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.)