HB Classic: So You’re About to Call a Pastor?

[First published on the HB in June 2007]

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 so. 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 (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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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11 comments

  1. thanks for the post dr. clark. it is a sensitive topic with a lot of people… and most appropriate for those who are graduating from seminary this year… and next.

    i find that finances are really a touchy subject as well. though, i do believe that an encouragement for elders to really do a thorough search in average salaries of pastors in the area would be most wise don’t you think? it’s a starting point at which you can then kind of say, “ok. it looks like we can be able to help some the guy feed his family if he is going to feed us the Word every week.”

    it also helps for the potential candidate to understand the importance of impressions as well with finding the right fit with a church. i’d like to hear more about that myself!

    in some ways, it seems a daunting yet worth while task to really do your homework on a congregation before taking a call while prayerfully considering their needs and God’s gifting of one’s capacity to help connect the Word and sacraments to these people.

    but hey… sometimes you just don’t know how to do something unless you go through the pain of doing everything the wrong way first! and God only uses that to strengthen and affirm the minister’s call to be humble and prayerful in their task to serve up a banquet for God’s people.

  2. I agree with the idea of the ruling elders doing the search, however, a “pastoral search committee” seem to be another sacred cow even in Reformed churches.

  3. Timely, as we are now 3 years deep into not filling our pulpit.

    Our sacred cow keeps mooing something about the “average timeline being 2.5 years in our denomination to fill a pulpit.”I think that is supposed to justify all the churning. Dutch Reformed churning is good for making butter, but it seems not so good for calling a pastor.

    In light of the Blacketer debacle, maybe our cow would be more comfortable in Pentecostal settings, as perfection seems to be what they expect.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this post. I would be interested in your discussing this issue in more detail in later posts as I don’t think we, either as individual congregations or entire denominations, have adequately worked through this area.

    For example, we often bemoan when pastors leave a congregation for “greener pastures”. Yet, (1). As a Seminary Professor you are well aware that many churches include the phrase “M.Div. with at least 5 years experience” in their pastoral search literature. How can such messages be taken by your students to mean anything other than “the first few years after seminary are a stepping stone to bigger and better things”?; and (2). We don’t seem to want to wrestle with the question of why other churches are “greener pastures”. Should Presbyteries or Synods subsidize the salaries of pastors at smaller congregations? This is not an easy question to answer. As an older man, I am sympathetic to your students who, though they didn’t create the current system for calling pastors, are often treated as though the consequences of the current system are their fault.

    Thank you again for addressing this.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    As a young man and recent seminary graduate aspiring to the office of minister in the church, I am grateful for your encouragement to the churches on this matter!

    Blessings,

    Brad

  6. Does the Fourth Head of the Scotch First Book of Discipline (1560) put it too strongly?

    And last, let them understand that it is alike to have no minister at all, and to have an idol in the place of a true minister; yea and in some cases, it is worse. For those that are utterly destitute of ministers will be diligent to search for them; but those that have a vain shadow do commonly, without further care, content themselves with the same, and so they remain continually deceived, thinking that they have a minister, when in very deed they have none. . .

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