6 Reasons Pastor Search Teams Don’t Always Work—and What to Do about It

Both churches that called me as their pastor followed the same process: they elected a search team who listened to my sermons, checked some references, interviewed me, and then presented me to the church as their next pastor. In my case, the process worked—but that’s not always the case. Below are some of the issues in searching for a pastor, followed by a few practical suggestions:

  1. The search team is “dating” potential pastoral candidates—which means they often talk about only their good stuff. They’ll wait until the church and the potential pastor are “married” before they let him see their blemishes.
  2. They sometimes turn the process into a “dog and pony” show. That is, they line up candidates, hear all of them preach, and then let the church vote on their favorite. In that case, the process often lacks an in-depth look at the candidate.
  3. The search team has no training. They haven’t read about search processes, nor have they sought outside guidance. They’re trying to figure out the process as they go—which is not a good sign to a potential pastor.
  4. Prayer is too often only a perfunctory part of the process. In some cases, they pray very little until they’ve actually picked the candidate and are ready to present him to the church. That’s late in the game to be intensely praying.
  5. They sometimes decide that the past is no indicator for how a person may lead in the present. For example, they’re convinced by this candidate that he will lead the church to growth, despite the fact that both of his previous churches declined under his leadership.
  6. It’s difficult—if not impossible—to really know a potential pastor until he’s in that leadership role. No matter how many questions you ask and how many references you check, you don’t know a person until you’re “married.” This is one reason many churches are now finding their staff within their own local body.

So, how do we address these issues?

  1. Get some training, perhaps through your denomination. At the same time, talk to other churches that have more recently gone through the search process. Learn from them.
  2. Focus on only one candidate at a time. Avoid the possibility of the vote’s becoming nothing more than a popularity vote among several candidates.
  3. Saturate the process in prayer. Spend significant time seeking God’s direction. Don’t choose a pastor in your own power.
  4. Do your homework. Vet the candidate well. Talk to his references, and push them to be honest with you. Check the growth pattern of his previous churches. Complete a background check on him.
  5. Look within your church body. God may have already placed that person in your midst. Ask Him to guide you through His Spirit to the right person.
  6. Ask theological questions – or enlist someone theologically trained who would be part of the process. Don’t assume a potential pastor’s theology; intentionally ask questions about it.
  7. With the leadership of your church, enlist an interim pastor whose presence will give you more time to search for the next pastor. A rushed decision doesn’t always turn out well.

What would you add to this discussion? 

5 Comments

  • Allen says:

    I have been the hiring authority for hundreds of positions over the years in the commercial marketplace and churches do not do well at this because they do it infrequently. Is there a job description? Is it even legal, many times it is not since it specifies age requirements or makes references to family and children. Do you really need someone with an MDiv or do you need someone actually called by God to be a Pastor and who has actually been gifted by the Holy Spirit for that? Do you treat all applicants with respect and love? In other words, thank them for applying and letting them know they did not make it to be a finalist? The challenge for most churches, hiring someone who may actually ask questions of you that you do not want to answer or will not as they are why the last Pastor left.

  • jigleach says:

    The role of the denominational offices cannot be overlooked. They have oversight and controls over the training and quality of candidates and decide which and how many candidates are presented. They also know the candidates more intimately than they know the congregations and have a vested interest in keeping pastors happy. Of course, they are supposed to have an equal interest in the congregations, but smaller churches are often considered expendable and become squares on the chessboard—a place to move pastors around until the “call” they are waiting for is available. They overlook the work of the call committees, feeding them answers that facilitate the game of chess. It is really difficult to research the background of pastors when their track record is carefully filtered. The call committees should be able to interview lay leaders of previous churches served, but that is never encouraged. It is a messed up system. In reality, small churches don’t have the luxury of a call committee. All too often, there is only one candidate presented. The chances of that person being the pastor that church needs are slim. This gets worse with the graying of the clergy. Fewer pastors for fewer churches. This process, always presented as being the result of prayerful discernment is rarely listed a cause of church failure.

  • I would add that, in light of today’s world, a thorough background check be conducted.

    I would also add that, before I met with a candidate, I would have the committee write down a set of questions and request that the candidate write down their own set of questions. If possible, these set of questions could be exchanged even before the meeting in order to have a focused discussion.

  • Ron Whited says:

    I can’t stress enough the need for prayer and time,in that order of importance, to be priorities in the search for your next pastor.

    I once filled in as an interim pastor while the church waded through potential candidates. After a few weeks some on the search committee were simply done with the process and wanted to pick a pastor. I cautioned them time and again not to rush but to wait on the Lord.

    Well, it wasn’t long and they had their new pastor. He stayed less than three years. During his short tenure he was basically an absentee pastor. After Sunday service he would leave the state to attend classes, returning on Wednesday afternoon.

    Not only did they rush the selection,he turned out to be someone who shortly after leaving the church, left the ministry altogether. Seems he really didn’t want to be a pastor at all.

    As I said,I caution everyone to take their time,be purposeful,and most of all be prayerful when selecting your next pastor.

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