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One of the pivotal points in the life of a local church is the departure of its pastor and the ensuing search to find his replacement. For some, this can be a time of excitement if the church has grown stagnant under the former pastor's leadership. For others, it can be somewhat traumatic if he's been a good steward of his gifts, loved his people, grown them in grace and seen many come to Christ under his ministry. For a search committee to find the replacement for such a man may seem nigh impossible. But whether exciting or traumatic, the task of finding a pastor must be conducted by a search committee formed to do just that. Few endeavors undertaken by a church have a more far-reaching impact.
The six phases involved in the pastoral search are set forth in this document. While they are not carved in stone, they do represent a logical progression in the process.
Forming a Pastor Search Committee
Church congregations, in their Constitution and By-Laws (CBL), can specify the minimum-maximum number of committee members in the event of a pastoral vacancy. It can furthermore specify how many of this number will be deacons, board members, men, women and members of the congregation at large. The size of the committee may reflect the size of the congregation. A church with one hundred members may form a committee consisting of five to seven members. A church with a thousand members may have a committee with a dozen members. In any case, the pastoral search committee should consist of (1) a good cross-section of the adult congregation, and (2) members of the congregation with a reputation for spiritual discernment. To the extent possible, guidelines in the CBL should be crafted in such a way as to ensure such an outcome. A church with no specifics in their CBL regarding a search committee can nominate-select committee members at the next regular business meeting or meeting called for that purpose.
Finding an Interim Pastor
The first order of business for a pastorless church is to ensure the pulpit is occupied each week until a full-time pastor is called. In situations where a pastor has given due notice of his departure, pulpit supplies can be lined up well in advance. If a church has an associate pastor, that individual can meet the need. If the associate has tenure and the people have come to love him, the church may decide to extend a call to him.
An interim pastor is critical for a several reasons. First, he fills the immediate need for the regular proclamation of biblical truth. Secondly, he allows a search committee to focus on its main job—finding God's man—and take all the time they need to get it right. Thirdly, a seasoned man of God stepping in to fulfill pulpit responsibilities can perform an important advisory role for a search committee. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, he is in a position to address critical congregational needs to prepare a church for its next pastor. If the former pastor left abruptly under difficult circumstances, there could be latent bitterness and divisions an interim pastor can help a church work through and get beyond before calling another pastor. For this reason, an interim pastor is far more than a pulpit supply. He's a bridge to the future. And if he does his job well, that future can be a bright one.
Conducting the Search for Potential Candidates
There are two foundational tasks a search committee MUST perform at the outset of their search. First, prayer must be priority one. No one has as much at stake in the choice of a new pastor as the Lord Jesus, the head of HIS church. Humbly seeking HIS guidance and direction, knowing HE desires to guide the committee to fulfill HIS will, is where any pastoral search must begin and remain during the search process.
Secondly, the search committee must identify the KIND of man for which they'll be searching. This can be done by establishing two lists. In list #1, they can identify the credentials a prospective pastor MUST have in order to warrant consideration. In list #2, they can identify NICE TO HAVE credentials that are not deal breakers.
Examples for list #1 would be (1) doctrinal purity, (2) the gospel of grace in Christ, and (3) clarity regarding his salvation and call to ministry. Other items might include effectiveness as an evangelist and a commitment to the discipleship of new converts. Examples for list #2 might be (1) seminary graduate, (2) a contextual expositor of scripture, and (3) five years of pastoral experience. I would personally put these items on list #1. But the reality is God is not bound by these credentials. It's entirely possible God could lead the committee to a man who's Holy Ghost anointed, has no formal training and is looking for his first pastorate. But this kind of man would be the exception rather than the rule. A search committee MUST take seriously its stewardship and find, with resources available, the best qualified man they can.
Men skilled in the contextual exposition of scripture are harder to find than a needle in a haystack. Most pastors fall into two groups—exhorters and expositors. Exhorters are plentiful. The contextual expositor is a rare find and vanishing breed. While the scriptures are central to both kinds of preaching, ONLY the contextual expositor is capable of feeding the flock on a regular basis. Most search committees will not prioritize the contextual expositor because they've never had the privilege of sitting under expository preaching. They are accustomed to exhorters, and will likely seek another exhorter as a replacement.
Let's put this in perspective. The 'kind' of man the search committee seeks should relate directly to the 'kind' of church they envision being...or becoming. Many churches these days are Laodicean. There is a distinct absence of Holy Ghost power even though the pastor sermonizes, marries, buries, visits hospitals on a consistent basis--all the things you'd expect a pastor to do. But the pulpit is powerless, sermons are pablum and conversions are rare to non-existent. Would the search committee be content to find a replacement that maintains that level of lifeless ministry? Or is there a burning desire to transition to a Philadelphian church? If so, the committee should be looking for the 'kind' of man they believe can get them there, clearly anticipating the disruption of the status quo such a man will bring.
Finding a visionary Philadelphian man to leave his church for a visionless Laodicean church is a herculean task and well nigh impossible! For a search committee to find a Laodicean man to replace another is a much easier task. God have mercy on the church that calls a Laodicean Saul believing they've found a Philadelphian David! That's why it's important for committee members to envision the 'kind' of church they want to be and vet pastoral candidates accordingly!
Once the search committee has identified the “kind” of man they want to pursue, there are any number of ways they can solicit recommendations and gather resumes. In cases where a prospective pastor is in close geographic proximity, a few inconspicuous members of the committee might choose to visit a morning service to observe his pulpit manner and rapport with his people. There is no set number of candidates a committee must consider. God might direct them to the right man in a matter of days from a few resumes. But they could collect two dozen or more resumes and spend months without sensing a clear direction from the Lord. In any case, they can now go prayerfully through the resumes, identifying the best candidates and eliminating those who fail to meet “kind of man” criteria. In a real sense, committee members should be asking the Spirit of God to do for them what he did for Samuel. Of the eight sons of Jesse, the Spirit said concerning David: “This is my guy!”
Sending Confidential Letters to Candidate(s)
The next step is sending a cordial letter to your top candidate, informing him he's being considered as a potential pastor for XYZ Church and requesting a response either as an expression of interest or a “Thanks, but no thanks!” If you send multiple letters, limit them to the top two or three candidates. For candidates who respond as an expression of interest, the search committee should send a second letter that (1) thanks them for their availability, and (2) includes a copy of your CBL. In a follow-up phone call, a committee member confirms receipt of the second letter and discloses to the candidate any church circumstances of which they should be aware. It's called full disclosure. Remember, you are soliciting a pastor who may be in a healthy situation. The committee would dishonor God and do a great disservice to the candidate for withholding from him critical information about your church that he needs to make an informed decision.
In 1981, I preached in view of a call at a Baptist church in Bainbridge, GA. I preached both services, met with the pulpit committee in the afternoon. God was there in power, especially in the evening service. The associate pastor invited me to breakfast the next morning. As we talked, he told me the next pastor was in for a tumultuous time. He said there were actually three congregations in the church—one loyal to the long-tenured former pastor, one that wanted to call the interim pastor, and one that wanted a fresh face. It turns out I did not receive enough votes. But based on inside information shared by the associate, I had already decided to decline a call if extended and avoid the hornets' nest.
In the follow-up phone call, a committee member will let candidates know they'll be contacted about next steps. At this point, neither of you have made a commitment to the other and no expectations have been set except that they're on your radar screen and you're both seeking the will of God going forward.
Vetting and Extending a Preaching Invitation in View of a Call
The policy of the church and search committee should be to schedule one man at a time for consideration. It is not enough to schedule several candidates to preach, then vote on them one at a time. That would be like having one airplane ready for take-off with six more on the taxiway, only to send those six back to the concourse after the first has taken off successfully. If you schedule multiple candidates and then cancel visits because you called the first candidate, you have sinned against those men! This is where the search committee MUST trust that the Spirit of God has directed them to THE man.
Now a word about vetting. Once the search committee has THE man in mind, the full committee should travel to his church to hear and meet with him. You should (1) let him know you're coming, (2) dress casual, and (3) scatter yourself among the congregation. Nothing is more distractive to a church service than several folks all dressed up, occupying the same church pew. Members can ask general questions about his devotional life, study habits, philosophy of ministry, doctrinal positions. For example, if I asked a candidate if he was a Calvinist and he answered “Yes!”, I would disqualify him immediately.
The search committee should avoid 'extreme' vetting by delving too far into his personal life. If his public ministry is being blessed of God, it's likely his private life has God's approval as well. Some of the best vetting is conducted by observation. But the reality is there are pastors who are addicted to internet pornography, who have no business in a pulpit. But how do you vet that? The following generic question might be appropriate to ask: "If it was possible for us to pull up your browsing history for the past year, would we discover any website links that might embarrass you?" If he expresses hesiation in answering "Absolutely not!", it might be a red flag. Another vetting tool might be checking whether he has a footprint on social media. If he does, the kind of content he posts (or doesn't post) can provide insight into his general attitudes about spiritual, social and political issues.
Consider this as a vetting device. Send two of your committee members to his church field. Have them randomly knock on thirty doors within a three-block radius of his church. Ask residents if anyone from his church has ever knocked on their door, invited them to church or told them the story of Jesus. If the overwhelming majority of those surveyed answer “No!” (or 0 for 30), you might want to question whether this is the man (despite other credentials) you want leading your church since it would become painfully obvious he has no vision for fulfilling the Great Commission. What if the candidate vetted your church in similar fashion? Would he disqualify you?
The search committee is responsible for arranging lodging, transportation and meal costs. If his coming to your church to preach in view of a call harms him in any way financially, the church should compensate him for any harm he incurs. For example, if his church refuses to pay his salary for the Sunday he's away from his pulpit to preach in yours, your church should pay him his salary equivalent. This compensation should come out of the church budget, NOT from a love offering.
The church should arrange the candidate's Sunday visit with him preaching both services. The search committee chairman will introduce him as a candidate and announce the date the church will vote on him. If the full search committee has not yet had the opportunity to meet with him, lunch with them might be in order. In the afternoon, the committee should schedule a Q&A session with the entire church body so they can ask questions and address any issues they deem important. In many cases, a vote to call is taken immediately after the evening service. An interlude should be allotted to give the candidate and family members time to leave the premises before the vote is taken. The church will vote by secret ballot or “Yea/Nay” vote per the CBL. Before the church dismisses, they will know whether they've called a new pastor or if the search will continue.
Finalizing the Call and Setting a Start Date
The church board, finance committee may have already worked out a compensation package for the new pastor. A designated committee member will contact the candidate with the vote result and extend an offer with salary details. In the event the compensation package is yet to be decided, the candidate can tentatively accept the call pending a final compensation offer. It's entirely possible the candidate observed things during his visit that were “red flags” that cause him to respectfully decline the call. This does happen!
The candidate and church agree on a start date. He may be obligated by his current church to give as much as thirty days notice before leaving. The pastoral search process you are winding up will now become the business of the church whose pastor you just called. Hopefully, he's leaving a healthy, harmonious situation and walking into another one. The church should reimburse the new pastor for all his moving costs. Some churches have a parsonage into which the pastor can move. If not, the new pastor will have to secure housing. The committee can be especially helpful in locating prospective properties beforehand to make the transition as smooth as possible. If he's local, housing may not be an issue. Any compensation package should include, if possible, an allowance for housing. Smaller churches may have to call a bivocational pastor. But that can be a huge asset if they call the right man!
The last order of business for the search committee is to contact (a phone call is a nicer touch) the candidates you previously enlisted, thanking them for their availability, informing them you've called a pastor and they're no longer under consideration. This is a courtesy they'll appreciate and God will honor. The pastoral search committee is an ad hoc entity. Once a call is extended and accepted, the work of the pastoral search committee is done. It dissolves on its own.