Advice for Pastor Search Committees: Get The True “Downside” on Candidates

Get The True “Downside” on Candidates

Part 6 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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So far in my series, Advice for Pastor Search Committees, I’ve suggested the following:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.
3. Be open to God’s surprises.
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.
5. Represent your church accurately.

Once again, I want to build today’s recommendation a comment submitted in response to a recent post. Yesterday I suggested to pastor search committees: Represent your church accurately. John Schroeder commented:

You know, this advice runs both ways. I know situations where a candidate’s info packet and even the advisory letters from former Presbyterys downplayed or even failed to mention a candidate’s foibles – leaving the church that ended up calling him with any number of easily avoided issues had honesty been the order of the day.

In other words, the church did not get what it bargained for. As a result I typically advise PNC’s to go “outside the loop” when they think they have a candidate they really like. That is to seek information about the candidate in ways not typically available inside the PC(USA) process.

John is absolutely correct. If I were writing this series for folks seeking pastoral positions, I would say: Represent yourself accurately. But since I’m currently writing for pastor search committees, I’d say, instead: Get the true “downside” on candidates.

I realize that doesn’t sound very nice, but it is essential. No potential pastor is perfect. Nobody does everything well. Everybody has weaknesses. Every candidate has a true downside. Committees need to know this, not only so that they can weed out candidates who wouldn’t be a good match for their church, but also so that their expectations are reasonable. Moreover, if a church is aware of the weaknesses of its new pastor, it can help provide support to work around those weaknesses. If, for example, the new pastor is a great preacher and kind caregiver, but somewhat disorganized, a church can work with the pastor to provide systemic personal and organizational support.

But it is hard for a search committee to get negative input on candidates. Nobody likes to say bad things about people. And these days, fear of lawsuits can keep people from saying negative things that really ought to be said. I’ve had legal experts encourage me to say almost nothing about people who used to work for me who didn’t work out. I’m supposed to confirm that they worked for me at such-and-such a job for a certain duration, and that’s about it.

So what’s a search committee to do? John Schroeder advises search committees to go “outside the loop,” that is, “to seek information about the candidate in ways not typically available inside the PC(USA) process.” I’d be interested to know some of these ways John recommends. I can think of a few. For one thing, when a search committee rep calls the list of recommenders, that person could ask for others that might be called. This can be delicate, however, because pastoral candidates are generally trying to keep their intentions secret. For another, a search committee should scrutinize a candidates resumé to look for potentially problematic items. For example, if a pastor has moved around a lot, this may well reveal problems in that pastor’s performance.

In my experience in the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the best channels of truthful information is what we Presbyterians call the Executive Presbyter. Other denominations have District Superintendents, Bishops, or similar roles. In our system, Executive Presbyters are the leaders of regional church structures. They tend to have a high level of mutual trust and openness. If an Executive Presbyter asks another Executive Presbyter about a potential candidate, the whole truth is generally told: the good, the bad, the ugly. I have found that input from Executive Presbyters can be extremely valuable.

I realize that what I’ve just said won’t be helpful to those who are in independent churches and the like. So let me note one other source of potentially crucial negative information on a candidate: the feelings of committee members. Yes, yes, this is quite subjective. And, yes, yes, sometimes committee members won’t be fair. But I have found, on the contrary, that search committees are often too fair to candidates. It is easy for a committee not to give sufficient weight to misgivings of committee members. (Photo: Should pastor search committees use one of those pain charts found in hospitals?)

For example, I have referred earlier in this series to a search committee on which I served. We were looking for an associate pastor. The person who ended up at the top of our list had many positive attributes. But several members of the committee just “had a bad feeling” about this person. They had a difficult time explaining this “bad feeling,” so, in the end, they were persuaded to call the candidate. Well, as it turns out, their “bad feeling” was 100% on target. In retrospect, I wish we had taken what they felt more seriously.

I realize that what I’ve said in this post could be abused. Sometimes committees are dominated by immature members whose feelings make a mess of things. And sometimes denominational officials haven’t been fully truthful. Perhaps some of my commentators will have some wise input on this matter.

Of course, if a committee is looking for the “perfect pastor,” it might well give too much weight to the “downside” of a given candidate. I’ll talk about this in my next post.

Realize That You Can’t Have It All

Part 7 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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To this point, my Advice for Pastor Search Committees includes the following:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.
3. Be open to God’s surprises.
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.
5. Represent your church accurately.
6. Get the true “downside” on candidates.

Today I’ll add a seventh point:

7. Realize that you can’t have it all.

What I mean is you can’t have the perfect pastor because such a being doesn’t exist . . . apart from Jesus, the Church’s true Pastor. Unfortunately, Jesus rarely applies for church positions these days.

Search committees usually begin with great expectations. This is fine, just as long as they face reality. No pastoral candidate combines everything a church wants. You just won’t find somebody whose equally great at preaching, leadership, discipleship, and pastoral care. Every pastor will have strengths and weaknesses. Necessarily.

Of course this is true in any other field that requires people to have complex skill sets. In the NBA, for example, the best point guards won’t be the best centers, and vice versa. In the NFL, wide receivers would make poor linebackers. In business, those with ample creativity are rarely expert bean counters. Great salespeople often make poor managers.

So it is in pastoral work, and even more so when you consider the diverse tasks pastors are expected to perform. They need to be strong in the scholarly discipline of biblical study and in the field of oral communication. Pastors as preachers must be theological, practical, intellectual, and emotional. They are expected to be visionary leaders but also attend to pastoral and managerial details. Pastors are supposed to be tenderhearted with church members but tough when dealing with staff who are not doing their job well. Pastors should be present with the congregation and active in the community.

Not only is it rare, if not impossible to find a single person who is able to excel at all the tasks in a pastoral job description, but also you have a time prioritization problem. For example, it takes a substantial chunk of time to prepare a good sermon. I used to plan on devoting about twelve hours a week to sermon preparation. I know many pastors who need more time. My mentor, Lloyd Ogilvie, has said that a pastor needs to devote at least an hour of preparation for every minute of preaching. Unfortunately, many churches that want an excellent twenty-minute sermon aren’t willing to give their pastor twenty hours for preparation, unless that pastor is willing to work 60-70 hours a week. (Photo: Lloyd Ogilvie, one of the finest preachers in America in the last forty years)

If you’re on a search committee, and you’re looking for a senior pastor, and you want someone who is equally excellent in preaching, teaching, visionary leadership, management, discipleship, and pastoral care, you’re fooling yourself. And candidates who present themselves as equally competent in all these areas are fooling themselves, or trying to fool you, or both. I’m not suggesting that pastors can’t be fairly strong in all of these areas. But most visionary leaders are, by nature, not equipped to be excellent managers. And most outstanding preacher-teachers are not the best at pastoral care. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

If it’s true that you can’t have it all, then, obviously, pastor search committees need to work very hard on defining priorities. What do you really need in a pastor? What do you want, but are willing to give up if necessary? What are the essentials that must be in place if your new pastor is going to work out well in your church?

Years ago I was on a search committee for a high school director. This person would have been called a pastor in many church settings, but we were not seeking someone who was an ordained Presbyterian pastor. In the early stages of our search we came up with a long list of things we wanted in a youth leader. Some were clearly essential, like “A love for God and for kids.” Some were less so, like “The ability to speak a relevant foreign language.” At the end of our initial discernment process, the committee agreed that we needed our high school director to be strong as a guitar-playing worship leader. But, along the way, we found an outstanding candidate for the position who couldn’t play the guitar and couldn’t sing. (We’ll he could sing, but it wasn’t an especially pleasant experience for those nearby.) This candidate clearly fell short in a qualification that we had deemed essential. But we realized that we didn’t need him to be a musician/worship leader so much as we needed him to be someone who could recruit musician/worship leaders to work alongside him in ministry. So we called him to the church. And, before long, he had helped to build a strong worship-leading band.

In sum, I believe that search committees can’t have it all when it comes to pastoral candidates. (Likewise, I believe there are no perfect churches, by the way. Candidates need to be realistic, too) If committees recognize this, then they’ll work hard to define what is really essential in their next pastor. Moreover, they’ll be ready to be realistic in calling a new pastor, and in helping their church get ready for their new pastor to thrive.

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