The Relational Search Process: Part 1 – The Good and the Bad of the Relational Search Process

headshot-timwoodroofby Tim Woodroof

There are several paths a church can take when searching for it’s next lead minister:

  • Grab the closest available minister and stuff him into the position whether or not he’s a good fit. (“God will make this work,” churches tell themselves, when what they are really saying is, “It will be a miracle if this works!”)
  • Go the “resume and references” route, evaluating candidates on the basis of paper qualifications and word-of-mouth reports. (In other words, adopt an approach to hiring used in the business world … an approach that doesn’t transfer well to the environment of the church and—even in it’s native environment—results in an adequate hire only about half the time.)
  • Or make a commitment to build relationships with candidates, creating room for authentic conversation, natural friendship, and spiritual discernment.
Successful minister searches are all about relationship.
You can probably guess which “path” we at Interim Ministry Partners recommend.

Successful minister searches are all about relationship. Getting to know each other. Learning to trust each other. Identifying strengths and confessing weaknesses. Evaluating “chemistry.” Assessing “fit.” Deciding whether we can live with each other for the next ten years—and do something good for the kingdom along the way.

We often use the analogy of “marriage and dating” to explain this relational search process. Finding your next minister (like marriage) is a big decision with significant ramifications. You don’t make such decisions by reading resumes or letters of reference. Listening to CDs, viewing photos and videos, is not a good foundation for these kinds of commitments.

A relational search process requires dialogue, sharing, finding common ground, and taking a few risks. Like dating, a relational search allows time for people to warm up, for a more natural conversation to occur, for affection to grow. It allows us to learn about each other in an holistic way: not just what we think but how we think … not just our competencies but our winsomeness. (Ministry, like marriage, requires lots of winsomeness!)

We believe building relationships with candidates is necessary for good search processes. But it also causes problems.

The Bad(s) of a Relational Search Process

I’d rather find my future spouse by meeting someone and falling in love. No arranged marriage for me, thank you very much! No mail-order bride, if you please! But “falling in love” is not without its own challenges and pitfalls. It may beat the alternatives but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect or easy.

The same goes for a relational search process … it has its own problems.

  1. A relational search process takes time … lots of time. Getting to know candidates, growing to like candidates, is inherently inefficient. It requires multiple conversations unfolding over a range of weeks. You have to tell each other your “stories.” You have to share a few dreams. You have to talk enough to develop the kind of trust that lets you venture into deeper water and riskier territory. Real relationships don’t happen overnight. They are cultivated conversation by conversation. And, unavoidably, that requires a rather substantial investment of time.
  2. A relational search process can cloud judgment. “Love is blind” (or so the poets say). And the blindness that results from “falling in love” with a candidate can result in unasked questions, unfounded assumptions, and uncritical attachments. The “halo effect” makes attractive candidates (like physically pretty people) seem better, smarter, nobler, abler than they actually are. We want churches to fall in love with candidates, but not at the expense of honest and discerning judgment.
  3. A relational search process requires “dating” multiple candidates at a time. Search committees don’t have the luxury of sequential dating; they have to develop relationships with a number of candidates simultaneously. And that can be challenging for some committee members. They can feel a little guilty about this, wondering if such a process lacks integrity. When I tell committees, “You’ve got to kiss a few frogs before you find a prince,” they give me strange looks. It’s true—you do—but some committee members are squemish about it nonetheless.
  4. A relational search process can result in factions within the search committee. Because search teams develop multiple candidates at the same time, individual committee members can react to different candidates differently. One committee member falls in love with Candidate A. Another committee member really likes Candidate B. Relationships tend to foster loyalties that can result in overzealous campaigning for preferred candidates. When committee members allow their affection for a candidate to trump the wisdom of the group as a whole, they put their hearts before the Spirit. And that never results in something that honors God.
  5. A relational search process leaves you vulnerable. It’s the nature of relationship. Getting to know candidates (and them getting to know you) leads to affection and friendship. You start to care about each other. Unfortunately, search committees can only invite one candidate to be the church’s next minister. Every other candidate a committee talks to will either decide you are not the church for them … or you will decide he is not the candidate for you. Often, by the time a decision is reached, it feels less like a decision and more like a rejection. A commitment to building relationships opens you (and candidates) to hurt feelings and the pain of being spurned.

See, I told you a relational search process has its own kind of problems. Perhaps it is appropriate to paraphrase Winston Churchill at this point: a relational search process is the worst form of search process … except for all the others.

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