The search process for a new pastor is both an exhilarating and a risky time for a congregation.
Healthy congregations go at this task from the framework of a spiritual discernment process that is unique to the free call tradition of congregational life.
Every search is unique, but some guiding principles apply to all of us. While there is a good bit of generic material on the market, best practices remain an excellent way to learn from one another.
Recently, I asked four pastors who have transitioned to new churches in recent months a series of questions about their experience.
The pastors are: Mike Smith (Central Baptist, Fountain City, Tenn.), Bob Setzer (Knollwood Baptist, Winston-Salem, N.C.) Charity Roberson (Sharon Baptist, Smithfield, N.C.) and Doug Dortch (Mountain Brook Baptist, Birmingham, Ala.). Here is a glimpse at some of their observations.
What about the search process impressed you?
Smith: “The committee took time to research and report back to me on difficult questions. They did not attempt to rush me, but actually prayed and reflected with me about the decision.”
Dortch: “During the introductory weekend, the committee planned a Saturday morning reception. This activity served to ‘lower the temperature’ of the weekend and gave that time a much more relaxed feel.”
Setzer: “Using video conferencing allowed us to ‘meet’ one another without the expense, trouble and exposure of a trip. Having not done this in 15 years, I was surprised at how much harder we had to work to maintain confidentiality about the search process. The committee did an extraordinary job with this.”
Integrating a new pastor into an established staff is one of the most perilous aspects of a call. How did you approach this?
Setzer: “I was blessed to meet with the staff ministers at length at a midpoint in the process. They had long tenure at the church, and knew the church far better, in some ways, than the search committee.”
Smith: “I spent one full day meeting with each staff member individually and with the entire group twice. Each had prepared and shared a written document outlining their backgrounds, current work, aspirations and what each was looking for in the next pastor. These documents helped make our conversations quite meaningful.”
What worked well for you in terms of your entry into the life of your new church?
Roberson: “The pictorial directory was invaluable to me. I kept referring to it and 10 weeks in, I find myself still going back to it regularly.”
Dortch: “I was fortunate to come during Advent and was able to meet with a number of small groups that had already planned Christmas socials. One way or another, I would recommend small group gatherings.”
Smith: “My first two months on the job, the staff assumed responsibility for Wednesday programming so that I was free to move around and observe what was going on, talk with persons as I had opportunity, etc. This arrangement was valuable in helping me get a feel for programs and become acquainted with a sizable segment of the church leadership.”
Setzer: “An intentional interim process had identified and begun to work with some of the hot-button issues in the congregation. Also, the church held a big installation service several weeks after my arrival that was an important celebration for them and for me.”
What advice would you give other clergy involved in a search process?
Dortch: “The chairman of the search committee formalized the terms of the call with a ‘Memo of Understanding,’ something I had never been given in other situations. It served to clarify for all parties all aspects of my transition.”
Roberson: “Don’t be afraid to slow down the process. When a search committee gets to the point of having narrowed down to a candidate, sometimes I think they are just really ready to move forward and be done with the job. It’s a great game of wait, wait and then hurry up.”
Setzer: “Ask for whatever you feel you need and want at the front end prior to your arrival. I negotiated a sabbatical that included ‘credit for accrued service’ that took into account my service at my previous church. Also, try to cobble together a good chunk of time between pastorates. It was invaluable to us as we prepared a house for sale, said goodbye to good friends, and regrouped and retooled for the next leg of the journey.”
Smith: “Don’t want the new place too much. Force yourself to take your time and discern the health and honesty of the potential situation, to pray and reflect honestly to discern if your gifts and skill set fit their needs and if God might be in this.”
Let those who have ears, hear.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.