An Irreverent look at our pastor search process: part 2 (by William Thornton)

William Thornton is the SBC Plodder

The second of two parts on the perpetually discussed topic of pastor/staff search committees.

You can’t trust the committee and they can’t trust you

Let’s see. A pastor/staff or prospective pastor/staff is a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, called into a lifetime of vocational Christian service, willing to follow Him wherever He calls. And a church search committee is presumably a group of highly dedicated Christians who are active in their local congregation giving generously of their time and money to worship and serve Christ.

Right? You bet. Let’s be idealistic and make that presumption even though I have heard my colleagues describe some committee members as straight from Gehenna and church members occasionally say the same about some pastor or staff.

So, if parties to the search process cannot trust each other, how Christian is this business?

It’s not that either of you are evil but it is a given that the church search committee is only going to tell you part of what you would like to know about their church. They are going to give you some degree of an idealized and sanitized version of their wonderful congregation.

Don’t get huffy about the fact that you will not receive full disclosure, no personal or group interaction practices this. And be honest. You’re only going to give them an idealized, sanitized version of your personality, gifts, experience and skills. You’re doggone certain not going to give them all they might want to know about you. When they ask you about your weaknesses, a diagnostic question put forth to get beyond your sparking resume and primary references, you’re going to respond with, “Well, I admit that I’m not perfect all of the time” or “I sometimes work too hard.” Stuff like that.

So, both of you have to turn to third parties for necessary information about each other.

If they are thorough they will get secondary references from your chosen ones and find out what your three BFF references aren’t going to tell them about you. I’ve yet to meet the candidate who will say, “I like to play a lot of golf” or “Sometimes I lose my temper” or “I don’t have any experience with many of the things you are expecting your next pastor to do.” You will answer all their questions in what you believe to be an honest and forthright manner. You will also practice the art of ministerial finesse so that you look better than you actually do.

When you meet with the committee, you will listen politely, ask all the right questions about their church, community, ministry, and visions for the future. You will pray together and both go home. But then you will take what they have told you and go to the Associational Missionary, a pastor colleague in the area who might be familiar with the church, friend of a friend knows the church and community, or even a former pastor of the church and do some ecclesiastical due diligence. Any of these third parties is more likely to speak candidly about the church than the committee members. These are the ones more likely to say, “Oh, that church. Did they tell you what they did to the last pastor?” or “That church needs a chaplain, not an aggressive leader.” Stuff like that.

Whatever you learn, you can pray through and sift. Whatever salient facts about the church you do not learn because of your failure to do your homework,  you cannot sift through and pray about. You get to be unpleasantly surprised. Avoid that if you can.

Mystic is a city in Connecticut, not an acceptable approach to making decisions

“I drove by the church and through the community and just felt like this was the place.” Yeah. That’s what Latter Day Saint Brigham Young said when he gazed over the Salt Lake area in 1847. You and Brig share a common mystical approach to decisions, do you?

Ah, the sudden, unexpected eruption of highly subjective emotions and feelings. Bane or blessing. A guide to utter destruction or wonderful bliss.

Absolutely seek the Lord’s will and, since our emotions are an integral part of how we receive God’s will, expect to feel and sense things not expressed; however, Mr. Mystical, you will be better served if you avoid a complete reliance on vague impressions and strange feelings and have a heavy dose of information. At the very least filter those emotional feelings through the sieve of cold, hard facts.

Sure, lots of high powered SBC leaders do a lot of “God told me” stuff and “God’s man” talk. Ignore them. I don’t discount that God can speak to you about your decision but chances are He will use sober, solid facts and principles to do so.

If the church isn’t a good ‘fit’ for you, if your gifts and skills never line up with their needs, then quit the process and look elsewhere. If you are more of a maintenance guy (nothing wrong with that) and what the church obviously needs is an aggressive pastor, maybe God is telling you to pass on that opportunity.

If you know yourself and learn enough about the church, you will find God’s will easily enough.

Your state convention, seminary, and other entities aren’t going to help you much. Deal with it.

Yeah, we pour lots of money into these and they have placement offices, Church-Minister Relations staff, and all that but your best help will come from people you know who know you. Take time when you’re in seminary, when you’re doing summer projects, when you are an intern or other staff to build relationships, find mentors, and show a genuine interest in the people around you. It is surprising how God uses connections and relationships in your behalf that you are ignorant of or have forgotten about. SBC ministers of all groups have recognized the need to get “linked in” long before there was a nifty professional networking outfit by that name.

Maybe I’m  out of touch but my impression is that the SBC institutional people are good for advice, assessment, and counsel but not so much for placement. I gather it is not because they don’t want to help but more because they are limited in what they can do. Liability issues will only cause denominational entities to do less and less recommending of candidates. But you can get your resume online with these people so that it will be readily available. Some of these people will pray for you, give you good advice, and genuinely show an interest in your search. Some will buy your lunch. Spend time with these. Such may not help in the short run but will in the long haul.

Maintain some dignity. You don’t have to put up with committee nonsense.

I once had a church in an initial contact ask for IRS Form 1040s for several recent years. Fahgeddabout that. If we were far enough along, they could do a credit check on me. Doing a background check on me is perfectly legit. But my income tax forms are nobody’s business but mine. If that sort of intrusive request is a deal breaker for them, thank God for it. You wouldn’t want to pastor that church anyway.

Some churches create an elaborate questionnaire for candidates to answer in an early phase of their search. I never much cared for this, especially if the church was looking for dissertation length responses. You can deflect this request with short answers and references to the BFM or other faith statement and save long answers for later. It is inappropriate for a committee to expect a thesis in reply to their screening tool. Your resume ought to cover the basic stuff anyway.

I judge deep probing about a candidate’s wife and family to be completely inappropriate committee nonsense as well. If you are going to insulate your wife from being considered an unpaid employee of the church then you might as well start doing that in the search process. You can be diplomatic about it easily enough.

If they don’t take care of their facilities they probably will not take care of you and your family.

Take a road trip, unannounced and incognito, to their place. Take your wife. Look the church over. If they have a pastorium, give it a windshield survey. Check every now and then to see if your wife is shaking her head. That will tell you all you need to know.

I did this once for a prospective church and what we saw was a run down sanctuary where, literally, about half of the windows were cracked. We both shook our heads. I was going to ask about this but they brought it up. Seems they had a considerable sum saved for a new or renovated building. That one worked out. Most probably will not.

Look at the committee as fellow followers of Christ and get to know them.

You aren’t adversaries, you know, neither are they mere tools in your career path. You have been given an opportunity to build relationships with other Christians. Take advantage of it in the most positive way. Show an interest in them personally. Ask questions that aren’t on all those long lists some of the experts have given you. You may find that you learn more in casual conversation than in the formal sit-down meetings with them.

And here’s a novel thought – you might be their pastor one day, so act pastoral. If you have to be told this then you might reconsider your calling.

Consider that God might slam this door but use you to to help the next guy.

I’m a get-along kind of guy but once had an initial conversation with a search committee where one of the members was unexpectedly brusque and combative.

“Hey, we just met and you’re chewing on me already? How about filling me in on why you have a chip on your shoulder?”

To be honest, the church with the kick-butt search committee member was also the church that had a railroad track about a hundred feet outside the back door of the parsonage. My wife had instant visions of our three little kids having great fun playing on them, so we essentially knew we weren’t moving to this place anyway. I felt a little freer being blunt with them.

If some committee members offer a troubling personal demeanor, after you’ve given it some thought, tell them kindly but candidly what you see. It may be that they are in deep conflict among themselves and it really has nothing to do with you personally. Perhaps they have never been told that how they are presenting themselves is out of line. You’re the man to do this and you’ll never be in a better position to do this. While it might end the process, it will probably help the next guy. Chances are, committee members aren’t going to act better once you are on their payroll an in their field.

If you are too spiritual to talk frankly about money, you’re an idiot.

Please, brethren, don’t get so spiritual about money to the point that you take pains to show the committee how you are so sold out to the Lord that you will not ask and don’t care one whit about what they pay. That little exercise will cost you, my friend. Besides, there’s nothing spiritual about willful ignorance.

In most circumstances you shouldn’t make money the deal breaker neither should you be too eager to talk salary and benefits (and, please, try not to drool when they offer you more than you’re making now). If you are some steps into the process you should have already found out about what their total budget is. You should also know where to go to find average SBC salaries and benefits for a church of their size and budget. There are tools where you can do all this. This information gives you something to talk about. Are they less than average? Why? Maybe they had a series of passive pastors who never complained so they figured he was well compensated.

Oh yeah, have any salary and benefits agreed upon put in writing. If you don’t, you’re an idiot again.

Don’t listen to too many war stories about nightmare committees.

It’s not very entertaining to hear a colleague say, “The committee was wonderful. The process was a blessing. I have no complaints.” It is entertaining to hear one say, “They were devils. They lied. They were devious. They didn’t tell me everything.” OK, so search committee nightmare stories are a staple of pastor’s conferences and casual meetings. Please, don’t have a steady diet of this stuff. It’s counterproductive, unhealthy, and harmful.

God is good. Jesus is wonderful. Serving him as pastor or staff in an SBC is a blessing. God bless you in your search.


  1. D.L. Payton says

    William T
    I must disagree with your evaluation of denominational entities. As a pastor every move i made was with the help of denominational people. As a DOM I have aided countless men in obtaining pastorate. Those i have not helped are those who quite frankly have issues that need to be resolved before i can help them.

    My point is simply this. It is a two way street. There are men who castigate the DOM for not helping when the truth of the matter is that they are not employable for a number of reasons. I have a man who has badmouthed me for several years for not helping him find a place to preach more often. However, when three churches tell you not to send him again even a DOM gets the message.

  2. William Thornton says

    DL, I castigate no DOMs but my own experience and that of the great majority of colleagues with whom i have had this conversation is that placement efforts are less than what they expected from our various denominational, state convention, and associational employees.

    You might write the article about placement from your POV. I’d be interested in reading it.

    • says

      I can’t speak to state conventions or seminaries, but a good DOM is a valuable resource when guaging a church. A good one will be plugged in to what’s happening in his churches and a smart church will involve him in the process. He’s a resource for the church and the prospective pastor. Not sure what help a state convention or seminary could be. State conventions may have thousands of churches and a seminary would not know many local churches except those in it’s vicinity unless there is a tie in through a person from within. Any pastor looking to a state convention or seminary for help other than maybe for a reference is expecting things from the wrong places

    • D.L. Payton says

      William T
      I would like to write that post, but that would be up to Dave. I would however write from my own experience. I have learned a long time ago the fallacy of taking at face value all the “factual” information i receive as to why a man did not get a church.

        • Dave Miller says

          That is SO true. In the meantime, till something better comes along, I’ll have to settle for Willuam’s stuff

          • D.L. Payton says

            William T is an excellent writer. I don’t want to get into a contest with him, however i will write a post What is the process for submitting it.

  3. Max says

    “cannot trust each other” … “inappropriate committee nonsense” … “kick-butt search committee member”

    Whew! Unfortunately, I agree with your assessment re: the state-of-the-church pastoral search process. It’s amazing how many nonspiritual folks are appointed to search committees. Good Lord! We need revival in SBC ranks!

    • William Thornton says

      Sometimes committees do things in ways that trouble us because of unspiritual ministerial candidates. This works both ways. Maybe a layperson with extensive search committee experience will write that piece.

      • Max says

        Agreed … works both ways. There are so many horror stories out there that both parties need to sneak up on each other these days. Sad state of affairs. Would be so much easier if we would just be Christians.

        You have offered the Church a great treatise on this subject, Brother Thornton. Worthy reading for both pastoral candidate and search committee member.

    • D.L. Payton says

      I have may times been accused of simplifying the situation. I have also been accused of being unrealistic about our situation. However i believe that true revival is the only remedy for our churches. I further believe that everything else we do matters little without true revival. This has brought accusations of pessimism and defeatism. I agree with your last sentence.

      • Max says

        “… everything else we do matters little without true revival.”

        Amen Brother Payton. IF My People … THEN Will I. Will we?

        If we spent as much time humbling ourselves, praying, repenting, and seeking His face as we do debating what Paul said, we might just experience His presence in our midst again!

        • D.L. Payton says


          Last paragraph, I totally agree. It seems so simple yet so elusive. Is this an issue of spiritual warfare?

          • Max says

            “Is this an issue of spiritual warfare?”

            Indeed, much of the wrangling over the teachings and traditions of men is really a battle for the mind. If the enemy can win on that battlefield, he has us (Southern Baptists) where he wants us … distracted from taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Debating is not preaching the Gospel. I don’t believe we fully realize the spiritual dimension of what is taking place in SBC life these days.

  4. William Thornton says

    I would caution against overspiritualizing the nuts and bolts of our unwieldy search processes. Most of this stuff is normal human interaction (you can’t trust them; they can’t trust you), common sense (talk about money and have a memorandum of understanding), or simple observation (look at their facitilites).

    If we had whatever we think revival would bring we would still have an itinerant clergy pool, churches which need a mix of spiritual and administrative leadership, and fallen humans everywhere who sometimes mess things up.

  5. says

    Just completed a weekend of search committee and associational missionary candidate fellowship. Seems we were somewhat in line with your thinking. We did the credit check and background check. Didn’t think about the 1040 (which you don’t recommend). Hmm, could have probably been fun (to ask and watch the grimacing)! A friend once said of her pastor-husband, “I’ll have him ready.” Another said she expected such special privileges as sharing the bedroom with the preacher! I don’t think they moved to that church! I agree we should spare wives from the “twofur” trap. And I agree communications should be forthright while laced with sensitivity and mutual consideration.