For the past decade I have spent a majority of my vocational life working in the world of pastoral succession planning and search. I thoroughly enjoy serving alongside the good, godly people who make up a church search team. They love Jesus. They love their church. They commit their time and energy to participating in one of the most important decisions a church will make: the call of its pastoral leader.
Search team members are dedicated and want to get it right. Often, I am asked about the most common mistakes search teams make. Here are a few of my observations:
Assuming it’s “like at work”
The businessperson on the search team will often say something like, “How hard can it be? In my business I hire people all the time and replace long-tenured employees regularly. This is no different. I think if we just put our heads down and get the word out we could have this done in six weeks.”
The reality is that the church is not only an organization, but also an organism: an expression of the living Body of Christ. The call of a Senior Pastor is a spiritual call of God that is mutually experienced between a church and a pastor. It is not just a hiring decision. This reality makes all the difference in how the search team approaches the process. It is important for those engaged in the search and selection process to clearly understand and respect this difference.
Underestimating the time
Calling a new pastor takes time, but it doesn’t need to take an inordinate amount of time. The average church-led Senior Pastor search process takes 18 – 24 months. Even with the help of a well-networked, experienced search consultant who works in the world of pastoral transition full time, the process will likely take 6 – 9 months.
Search teams commonly underestimate the time, which leads them to engage the process in one of two ways: like a sprint or like a never-ending marathon. Either approach can lead to burnout or weariness for search team members, which impacts the quality of their choices and decisions. Realistic expectations about timelines, a steady measured pace, and timely communication with congregation and candidates will help to keep the group on task and moving forward toward the finish line.
Swinging into the gaps
Many search teams fall into the trap of crafting a candidate profile that basically describes the gaps of the last pastor. Most often they start with the Big Two: love Jesus and exceptional preaching. Then they look for all the qualities the last pastor was missing. For example, if pastor gave a great sermon but didn’t visit me when I was in the hospital, the need for a pastor who is caring and shepherding moves to the top of the list. Or, if the last pastor was caring and shepherding but couldn’t move initiatives forward, then they highlight the need for someone who can “get it done.”
The truth is, former pastor probably did a lot of things really well. Some of those qualities should be preserved as the church thinks about its next leader. Taking time to develop a balanced description and profile of the best candidate for the next season of the church, before the team begins interacting with real live prospects, will help minimize the risk of a “gap hire.”
Recruiting to the highlight reel
I cannot even begin to count the number of pastors who have shared stories of church search teams (and Elder boards) that have painted a picture of the church in the interview process that sounded amazing, but in reality was quite different. In essence, the search team chose to share only its highlight reel and to edit out the realities that most impact church health and vitality. For example, they fail to talk about the conflict that is plaguing the church, frequent staff turnover, dysfunctional board, or the decline in attendance and giving the church has experienced in recent years.
Pastors need and deserve an unfiltered and candid view into a prospective church call. Be honest and balanced about your highlights as well as your challenges. Pastors are wired by God to meet needs. It is a key reason they entered into pastoral ministry. True, some may hear your story and decline to move forward, but the RIGHT candidate will hear the unfiltered truth and still feel called of God to come and lead you.
Treating interviews like a one-way street
As search teams craft their plan for interviewing prospective candidates, the one element they most commonly forget is that interviews are a two way street. True, the interview process is the opportunity for the search team to discern the right pastoral fit, but it is also THE opportunity for a candidate (who may have multiple opportunities on the horizon) to discern what it would be like to live and work within your church and community.
The search team is the front line of discerning candidate “fit” to the church and profile, but it is also the front line of selling a candidate on the idea of what it would be like to serve as your pastor. What impression do you want the candidate to have of your church? Does your interview process reflect that description? What questions does the candidate have? What do they need to aid their discernment? As the process unfolds, it is important to flex your relational muscles and ask the candidate what they would like to see included in the process. This is especially important when not working with a search consultant who would likely ask those kinds of questions on your behalf.
The most common mistake I have heard from pastors about church search teams relates to the pervasive lack of communication they have experienced. Some candidates have submitted information and never heard anything in return. Others have participated in an initial interview and waited well over a month for any kind of feedback. Some pastors report they were told they were one of a number of candidates under consideration for a position with no communication whatsoever about the search team’s overall timeline for decision-making.
Whether intentional or not, a lack of communication from the search team is almost always perceived as negative by a candidate. Some search teams have lost quality, qualified candidates from their process simply because they failed to communicate in a timely manner. Some communication is better than none. Even if it is just “thanks for your patience with us. We will be back in touch in two weeks.” A search team should not feel rushed in communicating its decisions, but it should make every effort to communicate with candidates, and to make decisions in a timeframe that honors the process and all its participants.
Failing to ask for help
This last point is likely the most important: It is okay to ask for help.
Search teams are made up of good, godly people who love their church and are committed to faithfully fulfilling their duty. Most, if not all, have jobs and families and a wealth of volunteer experience in the church, but few if any have a wealth of experience in the realm of Senior Pastor search. As mentioned in my first point, pastor search is not the same as marketplace hiring. Depending on the tenure of the departing Senior Pastor, some may be the very first search team formed in the church in decades.
Even though no one has done it before or knows what they are doing, many team members assume they should intuitively understand how to effectively conduct a national search for a new pastor without any outside help or support. Or they believe it is unspiritual to ask for help. But there is a cost to an extended search too. Be wise and stay open. If help is needed, simply ask! Help is available.
NL Moore & Associates is a ministry consulting group that works nationally with churches in succession planning, pastor search, church health assessment and pastoral coaching. www.nlmoore.com