So You Are About to Begin a Pastoral Search

This is a sensitive topic. People do not always think rationally, biblically, and confessionally about the office of pastor. Many do not understand what ministers do, and most people who are involved in the pastoral search process are well-meaning but inexperienced. And most congregations only do a search every seven to ten 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 unsure about the sort of person or qualities desired, or even what the job entails, the search becomes considerably more difficult. Add to this the fact that in most churches, searches are conducted by a committee, and we all know how difficult committees can make things. Often these committees can consist of seven people with seven different sets of criteria and seven different job descriptions.

Some of these difficulties are due to the nature of the animal. Many conservative and confessional (NAPARC) congregations are small, and all of them are non-profit organizations. This means that they are understaffed and underfunded. 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 likely do not have the same degree of experience in conducting searches.

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

What often follows are those 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 are setting priorities, should we not start with those virtues that Scripture seems to value above those virtues which Walmart values?

The congregation is not 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 to pray for the congregation.

You will notice that I have not talked about money—I hesitate to do so. As a former pastor, anything I say may be interpreted as self-serving. The truth is that, in many cases, congregations have no idea how much pastors should be paid. They do not understand clergy finances (and it can be pretty arcane). As a result, the committee/session/consistory begins with one idea of what to pay the new pastor, and often 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, the (ruling) elders. Certainly, ruling elders should seek the advice of the congregation, and the congregation should be involved in voting on the candidates put before them, but the search itself should be conducted by those who have been recognized, called, and ordained to do the task.

Second, the elders should speak 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 and see things as they really are. Chances are, if you are a member of an average Reformed congregation, it is unlikely that you will be calling an R. C. Sproul or Sinclair Ferguson. So, in the immortal words of Rosanne Barr, “Get real!” Be honest about why, where, and who 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.


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  1. A few years ago our pulpit committee reviewed many sermon tapes of candidates. They were convinced they needed some kind of dynamic “preacher”. The candidate that was called has debatable skills as a preacher and nearly none as a pastor. My advice for any congregation would be to call someone with a demonstrable pastoral heart. Even if a candidate seems to be a dynamic preacher, you need pastoral care much more than you might think. CEOs are a dime a dozen.

  2. But first you have to build a pulpit setup like the one in the picture. What Reformed preacher wouldn’t give his eye-tooth to preach from there?

  3. With regard to money. I am a ruling elder with a career in finance. A couple of suggestions:

    1. If you are part of a denomination, does that denomination publish figures about pastoral compensation? The PCA does, and they break it down by region of the country and church size. These tables are very, very helpful.

    2. One rule of thumb is that the pastor should make about as much as the median member of the congregation. Whoever counts tithes and offerings can give you an educated guess. Also, if you have an HR professional in the congregation, ask him if the pastor appears to lead a lifestyle at about the median of the congregation.

    3. Maybe most important of all, when you put together the church budget each year, ASK the pastor if he has enough money. And don’t let him dodge the question. Then ask his wife if they have enough money.

    4. Be generous. You do not want you pastor or his wife worrying about money. Pay them more than you may think they “need.” And if unexpected financial needs surface, meet them. Pastors aren’t financial professionals or experts. If you have someone in your congregation who is a finance professional (like me), have them work closely with the pastor–not just at budget time, but also throughout the year (car trouble? nasty surprises at tax time? unexpected illnesses or medical needs? the list goes on and on. Be in touch.)

  4. Pray! I was on a pastoral search committee several years ago, and we continually asked the congregation to pray for the search. We also called several congregation-wide prayer meetings for the purpose of praying for everything and everyone in the process.

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