Search teams are the most common method that churches use to find and hire new pastoral staff. Virtually all members of search teams are well intentioned and willing to sacrifice many hours for the privilege of playing a strategic role in finding the best person to be their next beloved pastor. Yet, despite their strong commitment and best efforts, the rule of thumb is that search teams are only successful 50% of the time — even when they find and install the new shepherd! That means that half the time, the person they loved on the front end didn’t work out.
No one wants to serve on a team that doesn’t produce good fruit, with all the time and effort expended, and especially when expectations are so high! So what can we do to improve the rate of success?
In my years of participating in all kinds of searches, these are the 9 elements that have proven to be the most productive.
1. RECOGNIZING THE CHALLENGE
The vast majority of search team members are not Human Resource professionals. Even when they are, the ministry culture of every church is very different from the environment most people inhabit in their workday, as well as their home life. Not only that, but cultures also differ widely between churches. The pastors who are seeking positions are also not HR experts, and typically will only have experience in a few churches. Is it any wonder that it is so hard on both sides of the equation to discern whether any given person will actually be a good fit in the culture of “our” church, which we may not even have the ability to articulate. Finding staff team members who have significant hiring experience as well as those who can understand and describe “our” church culture will be a great start in the right direction!
2. UNITED IN OUR DIVERSITY
Most churches select search team members from different “constituencies” in the church with the result that they tend to advocate for their group in finding the next pastor. This “representative” philosophy is not the way it is to be done in the Kingdom of Heaven! It is very wise and healthy to find a diverse group of men and women for the team who will naturally provide a wide range of perspectives. However, it is very important that each of them will be seeking to find the best pastor for the whole church, given all its diversity, rather than the best person for their sub-group!
3. CHARACTER IS TOP PRIORITY!
I don’t know who said it first but, in seeking the best candidate, it is important to discern their character, competence, and chemistry with the existing staff team. Of these, character is the most important. How well does their life, ministry, and speech display the godly characteristics presented in I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; and I Peter 5:1-4? Do those who have known and served with them over an extended period of time affirm their godliness and spiritual maturity? Of course, they won’t be perfect, but do they acknowledge their weaknesses and even failures with transparency, humility and, when appropriate, repentance? Confidence may have its place, but it can be difficult to discern the source of confidence — whether it is God (faith) or self (pride). It is harder to fake humility and contrition.
4. COMPETENCE IS ESSENTIAL
Competence is a blend of natural skill, spiritual gift(s), God given passion, and experience. I like to think of it on three levels — excellence, competence, and incompetence. Every position contains a variety of responsibilities and functions. No one, except Jesus, can be excellent in all areas. However, the best candidate should be excellent in a number of them and competent in most of the rest. It is also very important to know where the person may be incompetent. We must ask, how will their incompetence in that area affect their ability to fill the whole role? Further, if we hire them, how will we need to accommodate that weakness through other teammates or by adjusting their position?
5. CHEMISTRY IS THE GLUE THAT BONDS TEAMS TOGETHER
Chemistry is a neglected consideration in many hiring processes. How will the candidate get along with those who will be their closest teammates (whether other staff members, elders, or key ministry volunteers)? While it is unreasonable to expect everyone will be “best friends forever,” there should be a natural appreciation, respect and enjoyment in working together. Real ministry and life itself can be hard enough! At least, we want there to be joy and fulfillment among those with whom we serve. A couple of ways to address this: 1) include on the team (if not leading it) the person who will oversee the position; and 2) in the latter stages of the interviewing process, incorporate at least some of those who will closely work and serve with the person, so they can offer input.
6. THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD INTERVIEWS
Good interviews are primarily the result of good questions! Lists of good questions are widely available but it is important to be selective and limit the number used, while also tailoring them to the position and the person. Certainly delve into any questions raised in the review of the applicant’s resume, work experience (including why they left where they worked before, and their pattern of longevity in each position), observed preaching/teaching, etc. It’s okay to ask challenging questions, including those which provide an opportunity for the applicant to express vulnerability and humility. It’s also very important to give significant opportunity for the candidate to ask questions of the team. They need to get to know the church as well!
7. THE ART OF REFERENCES
After lots of interviews with tons of questions, it is time to further narrow down the field of applicants and extend the circle of inquiry beyond each person still in the process. This is done through their references. Explain your open position and its key elements to them to seek their input on perceived fit. Again, well-chosen questions will make the difference between a helpful reference contact, and one that adds nothing to your assessment. Expect provided references to be positive and affirming. Concerns raised by a reference are doubly important to consider!
8. WITHOUT PRAYER…
Psalm 127:1 (ESV) “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” As with everything we do in ministry, if we don’t actively depend on God for the results, we might as well not begin. Dependence means a lot of things, but at the heart, it is expressed in prayer— individually and in groups, intentionally planned and as the Holy Spirit prompts us throughout the day. Certainly the filling of a pastoral position must begin with prayer, be sustained through prayer, and end in prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
9. WHEN TO USE A CONSULTANT
There are times when we sense another approach is needed for a particularly significant position, or in a challenging set of circumstances, or our own best efforts have not brought what we desired. A number of effective Christian search consulting firms exist to support the efforts of the local church. The cost varies from 25% to 40% of the annual salary for the position, and the process tends to take around 6 months to complete. In the appropriate situations, and given available resources, this can be a very effective option. To use common analogies, the typical local church casts the net to “fish” for new staff. With their pools of position seekers and networks of referrals, consultants “hunt” for prospects. Their more targeted approach almost always produces good quality candidates.
If you are an EFCA East church in need of assistance in a current or future search, don’t hesitate to contact the district office. We will support you any way we can!
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