Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An irreverent look at our pastor search process, Part 1

I had a guy in one of my churches who was a sausage maker and I made a pastoral visit to him while he was hard at work. There they sat, pans and pans of blood, guts, and porcine body parts I had never seen and didn't recognize. I don't recall eating his sausage. I'll have the sausage in the nice, tidy package, thank you.

Our SBC pastor/staff search process is like making sausage. It's often ugly, some would say inherently ugly. While I could live without eating my member's sausage, most pastors and staff cannot stay in the pastoral ministry without participating in a pastor search process that involves a group of people from a church looking for a pastor.

I will admit that my experience is more limited here than many of my colleagues. I served only three churches as pastor and those for longer than normal tenure, an average of about ten years each. Nonetheless, I offer an irreverent look at our process with the understanding that some of my brethren may supplement or correct my conclusions and recommendations.

Hey Einstein, you have to deal with the process we have, not the one you wish we had.

Most of the roughly 47,000 SBC churches are single staff with attendance averaging around 100 in worship each Lord's Day. This means that most who pastor or aspire to pastor these churches will spend their career in average-sized, single staff churches, ones where they relate personally to every member. Those churches will likely have traditions and processes that preceded the pastor and that will succeed him as well and the pastor search system that they use is the most important of these.

Seems that many of my colleagues think that a church establishing a committee to interview pastor candidates and bring one to the church for a vote is not just unwieldy and messy but also unbiblical.
I'll agree with two-thirds of that but would argue that there is no "biblical" search process specified in Scripture.

I met with a search committee once and was informed that they had decided to require a 90% affirmative vote on a pastor candidate. Then one guy on the committee said that they decided to add one additional percent for God the Father, one for God the Son, and one for God the Holy Spirit, making a total of 93% required to call a pastor. I appreciated the affirmation of the Trinity but thought this line of reasoning was bizarre and wondered what other odd stuff I would find. If I had gone for a vote at the church, three or four votes could have deep-sixed my chances and undone all the committee's work.

It doesn't matter if you think churches have ecclesiology all wrong. It doesn't matter if you think the process is unbiblical. You could approach every search committee by informing them that they are unbiblical and see how far that gets you. You might also be prepared to never land a pastor position and to make plans to do your preaching, gratis, on any street corner to random pedestrians.

I feel your pain about the process but suggest that you spend all the time you wish deploring it but then spend double, triple the time acquiring the knowledge and skills to help you navigate the process we have. The former will profit you little; the latter will prove invaluable.

If you're desperate, you're toast.

You say you have bills, student loans, car payments, and a family and desperately need to land a church staff position? Why not just announce to a church committee that you've got to get some paychecks coming, and soon, so could they step on it and take your word for it that you would be a super pastor?

Money screws up everything in church life but probably does more harm to pastors or prospective pastors who have put themselves in a position of having to move, having to get a church, having to get on someone's payroll. Desperate people think they hear God's voice where there is silence and make terrible decisions. When you are desperate in this way, it is understandable that you drop kick reason, prayer, wisdom and discernment into the stratosphere and hunger and thirst after anything that will remedy your present situation.

What if you had a life skill, trade, or vocation that gave you the option of having some income independent of church income? Your congregation can fire you any time they wish. Most will be gracious, patient, kind, and considerate of your financial needs and that of your family but some will sadistically fire you regardless of the consequences to you or your family. It is a very uncomfortable position in which to be where your income as a pastor is all that stands between you and abject poverty.

You aren't helpless. There are more alternative income streams available to ministers now than ever. Some write, some easily find substitute teaching jobs, some have online businesses, some take second jobs. If you are in a desperate situation, have a plan that involves working for a living until the Lord opens the right doors.

Of course, some of the brethren have a plan that consists entirely of asking other people to give them money and some are quite successful at this. I'd bet buckets of fried chicken that any SBC minister who has been in vocational ministry for any length of time could name several colleagues who are known to fish for money from family and friends. I suggest that it is more honorable to earn your own way and not beg. Just because you are ordained it doesn't mean that others are obligated to pay your bills. Put the financial fishing tackle away and let God handle it. You go to work.

You're not Miss America, so don't enter any beauty contests

It's not surprising that some of the thousands of SBC churches have a search process that involves a parade of preachers and the church picking the one they like the best. I don't run into this so much these days as I did earlier but if you find that a church follows such a practice, be kind but say, "No, thanks." You might win the contest but lose in the long run.

You don't have the 'right stuff' so don't act like a fighter ace.

The church that has contacted you has known problems. They've disclosed some of them and you've researched it enough to recognize that they have some hisory of being hard on a pastor and some difficult people; however, you, Red Baron, think that unlike previous pastors, you have the right stuff to handle all that and lead the church to glorious harmony and new heights. You think you are bulletproof. You, alone among the brethren, have just the right combination of irresistible personal charisma, rare pastoral skills, and overwhelming pulpit presence to be highly successful in this church.

Think again, my ministerial megalomaniacal friend. You are more likely to crash and burn. God will be with you but problem churches have ruined many a minister who ignored the signs, signals, and warnings.

Sure, some pastor is God's man for such a task but think long and hard, pray longer and harder, before you drag your wife and kids into such a situation. The best person for one problem church I knew about was a semi-retired, crusty, curmudgeonly pastor who had grown kids and a wife that didn't get too involved in church business. He carried around a letter of resignation in his pocket and was known to pull it out and wave it around when presented with some church nonsense. Come to think of it, I fit the profile these days - bah, humbug.

Keep pulpit committees out of your worship service.

The crack cocaine of the Southern Baptist ministry is having another church who finds you desirable, whose job is to convince you how great a pastor you would be in their church, what a good fit you would be, how riveting and compelling your sermons are...and how much more money you would make. That siren song is often represented by the search committee who shows up in your church and sits about two-thirds of the way back.

There they sit.You spot them. Synapses fire. Dopamine flows. You're high, brother.

It is probably better for all of those involved if the old committee visit system was retired. Maybe you could put up a sign, "No soliciting" or "Pastor Search Committees Go Away," on your sanctuary front door. Maybe not. Even if you are a pastor and are open to a church change, you can request churches not just show up unless you are very serious and pretty far along. While it is important to see and hear a prospective pastor in the environment of his normal Sunday worship service, I hear you can put your sermons online these days for anyone to listen, huh? It's simple to put video online and make that accessible as well.

If you have a few committees show up at your place your church thinks you are unhappy, they conclude that you have already checked out or are done with them. Maybe you are but you don't have to disrespect the only church God has given you to pastor. It's a delicate matter but some degree of openness with church leaders about a possible change is probably appropriate in most situations.

I'm a Georgia native and was serving in South Carolina a few years back. I had a wonderful, leather-lunged church member who was attuned to committees showing up to hear me preach. Once a committee, one that eventually called me, was present. True to form, they sat about two-thirds of the way back. Sure, everyone knew who they were and I had informed a few church leaders that they would be present, just not Deacon Bombast.

After the service, when about half of the congregation was still milling around the sanctuary he hollered, "Preacher! They are from Georgia, huh?"

I had to just laugh. It was just his personality. "Yeah, Claude. Georgia."

I guess he could have said, "Go Dawgs!" but that would have stirred up the Clemson and Carolina people.

There's no reason today for pulpit committees to just show up and probably no compelling reason for a formal committee visit to your worship service. Maybe you could provide all the committee needs and not go through this...unless you need to feed your addiction.


Peter Reilly said...

I was in leadership for several years at a Unitarian Universalist parish that went through a couple of ministers after a long term popular minister moved to greener pastures.

It's good to know that people are people regardless of theology. This stuff sounds real familiar.

William Thornton said...

Yeah, people in all traditions tend to foul a lot of this stuff up.

Good to hear from you Peter. Hope you're having a productive summer.

Anonymous said...

The "get it in writing thing" - yeah, do that. Search committee said one thing, and I was good with their response for a few reasons; that had been my prior experience at the church I was on staff with, AND I knew some of these folks and they knew my family.
When I sat down with the finance chairman to break it down ... it broke down. There was probably no ill intent, but it hurt me to the tune of 3K a year and that's a big deal. In fact, to some degree, it still stings although I'm not there anymore and grew to love those folks greatly. There was always a little sense of betrayal when I thought of how some things happened.

Lee said...

You should expand on this, with your experience, and turn it into a book. It would be helpful for both candidates and search committees.

Even a committee that looks representative of the whole church, and is comprised of professionals can botch the job. As staff advisor to a committee at my last church in Texas, the committee consisted of a teacher, a CPA, two attorneys, an executive administrative assistant, an insurance agent, a retired airline pilot and an air conditioning serviceman (who was the most practical and wisest member of the team.) They got over 500 resumes, thinking that their position was that popular, and not realizing that 90% of them were neither called nor qualified. They got desperate, after not being able to land a candidate for almost two years, and grabbed the next guy that said yes. Within a year, they were wishing they hadn't been so hasty.