The Problems With Pastoral Search Committees
After my husband earned his Masters of Divinity we left straight for the mission field. From across the Pacific we began to receive distressing emails from our seminary friends back home.
They shared a painful pattern they were all enduring: in order to get a job as a pastor our friends would send out their resumes and hope to earn the chance to sit before a church’s search committee. If chosen from amongst the hundreds of resumes typically submitted to a church with an open pastorate, they and their wives would go through awkward interviews (more about that below) in front of a panel of church members. Once hired, they often found themselves subjected to inhospitable and unhealthy church conditions. Many found themselves fired within a year or two, only to endure the cycle again.
We flinched from afar. We ached for them as they lost their dignity, their paycheck, and their community. We lamented how they had to move to another city or state in search of another job, another home, another group of friends for themselves and for their kids. After giving their all to earning a 96-hour seminary degree, sensing God’s calling, and diving into ministry with passion and zeal, they were getting chewed up and spit out.
Not a few limped away from their faith, or at least church leadership. Many are still leery of church life in general.
Meanwhile, we were largely insulated from that process, having been led to overseas missions. But when we transitioned back to the US two and a half years ago, we weren’t sure what we were going to do. Before we landed on staying with Pioneers in a supportive role and planting Redemption Parker, Mark interviewed with several search committees. We found ourselves in our friends’ shoes—living out the stories they had shared 15 years prior.
Mainly the search committees wanted to know how big Mark’s prior churches were. They were curious how fast and how far he grew them. They wanted to know if he was a dynamic preacher who would keep their people interested. They wanted to see proof that he could fill their pews and even get them to overflowing.
To their credit, they did ask us about our spiritual gifts. They listened to Mark’s sermons. They wanted to know about our family and our faith journey on the mission field. They wanted to hear our vision and they were encouraged by our desire to serve Christ’s bride sacrificially.
But at the end of the day, what really mattered to most were numbers. When they called to say, “I’m sorry, but we’re going in a different direction” it was always because our humble overseas church of the past wasn’t the evidence they were looking for. Instead, they all hired senior pastors from other growing churches. And those churches—likely surprised and wounded by the departure of their pastor—would then need to convene a search committee. The cycle would continue.
Certainly, the hearts and motives of most search committee members are in the right place. I am confident they give generously of their time and prayers and wisdom for the good of their churches and in an effort to honor God. And certainly I’m speaking from a limited experience—but it’s one that has been repeated around me and to me so often over the past two decades, that I think it’s fair to call it typical. In just this past month, Mark has sat with two pastors who have been wounded by the search committee process and I have heard the pain in the voice of the wife of another.
As a pastor’s wife, the intimate friend of many other pastors’ wives, and a lover of Christ’s bride, I think the search committee process is…well, can I say it? Wrong.
Maybe you’re on a search committee right now. Or maybe your church is convening one soon. Here are my beefs with that process, for what it’s worth:
1. It feels corporate. The typical search committee’s focus on numbers feels like a corporate growth model. Though not outrightly stated, it feels like there is an overwhelming concern that the pews will be filled, which will lead to tithe checks being written, allowing for expensive buildings and programs that will, in turn, attract more people. The focus on numbers is like a corporate board looking for a CEO to take their company to the next level.
I am by no means opposed to large churches. The more people who hear the gospel and gospel-centered teaching, the better! But the church is not a company and the pastor is not a CEO. The church is a flock made up of God’s children, who need a kind and Christlike shepherd to walk with them through the peaks and valleys of life on this side of heaven. A pastor’s prior growth is not evidence that he will be a good and godly fit for a congregation.
2. Rather than seeking out a man who can grow the church or even meet the needs of the people, search committees should look for a man who meets the qualifications of scripture. The qualifications for a pastor can be found in Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-4. He must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded/disciplined, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent, not arrogant or quick-tempered, not a lover of money, a good steward of his own household and family, not a recent convert, well thought of by outsiders, and a lover of good.
3. The process feels dehumanizing for the pastor and his family. Rather than observing and judging the character of the interviewee over time, the search committee minimizes his abilities to how successful he’s been in growing a crowd. After a man and his family have committed at least 3 years (an MDiv is 96 hours) to seminary and have likely shed blood, sweat, and tears in ministry, to be reduced to numbers on a resume that is lined up next to hundreds of other resumes is brutal.
4. The pastorate is not a job, it’s a life. Search committees are normally made up of men and women who have normal 9-5 jobs and who represent a swath of the church’s population. They therefore don’t have experience having a profession that is also their life. A pastor’s family, free-time, friendships—everything—is a part of his role as pastor. While churches see themselves hiring a man for a job, in reality they are placing an entire organism into an already living ecosystem. This is a huge disruption for everyone and will be lethal for many parts if and when the organism is removed. The potential collateral damage of hiring and firing a pastor cannot be overstated.
5. The typical pastoral job description is not realistic. It seems that the average search committee starts their process by listing all the things they want from a pastor, rather than starting with the biblical qualifications mentioned in #2 above. Their list includes massive responsibilities of casting vision, spear heading growth, preaching without ceasing, maintaining a staff, growing other ministries within the church, and even tasks such as mowing the church lawn. The required responsibilities can be oppressive to say the least. Such requirements pull a pastor away from his family and from rest and cannot be attained.
6. It’s consumer-driven and not healthy for the church attendees and members. This process of casting a wide net and looking for the absolute best man to lead the congregation fosters a weird dynamic wherein the church expects a certain kind of service to be delivered by the pastor for a fee. If the church doesn’t like the way the services are being delivered, they can fire this guy and hire another. The system is impersonal and void of long-term Christ-centered relationship.
In my opinion, there’s a better way. A congregation’s next pastor should be shepherded by their current pastor. Pastors and elders—and really all Christians—must always be discipling others, shaping the next generation, downloading our experience and love of scripture to the those coming up behind us. A pastor and all the elders should be doing this consistently from within their own flock. They should be trying to work themselves out of a job.
In our own community in Colorado I’ve been very encouraged to see this simple process carried out by Acts 29 churches and the Calvary Family of Churches (also Acts 29 and SBC). I’ve loved seeing the pastors and elders of nearby churches take the time, over many years, to mentor and lead other men who are then equipped to be sent out to plant new churches, or to take over their existing church when needed. By embracing a plurality of leadership, their churches are not dependent on one man—one CEO—to keep them afloat. This organic model of pastors and elders discipling the next generation of pastors and elders is humane, Christ-honoring, sustainable, and—I think—more biblical than the search committee approach.
To my sisters who are pastor’s wives and my brothers who are pastors who have been wounded by this process, I am truly sorry. I’ve only glimpsed it and it’s grievous. May you find a congregation where you can recover, grow, and thrive, and be raised up to lead in whatever ways God sees fit. To my sisters and brothers on search committees, be kind. And please consider another way.