. Bro. Joe, thanks for the fine article. If you don’t mind, I am going to make a copy for my future reference. Thanks for sharing your wisdom-filled insight with us. I am making many notes, and attempting to gain wisdom from the life of others, without having to experience to many negative lessons to get there. May God continue to bless you and your ministry!

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