The Relational Search Process: Part 2 – Search Committees and Candidates

by Tim Woodroof

Most ministry candidates (and every candidate who has been through a search process before) will tell you they prefer a relational search process.

“Don’t judge me by a resume and a sermon,” candidates would assert. “Get to know me. Let me get to know you. Let’s talk … build a friendship.”

Until it comes to the actual work of establishing a relationship, that is. Ministers are busy people. They juggle lots of demands. They are (often) emotionally stressed. If they are in transition (i.e., they’ve quit a pulpit or have been asked to move on), they will be worried about finances and their family’s future.

Yes, they want a relational search process. But, no, they too often don’t have the time, patience, or energy to cultivate relationships with search committees. In the press and bustle of real life, “Get to know me” frequently translates into “Make me an offer.” In their heads, ministers know they (and the churches they’re talking to) are best served by the slow, steady process of learning to like each other. But in their hearts, ministers (like the rest of us) wrestle with fear, a hunger for stability and predictability, and the allure of a regular pay-check. And their hearts often drive ministers to say, “On second thoughts, judging me by a resume and a sermon may not be such a bad thing.”

Candidates and Search Committees

This becomes a particular issue when candidates are asked to work with search committees. Building a relationship with members of search committees takes a considerable investment on the part of candidates.

  • Phone calls. Emails. Video conferences.
  • Conversations about ministry and theology and church leadership.
  • Dialogue with individual committee members and, then, the committee as a whole.

It’s demanding. It can be exhausting.

Ministerial candidates usually don’t mind making this kind of investment—so long as they’re dealing with the people who will actually make the final decision: elders and staff. Most ministers show great patience and stamina when interacting with potential shepherds or other ministers with whom they will be working.

But search committees—by definition—represent a layer candidates must navigate before they ever get to elders and staff. Search committees manage the access candidates have to decision-makers in the church. They exist to vet candidates, assess their qualifications and “fit,” and narrow down options for a church’s leaders.

And not a few ministers find working with search committees frustrating. “Why should I go to the time and effort of getting to know a committee? Just let me talk directly to the elders.”

And, of course, they have a point. Committees don’t decide on ministers (they are “search” committees, after all, not “selection” committees). And candidates don’t decide on churches on the basis of their interactions with committee members … they expect (and need) to talk first with shepherds and staff members.

So why the “middle man”?

Good question. Could I suggest …

Seven Reasons Candidates should Love Search Committees

  1. Search committees represent current “best practice” for identifying, interviewing, and recommending candidates to church leaders. There has to be some process for finding a church’s next lead minister. This process exemplifies an approach that is inclusive, effective, and widely used by faith communities. If a better process comes along, we’ll be the first to recommend it. But, now and for a long time, using a search committee to do the heavy lifting has worked well.
  2. Search committees do the “preliminary work” of the search process. They are tasked to sort candidates according to elders’ “must have” criteria. Did the elders request candidates of a certain gender, education, or experience level? Committees can (and should) honor such requests by letting under-qualified candidates know they will not be considered. Candidates may want to argue (directly) that they are the “exception to the elders’ rule.” But such arguments are rarely effective and never efficient.
  3. Search committees help candidates understand a church’s vision and mission, the sort of ministry they want their new minister to focus on, and the particular qualifications and gifts being sought in a minister. Candidates don’t need direct access to shepherds to figure out whether they are a good “fit” for a congregation and its future (or for a committee to figure that out for them!). In the end, this approach saves time for both candidates and shepherds.
  4. Search committees will often tell things to candidates they may not hear from elders/staff. The kind of questions “laity” ask, the quality of their faith-walk, the way they interact with candidates, even the vocabulary they use often says a great deal about who a church is “beneath the surface” and at a granular level.
  5. Search committees exist to protect shepherds from the “distractions” of a search process. That’s a hard way to put it, I know. But there is no time in the life of a church when a congregation needs its shepherds to shepherd more than during times of transition … in the interim. By protecting shepherds from direct access by candidates, committees ensure that shepherds have the time and energy to focus on their flock.
  6. When a successful candidate invests in quality relationships with search committee members, they become the new minister’s biggest fans and best advocates. They’re like a momma bear guarding its cub: watchful, protective, courageous. Shepherds (even staff) are caught in a web of relationships that must be weighed and balanced … sadly, they rarely feel themselves in a position to be deaf, dumb, and blind to criticisms of the minister by church members. But not so with the committee members who recommended the candidate and embraced him as “their guy.” They can (and will) be passionate in standing by their new minister.
  7. If you keep reading this series, you will see that search committees are a way of raising up the next generation of church leaders. Only when committee members are deeply involved in discussions and decisions as critical to a spiritual family as the selection of a new minister can they be matured and equipped to lead that family in the future. Forming spiritual leaders is never easy or effortless. Candidates may feel the strain of participating in such maturation and development. However, even if the process does not result in a candidate being hired by a church, it often results in committee members being prepared for the future of the church. And, from a kingdom perspective, an investment in leader preparation is always worthwhile.

Of course, candidates may still prefer to deal only with churches where the elders oversee the search process directly and do not use a search committee. There are many churches where that is the case and we respect their choice. Churches that use committees, however, do so for good reasons. Candidates respect those reasons when they agree to work with search committees. All things considered, the use of a search committee yields the best and most consistent results for both churches and the candidates they consider.

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