Three Problems with Pastor Search Committees

Many churches use pastor search committees to hire new ministers. Problems often arise from this. Here are three that can hurt churches and candidates.

Job hunting can be tough.  Ministry job hunting can be tougher.

If you’ve tried to get a paid ministry position, especially in Southern Baptist churches, you know that you often have to deal with a search committee.  Here’s how the process basically works: search committee gets résumés, they send candidates a questionnaire, highest prospects interview with search committee, likely candidate gets second interview/questionnaire, person called.

Although the exact order may vary slightly, what I describe is fairly standard.

There are benefits to this process, but there are also numerous weaknesses and frustrations for both the candidate and the committee.  A quick reading of the comments on a 2015 article by Thom Rainer reveals some of the dissatisfying experiences of others.

Below I’d will outline three problems with pastor search committees and the hiring process that are frequently overlooked or denied.  Please note that this is far from comprehensive.  However, it is based on the experiences of ministry candidates, accounts by search committee members, and the writings of multiple researchers.

Pastor Search Committees are Notoriously Slow

I’m not sure which takes longer: watching grass grow, getting a bill through Congress, or waiting on a pastor search committee.  The process can often take upwards of one year (though I’ve read where some took two or more years).

Two common reasons given for the snail’s pace are:

  1. The committee is made up of volunteers with outside jobs and obligations;
  2. Committee members want to make sure that they are following God’s will.

Each of these are legitimate points, but neither is a justification for unnecessarily prolonging the process.  When it comes to these two points, there are some things everyone should keep in mind.

Point 1: Group of Volunteers

On the one hand, candidates should respect that the committee members are volunteers who must coordinate multiple schedules to find a time to meet.  On the other hand, search committees should respect the time of both their church (who is a slave to the committee’s speed) and the candidates.

Point 2: God’s Will

I applaud committees who wish to ensure they are following the Lord’s wishes and not their own.  However, when the delay is caused by laziness, bickering, or some other issue not related to divine guidance, then saying “we’re waiting on God” should not be used to excuse it.

Furthermore, when a search team prolongs the search process, it can end up reflecting negatively on the committee members and the church.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard about a candidate receiving a call from a committee member saying, “God’s indicated that you are the one,” only to have to tell them, “I’m sorry, but God called me to another position three months ago.”

What happened to God’s will?  Both cannot be right regarding God’s desire (though both could be wrong).  The committee might be absolutely certain God has said that John Doe will be their next minister, only to find that, due to their dilly-dallying, Mr. Doe accepted another position, also convinced God has called him.  Thus, the sluggishness of the search committee has harmed and disrespected the church by forcing them to either accept an already rejected (by God?) candidate or starting the whole, long process again.  Even worse, because both parties are convinced God has issued two different calls simultaneously, this raises questions regarding their submission to the will of God.

Pastor Search Committees and Candidates Can Sometimes Struggle with Transparency

Let me make it clear: I am not saying or implying that either party is being intentionally deceptive.  Rather, what I mean is that both are often emphasizing their positive attributes and attempting to avoid deal-breakers.

Now, one can try to be an extreme optimist (or I would argue, a blind optimist) and say that each party is being totally up front on everything; nothing is being withheld or omitted.  Sadly, though, this isn’t quite true.  Both parties struggle with what to say, how much to reveal, and more.

How Committees Struggle

Go to your local Christian bookstore (or, and look through the pastor search committee resources.  In most (if not all) of the books, you’ll find a discussion on things pastors wish committees disclosed and vice versa.  It’s all-too-common to hear stories about what ministers discovered once they arrived that wasn’t revealed by the search team or even outright contracted what they said.  In other words: there is a lack of complete honesty.  So why do search committees struggle with being more open?  Some reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • A desire to showcase the best of the church
  • The committee is more idealistic than the rest of the members
  • There is a misunderstanding of terms, e.g., “change”
  • They overlook or are unaware of the true power-brokers in the church

Regardless of the reason, it’s common for search committees not to convey enough information regarding the church’s situation.  However, it’s not only the search committees who struggle with total transparency.  Candidates struggle as well.

How Candidates Struggle

Those seeking a ministry position (or any job for that matter) want to highlight why they are the best choice.  As a result, they, too, grapple with honesty.  Why?  Again, there are many reasons, including:

  • A desire to showcase the best of themselves
  • To avoid deal-breaking issues, even those minor theological or stylistic differences that are blown up to major topics
  • A perception that showing weaknesses indicates an inability to lead
  • Limited experience

In the end, search committees and candidates often fail to be truly open and honest with each other.  This often leads to future problems that contribute to future struggles between the minister and the church that sometimes lead to his resignation or termination.

Search Committees Often Seem Business-Oriented, not Spirit-Oriented

I believe search committee members desire to follow the Holy Spirit.  However, I do not believe members are always as spiritually-minded as they believe.  Rather, it seems that many churches and, thus, search committees, have adopted a business mindset.  That is, they are about profit (i.e., more people in the pews, more members, etc.).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a church grow.  However, it seems that numerical growth is the primary goal with everything else being a means to that end.  Numbers are valuable, but numbers can be deceiving or even an idol.  Truth is, numerical growth is not always an indication of spiritual vitality.  It’s possible to see massive numerical growth with zero spiritual growth.

One of the most common questions committees ask candidates involves how much their previous church(es) grew.

They want numbers.

They want a track record of growth.

When there isn’t growth, the committee may or may not inquire as to the full context.  Even worse, the candidate can be viewed as a failure to the church and to God.

This is a business mindset that can lead to the wrong candidate being called and great candidates being rejected — all just to achieve greater profit, er, grow the church.

In order to help illustrate this, consider two sample scenarios:

Example 1: Business Executive

You are responsible for hiring the next CEO of your big business.  You’ve narrowed it down to two choices.  Candidate A was CFO of a company 5 years ago that experienced an average growth of 4% each year.  Candidate B was just laid off as CEO after his company suffered three consecutive years of 1% losses.

Who would you hire?  Probably Candidate A.

What if I told you that Candidate A’s time as CFO was during a major economic boom wherein most companies in his industry experienced 7-10% annual growth?  However, Candidate A’s company only saw 4% growth.  What if I told you that Candidate B’s company lost 1% each year during a financial collapse wherein most companies in his industry were losing 5-7% each year or even going bankrupt?

Now, which candidate would you choose?

Example 2: Ministry Leader

You are responsible for hiring the next senior pastor.  Like in example 1, you have two candidates.  Candidate A was Senior Pastor of a church for many years that experienced a history of in-fighting, splits, conflict, and a mass-exodus of his senior staff.  Candidate B was Senior Pastor of a church for three years that saw 15% annual growth in attendance each year.

Which candidate would you hire?  Probably Candidate B.

(I’m sure you know there’s a twist).

Well, what if I told you that Candidate B’s church was in a one of the fastest-growing metropolises in the nation, and that they toned down the rhetoric to appeal to more people?  However, Candidate A is Jesus.  That’s right.  Jesus was and is the Head Shepherd (the ultimate Senior Pastor).  During his earthly ministry most of his followers left him, his disciples abandoned him, and there was constant bickering among his followers and “staff” (apostles).  Furthermore, the Christian church since Pentecost has a 2,000 year track record of in-fighting, splitting, and worse.

Which candidate would you choose now?

I give you these scenarios to highlight an often rejected truth: a business mentality within search teams can lead to the wrong person being hired and the right person being rejected.  Sadly, though, many search teams fall victim to or outright adopt the business approach.  They want a minister with a track record of profit who will help their church experience profit.

These are three problems that I’ve discovered when it comes to pastor search committees and the committee-based hiring process popular among many evangelical churches.  What other issues have you noticed or encountered?  What did your church do to overcome or avoid them?

About John L. Rothra
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