A Faster Pastor: Six Ways to Improve the Search Process

by David Carlson

Congregations have come to expect that it will take 18 months or more to find a pastor. When they express frustration about the length of this process, they may be lectured by judicatory officials to “slow down” or told, “Don’t be so anxious.” Rather than seek ways to improve the search process, judicatories and denominations defend the assumptions and processes that create bottlenecks and delays.

However, there are ways to improve this process. It is possible to find a pastor in six months. Plus, a faster search might even produce a better result!

There are six issues that delay or degrade the search process:

  • misplaced timing and purpose of mission study
  • procedural delays in the congregation and the judicatory
  • inadequate formation of the search committee as a functioning group
  • cumbersome techniques for the processing of dossiers
  • faulty assumptions (skills matching versus quality of performance)
  • wrong framework (comparison shopping versus discernment of call)

Any single error might delay the search process by a week or a month. Compounded, they can delay the search process by a year or more. Following is a brief exploration of each of these issues, presented in the order in which they usually occur.

Misplaced timing and purpose of mission study

In the 1960s and ’70s, denominations discovered the tantalizing virtues of strategic planning and decided to impose these upon congregations. No one today would argue against such planning, but it is highly questionable whether this kind of planning should be required of a congregation at this stage of its life. Planning done to satisfy external requirements is unlikely to bring any direct benefit to the congregation. Most of these studies move directly from judicatory approval to some remote shelf where they begin gathering dust.

By contrast, strategic planning would make much more sense if undertaken by the congregation and the new pastor together. There are two times when strategic planning would seem to offer the most promise: one year after a new pastor begins ministry, and again in the fifth or sixth year of the ministry, as pastor and congregation become truly ready to make long-term plans.

For these reasons I encourage congregations to do a very brief mission study, which essentially just says, “This is who we are.” Participation is more important than analysis. Instead of one committee laboring for months to produce an academic thesis, I encourage a few meetings of the congregation, where they distill answers to the questions, “Who are we? What do we like best about ourselves? Where are we most hungry for change? What would we like to communicate to our new pastor?”

Procedural delays in the congregation and the judicatory

It is legendary how often friction develops between the judicatory and the congregation during the search process. This comes from two sources. At certain points, the congregation must submit paperwork for approval. It is not uncommon for a judicatory committee to take weeks or even months to grant a simple approval. Likewise, various individuals perceived as representing the judicatory may offer conflicting advice to the search committee. Both of these encourage tension and mistrust.

The search process represents one of the most important decisions a congregation makes. More than any other single factor, the outcome of this process shapes its future. In any equivalent business, the search for a new leader would be resourced by professionals. In contrast, the church expects volunteers to play the roles of professional staff, and this does not work. This is one place where professional judicatory staff and/or outside consultation can make a great difference.

Inadequate formation of the search committee as a functioning group

In order to discern who is called to serve as pastor, the search committee needs to know both its head and its heart. This requires a high level of honesty and openness among committee members. The niceness and politeness that characterize day-to-day relationships among church members may not be what is needed for the committee to truly form as a group.

When a committee forms as a group, three things happen: First, members know each other well enough to be able to predict how their fellow members will react to a candidate. Second, members trust one another well enough to permit individual members to do work on behalf of the whole committee. (This is essential for a committee to move fast enough to catch the most attractive candidates.) Third, members experience a level of safety and acceptance that makes it possible to express even vague misgivings. Politeness, hesitancy, and the tendency to listen only to the head, or only to what is on paper, are the reasons churches continue to discover, too late, that they have called another “naked emperor.”

Cumbersome techniques for the processing of dossiers

Denominational literature often counsels committees to pay far too much attention to dossiers. Each member reads each dossier. Dossiers are marked with pluses and minuses, then ranked and stacked. By the time they have been thus processed, some other church has already called the most attractive candidate.

The only purpose of reading dossiers is to decide who to call! Not who to call as a minister, but who to call on the telephone! The committee should move from paper to personal contact as quickly as possible. This has two benefits. First, it shifts the committee’s attention from paper to relationship. Second, it allows the church to begin courting candidates at the earliest possible date.

The most effective search committees assign small teams to read dossiers and to “nominate” the best ones to be read by the whole committee. The most attractive dossiers are thus raised to the top in a week or two, and the committee can process dossiers at the rate of 10 or 20 per week.

Faulty assumptions (skills matching versus quality of performance)

Perhaps in order to meet objectives of equal employment opportunity, or perhaps as a way of eliding the unhappy realities of widespread church decline, denominations encourage search committees to think of certain ministerial skills or profiles as a way of ensuring a “match” between pastor and congregation. There is an element of truth to this approach, but it also obscures another truth of equal or greater importance: some ministers are simply more effective than others.

Matching is actually important in a negative sense: a church certainly should not call a pastor who is a mismatch. On the other hand, qualities such as competence, oratorical skill, and leadership strength are the things that really determine the overall effectiveness of a pastor and a church when they work together.

Wrong framework (comparison shopping versus discernment of call)

Just as the committee begins to get excited about Candidate A, someone reminds them that they are supposed to put together a “short list” of three to five candidates. So the committee seeks some way to delay Candidate A while they work to line up B and C. Unfortunately, while they are looking for C, A receives a call somewhere else. This concept—the short list—is completely wrong. It substitutes a form of comparison shopping for the work of discerning a call.

An effective search committee outlines a series of increasingly intimate contacts between committee and candidate. This begins with the first phone call, it moves through stages of sharing and discussion, then a visit, interview and neutral pulpit, and finally the decision to extend a call. If the committee has truly formed itself, it will be able to close in toward this final decision as a group, it will feel right, and it will be right. And the result will be a call, not merely a choice.

Conclusion Judicatories have justified these inefficient processes and procedural delays as if the extra time that is consumed produces a better outcome. There is no evidence to support this belief. In fact, search committees that experience a higher level of functioning tend to seek—and achieve—better quality results. Search committees that are frustrated and exhausted tend to give up hope and compromise their expectations. Delays cause congregations to place increasing pressure on the search committee to get someone—anyone. Just fill the vacancy. The result of a faster search is likely to be a better search, a pastor who is happy in her/his ministry, and a congregation that loves its pastor.

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Questions for Reflection

  1. As a judicatory leader, do you see it as your job to help the congregation find the best pastor possible, or are you devoting your best energies to ensuring that the congregation is following denominational rules?

  2. As a congregational leader, are you approaching the mission study—and the whole search process—as an opportunity to learn, or as an obligation to get out of the way?

  3. At any given moment are you able to answer the following questions:

    1. What was last step completed and who was in charge during that stage?

    2. What stage of the process are you in now, and who is in charge?

    3. What will be the next step, and who will be in charge then?

  4. Has your search committee truly become a group? Do they know each other well enough to form consensus, and will the committee stand united at the outcome of this process?

  5. Has your search committee talked (and worked) through the difference between comparison shopping and discernment of call?

  6. Is your search committee doing what is needed to cultivate the congregation’s understanding of the search process so that the congregation trusts the work of the search committee and is prepared to receive its recommendations?
    Congregations, 2008-10-01 Fall 2008, Number 4

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