There’s More Than One Way to Call a Pastor

pastor call process

When I was a senior in high school, I was elected as the youth representative to the Pastor Search Committee at my home church. The congregation already knew of my call to ministry, so I found it to be an informative, inspiring experience to see firsthand how a Baptist call process worked.

Eight of us served on the committee, and after the first meeting I thought, “This crew will never come to an agreement on a pastoral candidate.” Yet, we began to gel as the search progressed and one Sunday after hearing a candidate preach, we sensed God’s spirit leading us to him more deeply. Within a few weeks, we recommended this candidate to our church as the next senior pastor. It was a rewarding experience.

This all took place prior to video sermons and internet sermon links. So, search committees would collect names and recommendations from church members and neighboring pastors, then get in the car Sunday after Sunday to hear a different preacher.

Most of the candidates our committee considered were just across town. As I recall, the farthest distance we traveled to hear a candidate was about an hour.

A lot of factors have changed since that first search process I participated in over 40 years ago. Here are just a few of the variables that have influenced the ways churches look for a new pastor:

• The internet has made candidates around the country more accessible.
• Churches are less likely to look for candidates in their local communities.
• Video conferencing tools such as Skype and Zoom have made it possible to conduct preliminary interviews without traveling to the candidate’s location.
• Confidentiality is exponentially more challenging due to the proliferation of communication devices.
• Committees tend to focus more on a candidate’s disposition toward the whole portfolio of pastoral responsibilities, not just the central task of preaching.
• Criminal and financial background checks are more readily available and, unfortunately, more necessary.
• References are usually easier to contact by cell phone and video chat.
• There is a greater realization of the need to call a pastor whose strengths are compatible with the potential and personality of a specific congregation.
• Many state conventions have minimized or eliminated minister relations staff members who once assisted in orienting and guiding churches in the pastor search process.
• Search teams tend to place more emphasis on the character, spiritual depth, and emotional intelligence (EQ) of the candidate than on demographic parameters such as age, experience, and education.

Calling a new pastor is one of the most important decisions a church will ever make. Among all the variables that have shifted across the years, there is at least one thing that hasn’t changed: A healthy process of due diligence and spiritual discernment is imperative to making a wise decision in calling your next minister.

There really is more than one way to discover, vet, and call your next pastor. Here are five models or paradigms that a church might consider for their pastor search process:

1. Traditional search model: In a traditional search, much like the search committee that I served on in high school, the church elects a search team that solicits resumes, conducts interviews, and nominates a candidate to the congregation. However, the search team will prayerfully utilize the best resources of communication and technology to research candidates, develop a short list, and then make site visits only to top two or three candidates during the final stages of their process.

2. Pastor-in-waiting model: In this model, a church will engage in a strategic plan to call a co-pastor or associate pastor who is pre-designated to be the next senior pastor upon the retirement or departure of the current senior pastor. This model provides continuity and provides the incoming pastor an opportunity to become more familiar with the day-to-day operations and the unique personality of the church before assuming the senior pastor role.

3. Pastor succession model: Some churches choose to adopt a direct succession model. In this paradigm, once the current pastor gives notice to the church of his or her pending retirement or transition, the search for the next pastor begins while the current pastor continues serving. The aim of this model is for the new pastor to immediately succeed the outgoing pastor without an interim season between. This model tends to only be effective in a healthy congregation where visioning and appreciative inquiry have been implemented effectively under the outgoing pastor’s leadership.

4. Employing a pastor search firm: In this approach, the church contracts with a pastor search firm such as Slingshot Group, Vanderbloemen Group, or Shepherd’s Staff to work with the church to establish search criteria, and then to bring the Pastor Search Committee a candidate or small group of candidates matching those criteria for consideration. Pastor search firms, which operate much like a religious “headhunting” service, are gaining popularity among some churches. While reviews are sometimes mixed regarding the effectiveness of search firms, churches who have experienced a successful search with a search firm are very affirming of the process. They are quick to highlight the importance of the firm providing a competent representative to oversee the search, and the intentionality of the Pastor Search Committee in exercising spiritual discernment when evaluating candidates brought by the search firm.

5. Advanced candidate search: This model, which the Center for Healthy Church (CHC) now offers, is a hybrid of the best of search practices, merging the positive attributes of a traditional candidate search with the wisdom of a veteran pastoral network. Using the tools of your congregational storyline, appreciative inquiry, and a strategic visioning process, a CHC coach will guide your church to create a representative church profile and a focused candidate profile. Then CHC will compile a short list of top tier candidates who match the candidate profile and have convictional congruence with the church profile. This list, along with accompanying biographical data and preaching links, will be presented to the Pastor Search Committee who will be able to begin deeper exploration into more serious candidates more quickly than in a traditional search model. Then, rather than beginning with a stack of 100 resumes, the search committee begins with approximately 10 prime candidates who have been identified because they have a remarkably high level of compatibility with the mission and profile of the congregation, and not because the candidate is simply looking to move.

The transitional season between pastoral tenures can be a time of growth and maturity for your congregation. If your church is beginning a search for a new pastor, never underestimate the leadership of the Spirit. Likewise, be assured that the Spirit uses multiple tools to empower the Pastor Search Committee and the congregation as they navigate the opportunities and obstacles on the road to calling a new pastor.

At the Center for Healthy Churches, we believe that “a healthy church is a community of Jesus followers with shared vision, thriving ministry, and trusted leadership.” Our team of coaches and consultants stand ready to assist your congregation as you affirm your vision for the future, as your congregation adopts the best practices of ministry, and as our congregation enters a season of pastoral transition.

(Dr. Barry Howard is the retired Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.  He currently serves as a coach and consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches.  Along with his wife, Amanda, he lives in Pensacola, Florida.)


Assisi: Walking in the Steps of St. Francis

st francis birth church

As our train from Venice approached the Santa Maria degli Angeli station we could see the old town of Assisi sitting on the slope of an Umbrian butte with prominent castles and cathedrals visible from miles away. We headed to our hotel immediately after disembarking, and along the way we saw a few friars walking so routinely that few seemed to notice their presence. There was definitely a spiritual aura here, affirmed by a sense of peace and serenity not present in the larger cities we visited.

Assisi is known world-wide as the home of St. Francis, who was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on July 16, 1228. When I was in college, I took a few semesters of voice lessons, even though I was not a music major. My instructor chose the music I was to learn and since he knew that I was serving as a minister at a local church, one semester he chose “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace,” the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, as one of the pieces I was to memorize.

The prayer was likely written long after the death of St. Francis in his honor. Later, the prayer was set to music by Sebastian Temple and published in 1967. This selection was also one of the pieces our church choir sang on their 2010 Tour in Italy. I still remember the words and occasionally sing them when no one else is around:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith ;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy
O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

This experience in college marked my introduction to the prayer and my first acquaintance with St. Francis. Since that time I have read accounts of the life and ministry of St. Francis and I have often quoted him in sermons and columns. Little did I know that I would have the privilege of visiting his hometown not just once, but twice.

Once again this year many of the faithful from around the world are making a summer pilgrimage to this historic place. For some Catholics, making the journey to Assisi is as important, if not more so, than traveling to Rome. Assisi is also a popular destination for seekers and mystics who are exploring and probing their doubts and presuppositions. In other words, some travel to Assisi to re-enforce their spiritual beliefs while others travel to Assisi to discover a higher purpose or a more spiritual meaning to existence.

Last night we visited the central piazza for dinner. Today we will visit the Cathedral of San Rufino where St. Frances was baptized, the Patriarchal Basilica in Santa Maria delgi Agneli where St. Francis died, and the Basilica of St. Francis where St. Francis was buried. Now I can better see how the life and message St. Francis still inspires spiritual pilgrims today.

Volumes have been written about the life of St. Francis, but three emphases from his ministry stand out as particularly relevant to the challenge facing the Christian church, especially Baptists, in the 21st century:

St. Francis emphasized simplicity of lifestyle. In 1206, the young Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, who would later be known as St. Francis, had a vision of Jesus Christ that transformed his life. A couple of years later he heard a sermon on Matthew 10:9-10, in which Christ tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim the kingdom of heaven, and “do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts. Take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals, or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.”

Francis took this literally and it inspired him to devote himself to a life of poverty and to begin preaching a message of repentance and hope. The message of Francis captured the hearts of young men from all over Italy who in turn wandered about preaching the Gospel to rich and poor alike. His message of non-materialism emphasized a love for God, a love of nature, and equality of humankind.

Desiring to share the good news with everyone, St. Francis ventured outside the walls of the church and took his message to the streets, preaching in the common language of the people, not in the traditional Latin of the church, so that all could understand. While some protested this new practice of St. Francis and the methods he employed, eventually the pope gave his blessing in 1223, and the Franciscan Order was included in the larger Catholic community.

Clare who at age 18 was captivated by the message of St. Francis. On the evening of Palm Sunday in 1212, she departed her father’s mansion without his permission, and headed to the valley below. Once there, friars escorted her to St. Francis who cut her hair, gave her a simple brown tunic, and commissioned her to a life of poverty. She spent the next forty years in the convent of San Damiano and was gradually joined by other women who heard the call to serve God. They became known as the Order of the Poor Clares.

One legendary story is told of Clare attempting to visit St. Francis when he was on his death bed. Since women were usually not permitted, when told by a friar that Clare had arrived to visit, St. Francis is said to have responded, “Then welcome Brother Clare.”

Much about St. Francis’ approach to ministry seems extraordinarily relevant for our time. To counter the materialistic impulses of our day, perhaps we need to re-emphasize the value of service, the beauty in nature, and the worth of each human being. Instead of waiting on people to “come to church,” perhaps we should also take the message to the streets, preaching through lifestyles and language a message of hope that the common people can understand. And perhaps we must find ways to affirm both the men and women that God calls to serve, recognizing that the spiritual passion and giftedness God places within a man or a woman supersedes the rules or traditions of the church or the culture.

In some ways, following the path of St. Francis in our time could be considered as radical as it was almost 800 years ago. But it is a path worth following to revitalize the church and advance the Good News.