The pastor goes before a search committee

There is no established manual for search committees.

There are no laws on how these things are to be done.

The Bible has no search committees and thus no guidelines for them.

So, the result is often a mess. A hodge-podge of arrangements and a plethora of assortments.

So, lower your expectations, pastor.

And buckle your seat belt.

Some committees are well-organized and infused with a strong sense of purpose, convinced they are engaged in a holy mission, doing the Lord’s work and honoring all the Lord’s servants they encounter.  They represent their church well and every pastor they interview falls in love with them.

I’m thinking of the committee from Dayton, Ohio’s Far Hills Baptist Church many years ago.  They sat in my living room and won my heart.  But the Lord did not plan for us to work together.

I could wish all committees were that way.

As a veteran pastor with a half-century of dealing with search committees–I’ve been interviewed by nearly a hundred, have counseled scores, and have served on two or three–perhaps what follows here will be helpful.

One: Pastor, unless this interview is the culmination of ongoing exchanges between you and the committee, do not research them in advance of the session.

Word will get back to the committee if you are calling around, asking former pastors and staffers about them.  If this interview is your initial contact with them, they will feel you are being presumptuous.  You are. So, don’t.

There will be time for that.

Two:  Prepare yourself spiritually.

Spend a quiet time in prayer in which you still your spirit and let the Lord cleanse your heart.  Then, “go in this thy strength” (Judges 6:14). Your confidence is not in yourself, not in your resume’, and not in your references.  You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.  You are not trying to con them, not trying to seduce them, not even trying to sell yourself.

You and they are trying to find the will of God and do it.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Three:   It would be a good thing to think through (in advance) how you would answer various question.

Once you’ve done a few of these interviews, you can anticipate the questions.  Most committees will ask for your testimony, particularly your conversion and call into the ministry.  They’ll ask about your family, want to know your strengths and weaknesses, and question your position on various doctrines. They may throw a problem your way, asking “What would you do if…” or “How would you handle such-and-such a conflict?”  You cannot prepare for those, but just have to trust the Lord to lead you.

Try not to give essay answers to their questions.  Do not over-talk.  (Nothing discourages questions like people who speak for 10 minutes in response to a simple query.)  That’s why you practice.  We preachers are professional talkers, but we must know how to discipline the tongue and control our urges to expound at length on anything and everything.  Practice answering briefly and clearly.

Four: Lower your expectations on what to expect from the committee, keeping your eyes on the Lord.

Just because a committee interviews you does not mean you will be their next pastor.  In fact, they may just be trying out their skills as a committee, trying to find their way, and experimenting on you.  If you over-expect, you may be disappointed.  (I speak as one who has been disappointed on several occasions.)

Five: So, do not be overly eager.

Even if you salivate at the thought of pastoring that wonderful church, get it out of your system before this interview.  Nothing frightens a committee away like a pastor too anxious to become their preacher.

Six:  Dress up, not down.

Usually that means slacks, dress shirt, tie, and sport coat, or a suit.  If dressing up is not something you do regularly, you will want to get counsel from someone in the know.

I once bought an expensive suit to make a good impression on the committee.  As it turned out, my suit impressed better than I did. But that’s another story. lol.

Even if theirs is a casual church, you will do better dressing up. By your careful attention to your outfit, you are showing respect for the committee and demonstrating how seriously you are taking this interview.

Seven: Be yourself, but don’t overdo it.

“Be yourself” means not trying to come across as someone you are not.  “Not overdoing it” means to restrain your humor and to rein in your quick retorts, snappy comebacks, and such.   Ideally, you want to appear quietly confident and pleasant, but not overbearing or cocky.

Eight:  Learn the names of each committee member.  Use the names in the interview.

This is not as hard as it may seem.  Early in the interview–or even before the session begins–you could suggest to the chair that you would love for each member to introduce themselves.  You will not be writing anything down–this is ironclad; you will look each one in the eye and pay attention!–but will repeat their names and work at remembering them.

I once did that with a committee of 13 members.  Did I have clever devices to help recall the names?  Nope. I just paid attention.  (This is easier if you work at it on a daily basis.)

Nine: Toward the end of the interview, most committees will invite you to ask them a few questions.  “Few” means not more than three, but two is ideal.  You should be ready for this.

You might ask: “Would three or four of you tell me in a few words where your church is spiritually right now.”  Or, “What kind of pastor do you personally hope you will get?”  Or, “What’s the best thing about living in Yourtown?”

In most cases, you’re not looking for secret information from their answers but merely building the relationships.

Ten:  A few “bewares” come to mind….

–Beware of responding harshly or condescendingly, even if the question was out of line.

–Beware of a faux pas at dinner, if you are dining with the committee. Once when we were interviewing a candidate for youth minister, he removed his gum and placed it under this plate.  That was it for me. First, he should not have been chewing gum in an interview.  Second, there are ways to remove the gum, usually involving the wrapper. And third, never ever should one place his gum under anything!

–Beware of belittling anyone with whom you disagree.  In giving your doctrinal position, never speak disparagingly of those who believe otherwise.  If you speak with grace–“Some of the godliest people I know disagree with this, but I believe Scripture teaches….”–most will appreciate your kindness.  If they do not, preferring that you show harshness to those believing differently, you have just learned something important about that committee (and possibly that church).

Eleven:  There are a few traps you will want to be aware of, where almost any answer is going to be wrong.

–“So, pastor,” a committee member will ask, “How do you feel about (some prominent minister, from Joel Osteen to John MacArthur to Andy Stanley)?”  You should know going in that this is a trap.  Anything you say can be used against you.  I suggest you respond with a question:  “What exactly are you asking?  How do I feel about him in what regard?”  Then, in most cases, you will do best by answering with some form of “I’m not sure what he believes about that.  And I’d rather not say without being better informed.”  (I guarantee you that some on the committee will appreciate your gracious answer and are unhappy with the person who asked such a loaded question.)

–“Pastor, tell us about your greatest failure.” (or even “your worst sin.”)  In response, you smile big and say, “I’ll make a deal with you. You don’t ask about mine and I won’t ask about yours.”  Then, you say, “We have all sinned. No one of us hasn’t. But aren’t we glad the Lord forgives and strengthens us in the weak places and we become stronger than we were before.”  Then, shut up.  Do not keep talking.

–Do not let someone bait you into anything. It’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know” or “I’d need a while to think about that,” and then say nothing more.

–Some other traps you may encounter could be similar to these: “Pastor, how do you feel about the denomination bringing hundreds of missionaries home?” “Have you ever been criticized unfairly in your church?” “What do people say about your wife?” “Tell us about your greatest weakness.”  Prayerfully plan for a sweet but non-committal response to questions you find unfair.

Twelve:  Never forget that this committee is not the church.

By themselves they cannot obligate the church for anything. They are a representative group, presumably the cream of the crop from the membership.  But, once in a while, a church will put an odd character on the committee.  In your conversations with the leadership, you should pick up on that and come to a conclusion about the true nature of this church. But always remember that most committees function like a good chamber of commerce in how they put the church and their town in the best light.

So, listen to them and welcome their input, but reserve your judgment for a later time after you have made your visits and talked to many people.

At some point in the future after the church has extended its call to you to  become its pastor and before you cut ties with your present church, ask the chairman to put into a “letter of employment” the agreement between you and the committee.  This involves the starting date of your ministry, the church’s plans to move you to their city, the arrangements for finances and a home, and anything else important to you both. It would be good for another church leader (deacon chair?) to sign the letter also.  A copy of the letter should go into the church records.  (If they refuse, this is a major red flag.)

Why a letter of employment?  Simply because church members come and go, leadership rotates, and memories are faulty.  Your arrangement is with the church itself and not with a committee.  (Too many pastors have arrived on the field expecting the church to do something it never agreed to.  “The committee over-promised,” the pastor is told.)

After you arrive at the church, the search committee should cease to exist. From then on, you relate to the elected leadership of the church.  If you fail to do this, and continue to meet with the members of the search committee, the established leaders may resent it.  You will have enough challenges pastoring this church without creating new ones for yourself.

God bless you.  This can be an exciting time in your life.  I hope it turns out to be a great experience.

5 thoughts on “The pastor goes before a search committee

  1. In my most recent search committee experience I was asked, “When it comes to leadership are you the head coach, quarterback, or kicker?” It was definitely one of those moments when I should have paused and asked for further explanation.

    • I suspect, Wade, the correct answer for most of us would have been: Sometimes I’m the head coach, sometimes I block or tackle, and often I’m a cheerleader. But I’m willing to be a water boy if it will help people do their work for the Lord.”

  2. Regarding #6 – Dress up not down – I had an evangelist tell me you want to dress one level above your audience. I think that makes sense. I am old school and still wear a coat and tie. My Dad always wore a coat and tie when we would go out to eat. I once asked him why, he said, “Son, food always tastes better when your dressed up.”

  3. Another blog that should be required reading for beginning seminarians. Thank you for such practical counsel. Someone suggested placing a polygraph machine and recorder on the table for all to see during the meeting. The church I serve set a time to meet, and I expected to meet with 6 or so members. When I got there, it was a “town hall question and answer” session with the whole church! I loved it!!

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