So You Are About to Begin a Pastoral Search

This is a sensitive topic. People don’t always think rationally or biblically or confessionally about the office of pastor. Many folk don’t understand what ministers do and most people who are involved in the pastoral search process are well-meaning but inexperienced. Most congregations only do a search every 7-10 years.

Having been intimately involved in the hiring process I know how difficult it is to find good people for highly responsible positions. Searching to fill a position is difficult even when one knows exactly what the job requires and the qualities for which one is looking. If one is not sure of the sort of person or qualities or even what the job entails, the search becomes considerably more difficult. Add to this mix the fact that, in churches, most searches are conducted by committee and we all know how much more difficult committees can make things. Think of 7 people with seven different sets of criteria and 7 different job descriptions!

Some of these difficulties are in the nature of the animal. Most conservative and confessional (NAPARC) Reformed (and Presbyterian) congregations are small and all of them are non-profit organizations. This means that they are under-staffed and under funded. They rely on volunteers to do many important tasks including calling a pastor. Even if the search is being conducted by the ordained elders (as it ought to be) it is still the case that all the elders probably don’t have the same degree of experience in conducting searches.

What does all this mean? It means that congregations often begin the search process with unrealistic expectations. Few congregations ever begin their search by saying, “Let’s look for a young, relatively inexperienced, recent graduate from seminary.” The odd thing is that, if the congregation is one of average (100–200) members there is a reasonable probability that, in fact, the congregation may actually end up calling a younger pastor.

Congregations often begin the search process by looking for an experienced pastor, who has a different set of gifts and interests from the present pastor. If the present pastor is a “people person,” then they look for someone with a stronger skills in the pulpit.

Then, of course, as I mentioned, there are the disparate expectations. How many on the session/consistory/search committee are looking for a minister who sees his primary vocation as the public preaching of the Word twice each Lord’s Day? How many are looking for someone with good management skills. Yes, most pastors do need to learn to manage time and to conduct meetings efficiently and effectively, but if we’re setting priorities, shouldn’t we start with those virtues which Scripture seems to value above those virtues which Walmart values?

The congregation isn’t calling a CEO; she is calling a pastor. She is calling a man who will conduct worship, catechize her children and who will teach parents to catechize their own children. She is calling a man to teach the elders and deacons, to do pastoral counseling and pray for the congregation.

Of course, I haven’t talked about money. I hesitate to do. As a pastor, anything I say may be interpreted as self-serving, but the truth is that, in many cases, congregations have no idea how much pastors should be paid. They don’t understand clergy finances (and it can be pretty arcane). So, the committee/session/consistory begins with one idea of what to pay the new pastor and ends up with a different figure altogether.

The first thing congregations can do to conduct a better search is to put the search in the hands of those who are charged by God’s Word with the responsibility of governing the church, i.e., the (ruling) elders. Certainly ruling elders should seek advice of the congregation and the congregation should be involved in voting on candidates put before them, but the search should be conducted by those who have been recognized, called, and ordained to the task.

Second, the elders should talk to experienced pastors and elders about the search. They should find out from others the qualities and virtues for which they should be searching.

More than anything, our churches need wisdom. They need to be in close contact with the biblical and confessional account of the pastoral office. They also need to be in close contact with reality, i.e., with things as they really are. Chances are, if your’s is an average Reformed congregation, you’re probably not going to be calling R C Sproul or Sinclair Ferguson. So, in the immortal words of Rosanne Barr, “Get real!” Be honest about who, where, and why you are and structure your call accordingly. It may be that there are good reasons not to call a young pastor, but you should only come to that conclusion after serious, prayerful reflection.

— This essay first appeared June 19, 2007.

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  1. Do you have any advice, in regard to this post, for those of us beginning the call process as new, unexperienced, first-ordained call guys?

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