Ten Mistakes Churches Make in the Search Process

So you need to find a new Senior Minister?

After twenty five years of effective and faithful ministry, your preacher has decided to retire and move south to be near his grandchildren. Or perhaps a preaching minister who has been with your congregation for only a few years announces that he has taken a position with another and larger church. Sickness may be to blame: heart problems or the ravages of cancer. There could have been a moral failure or a bad case of ministerial burnout or fundamental disagreements about goals and direction that led to a painful separation.

Churches lose ministers for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes the loss is an occasion for celebrating good years in the life of a congregation. Sometimes it is an occasion to mourn poor choices or broken relationships or failed leadership. But always it is an opportunity for a congregation to take stock, do some careful soul-searching, and start again.

So what does a church do to find a new Senior Minister? How does a congregation initiate an effective search process? As in most things, a little thought at the beginning, some careful consideration of the “end in mind,” prayerful and careful choices about the people involved, and a bit of forethought and planning about the process will pay great dividends through the long and arduous process of finding the right person to lead your congregation into the next season of its life.

Ten Mistakes Churches Make in Looking for a Minister:

  1. “We don’t need any outside help with this.”
    Really? There are so many resources available to congregations in search of new ministers, ranging from interim ministers (who can lead a search process with experience and expertise) to consultants to resources available on the web to churches who have just been through the process. Any of these resources can provide you with steps, warnings, materials, suggestions, and advice that will aid your search and keep you from having to reinvent the wheel. Think about it: you are making a decision that will cost your congregation considerable dollars (salary and benefits, not to mention the giving implications of a poor choice). Investing a little in order to maximize your chances of making a good decision only makes sense.
  2. “The elders can be the search committee.”
    They can if they are not shepherds. But if they take shepherding seriously, they cannot afford to let their primary work take a backseat while they’re off chasing the perfect candidate. The search process is so consuming, it will dominate the elders’ time, attention, and energies for at least six months. They will get little else done. Shortcutting the demands of the process (trying to skimp on the steps or minimize the time frame) will only ensure that the elders do a poor job in both areas: their pastoral work and the work of finding the right person to serve as Senior Minister.
  3. “This is about finding our next minister, not examining ourselves.”
    Wrong. There is no better time (or greater opportunity) than choosing a new minister for church leaders to listen to their congregation, think about their goals for the future, examine the community they belong to, settle on their mission, and contemplate their leadership model. There are churches who have been through multiple ministerial “divorces”—the breakdown and eventual breakup of the church’s relationship with its minister—yet steadfastly believe the blame lies with the minister rather than the system he was asked to serve. Refusing to look at the church system in such circumstances is about as sane as the much-married man who prefers to complain he just can’t find the right woman rather than examine his own attitudes and behaviors. Yet another new minister might not fix the real problem. Even in healthy churches, searching for new ministerial leadership is a wonderful opportunity for congregational self-examination and goal-setting. It’s a chance to change and grow. Wise church leaders take advantage of such opportunities to question, listen, learn, and lead.
  4. “How hard can this be? Let’s just put an ad in the Christian Chronicle.”
    There are ways to surface high quality, high potential candidates for your minister search. And there are ways to surface large numbers of resumes that will have your search committee wading through piles of paper work and sorting through dozens of poor quality candidates. The challenge for search committees is not finding candidates (there are thousands of them out there!) but finding good candidates … candidates with real potential for doing the work you are asking of them. Finding good candidates is hard work. Only you can decide whether to put in the work before you start collecting resumes or after.
  5. “Let’s just bring in the best three or four candidates and let the church decide.”
    Ahhh! The infamous “beauty pageant.” Dress candidates up in their bathing suits, parade them in front of the church, and have a decibel-meter handy to identify the lucky winner. I’d be hard pressed to find a better example of leadership abdication than this. Do we really believe, on the basis of one sermon and a handshake in the foyer, that our members will be better equipped to make a decision about their new minister than a committee of trusted (and entrusted) people who have prayed and worked and interacted with these candidates for months? No. Church members need input in a decision this important. But they are simply not qualified or equipped or experienced to make the decision itself. That’s where leadership steps in.
  6. “Don’t worry about process. Let’s start making phone calls!”
    Every search committee I’ve worked with has contained some enthusiast who was impatient with building process, insisting instead that the committee just jump right in to identifying, contacting, and “talking turkey” with potential candidates. This bull-in-the-china-shop approach is wrong-headed for several reasons. First, it imagines that the “real” work of the committee is hiring the next minister. Not true. The real work of the committee is developing a process that is so trustable, so God-filled, that the committee, the candidates, and the congregation have confidence that the Spirit of God is leading them to the right choice. It is also wrong-headed because it views the search from only one perspective: the hunter who stalks, shoots, and drags home his prey. But what about the perspective of the ‘prey’? The candidate? A quality candidate is going to judge your committee and congregation on the basis of the quality of your process. A slap-hazard, disorganized, poorly planned, seat-of-your-pants process says something about the way your church operates and will drive quality candidates away in droves. On the other hand, a process that shows careful thought, deep prayer, a measured pace, and confidence in God’s leading will make your church attractive to candidates who otherwise might not show much interest.
  7. “Finding a new minister is a practical, not a theological, process.”
    People who talk like this are very conscious of the importance of process. They’ll want an organized and efficient effort put into place. They’ll even insist that spiritual exercises like prayer and fasting should be a part of the process. But they don’t want to waste any time on theological reflections about choosing a new minister. Yet developing a theological framework for the selection process (a framework for the committee and the congregation) is crucial. Does your committee operate with an understanding of the calling of God and how that calling has impacted his people and his leaders throughout sacred history? Do they realize how God has gifted and equipped them to serve on this committee? Do they have confidence in and experience with hearing God’s voice and responding to his will? Do they know about spiritual discernment? In the vacuum of such a theological framework, committees are left with resumes and business acumen in making ministerial decisions. And that’s too flimsy a basis on which to build the future of a church.
  8. We don’t need to be intentional or deliberate. We’re too spiritual for that.”
  9. “We can find the right minister quickly.”
    Act in haste, repent in leisure. You can choose quickly or you can choose well, and the two are often inversely related.
  10. Polity model
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