I’ll never forget the day when after a nearly 9-month interview process, after answering the world’s longest questionnaire, after having the specter of a possible move over my head while trying to go on at my church like nothing’s happening, I got word I would not be called as the new pastor of First Baptist, LoDebar (not their actual name, in case you were wondering).
Oh wait, you’re gonna love this part. I received word not via a lovely typed correspondence from the chairman of the pulpit committee. And not from a phone call from him, either. And not even an email.
How did I find out? When I checked the church’s website and saw the picture of their new pastor smiling at me with his wife and bald head.
He had the bald head, by the way. Not the wife.
Only a couple months earlier I’d been informed I was one of their top three candidates, and they would soon be coming to my church to visit. After I sent them the dates I’d be in the pulpit, they said they’d be there soon. I waited…
They never showed.
Here’s another beautiful thing: I never once got to talk with them. Not in person, not even on the phone. Yet I was in the top three on their list of finalists. Really?
As I read the announcement on their website now, I started to understand. It seems their new pastor wouldn’t have far to drive for his trial sermon that coming Sunday.
That’s because he was already there.
Their new pastor was a member of their church, all along.
Boy, had I been a sucker.
It was then clear to me what had been going on. I was a place-holder candidate, a guy who would make it look like the search team was actually looking and doing their job. But all along, they had the person they wanted sitting just 3 pews down the aisle from them!
I was competent enough to look like good competition for their guy, so that when I was excluded it would look like there had been a real contest.
But there was no contest. Just a lot of my wasted time.
It was then I realized personally what others had told me all along, “Search committees have no clue what they’re doing”.
I heard a pastor say that critically of a search team from a congregation he had just left. He didn’t approve of the replacement they picked, and was hurt they hadn’t consulted him. He gave a laundry list of things they’d done wrong in the process, as if they should have known better.
I thought this was ironic and a little hypocritical for one reason: I knew some of the clueless hires this pastor himself had made. People with no integrity that everyone else could see was a train wreck but him.
What he didn’t understand was this basic fact: neither pastors nor the search committees hiring them know what they’re doing. None of them.
Other than the basic Biblical qualifications for the pastorate, there is little textual advice for hiring pastors. And if you ask another pastor to come in and advise your team, look out: you will get infected by his personal agendas and prejudices. You’ll end up hiring some buddy of his who needs a job desperately, or looking only at candidates from his favorite seminary.
You don’t need a word from another pastor or denominational leader. You need a word from God. Period.
Your team, by listening to your congregation and seeking God in prayer will be led to God’s man if you leave all your agendas and biases at the door. You need Godly people full of wisdom who know how to sense when God is speaking, like Samuel knew when God pointed out David from the midst of his brothers. That is the number one most important thing, and nothing else even comes close.
After that one true essential, I do have some practical suggestions…
My first suggestion would be that when a name is submitted, one of your team take a moment to watch his sermon from last Sunday.
I say “watch” because you need to do more than just hear him. You need to see his non-verbal communication as he speaks. Of course, you want to know that his preaching is Biblical, but you also want to know he is a fine communicator.
Well, communication is more than just words spoken. It is a total presentation of the Gospel through the specific personality of the pastor.
Does he smile occasionally? In our tv-savvy age, this is of huge importance. I can get away with saying some pretty tough things if I say it in a pleasant, winsome way. But I can also put people on the defensive during the most innocuous of sermons with just my facial expressions and delivery.
So watch the total presentation, and immediately exclude anyone who you don’t believe could communicate to your congregation. Is your church made up of mainly working class folks, or uneducated people? Well, you probably don’t want the pastor with lots of references to academic publications or with a high-brow delivery. You’re part of your congregation so you know them. Trust what you know will speak to them without barriers in the way.
You may point out that preaching is not all it takes to be a good pastor. And you are correct. He needs to also care for people and be a true shepherd. He needs to be a man of integrity. He needs to be able to take down barriers with people one on one. All that is important.
Yet, if he possesses all those things yet can’t handle your pulpit, he is not the person for you.
I am making the presumption you’re a church that wants to grow and attract new people. If so, you need to understand that, more than worship, more than programs, people still rate the sermon as the top deciding factor in where to go to church.
This is the bottom line: if they get what they need in the message, they’ll be coming back. If not, it doesn’t matter if you’ve constructed a Christian them park for their kids in Children’s Church. They’ll keep looking on past you.
Watching the first 5 to 10 minutes of a sermon should tell you all you need to know. A good preacher prioritizes the beginning of a message, knowing it’s impossible to win a crowd back if you lose them there. If he hasn’t captured your attention by then, move on. No need to waste your time.
Next, make sure he’s really a pastor. What I mean is, look for clues he truly cares about people.
I’ve known lots of men who were great in the pulpit, but actually couldn’t stand people. The old joke I heard goes, “I love the ministry, it’s just the people I can’t stand!”
Well, the joke is on them, because the people are the ministry. Without a heart for them, you’re not a pastor – you’re just a religious TedTalk speaker.
See if he has volunteered in ministries or for organizations in ways that wouldn’t give him a chance to speak. Is he humble enough to serve in ways that don’t showcase his talents, but simply meet needs? Does he ever visit hospitals, or does he leave all that to some retired minister on staff?
Or is he just a big shot who hides in his office, works on his sermons and avoids personal contact? That attitude seeps down into the rest of the staff, contaminating them and starving your church for shepherding ministry.
Next, get to know his wife. Really well. Because she has to be as called your church as her husband is.
A church I love just called a pastor, only to have him leave a few short months later to return to his former pastorate. Was the new church the problem? No, not at all. He didn’t realize that he had just won the lottery when it came to terrific churches to pastor.
The problem was his wife’s heart never left their former home. She was not willing to make the sacrifice to leave and cleave to her new church.
Right, you noticed I just phrased it like a marriage, and that is pretty indicative of what’s happening. When you leave to serve a new church, there is huge sacrifice involved, even if the former ministry field was tough.
The pastor’s family has to leave a town with which they’re familiar. They have to leave all the relationships they’ve developed over the years there. The pastor leaves his reputation and clout to build a new one in the new town, starting again from scratch basically.
All this means the pastor’s family is having to lay a lot of this they love on the altar, as Abraham laid Isaac down. They are being asked to sever those important support systems and connections.
I cannot emphasize how huge of a sacrifice this can be. It has been five months now since I left my former church to begin a new ministry, and there is still a bit of a grieving process for the loss. But if my wife had been at all tentative about the move and transition to a new ministry field, I would be toast.
Like the guy once said, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”
So…spend a lot of time with the pastoral candidates wife. Don’t just ask her soft ball questions. Ask about her current support system and friends. Has she thought about leaving them? How does she like your town? How does it compare to where she’s leaving?
You will be able to tell not only by what she says but by what she doesn’t say if she’s allowing God to start the process of moving her away. Sure, she shouldn’t be all there yet. But a Godly wife knows when God is moving them just as much as the pastor himself knows. If she is resisting, her answers will betray it.
Finally, give yourself grace. You are not omnipotent, and your search process will not be perfect. But if you follow and listen to God, He will stand with you even when others fail you.
That church where the pastor left within just months of arriving, they’re gonna be fine. They re-nominated the same search committee members again to continue looking for their next pastor. I believe that’s not because they think those people are perfect, but because they know they listen to God.
And in the end, God is the one who will pick your next pastor. That’s the way to should work, and it will eventually despite the roadblocks in the way and the imperfection of both the pastors and the search committees.