It seems like at any given time I’m either on a search committee, giving advice to those leading a search committee, or talking with friends going through a process with a search committee. Every church has had a search committee before, and almost every pastor has worked with search committees in the past. Search committees are a part of how most of us do church. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes not so much.
In my experience, search committees are usually made up of hard-working, godly laypeople trying to do the best they can to serve their church. But even mature, sincere Christians can make mistakes when they are working on a task they’ve never done before.
Here are seven common mistakes search committees make (and I’m thinking here especially of pastoral search committees):
1. Overcompensating for the previous pastor’s weaknesses.
This is the classic search committee blunder. Pastor Smith was a great preacher, but kind of prickly, so basically what we are looking for in our next pastor is Ronald McDonald. Don’t do the pendulum swing. Every pastor has strengths and weaknesses. It’s fine to want to address some problem areas from the last “administration.” But don’t forget what the last guy did really well. If you want to do the search process often, then let a bad experience or a bad character trait determine your next hire.
2. Mishandling internal candidates.
What do you do when a current staff member is interested in your church’s pastoral vacancy? That’s tricky. There is no right answer for every situation, but the right process can help.
When churches have a man on their staff who is well respected, well loved, has been effective in ministry, and has the gifts for the job, there is no need to go through a long search process just to show you’ve done your homework. Hopefully you did your homework when you brought the guy on in the first place.
This doesn’t mean every internal candidate is the best man for the job. Often they don’t have the gifts or calling to move from their current responsibilities to a new position. But in most cases, I think churches know that without a lengthy search. Don’t string anyone along, either the internal guy you aren’t going to pick, or the outside guys you are talking to, just to give the search committee legitimacy.
The bottom line: Be candid. Don’t over promise. Be clear with the candidate and the congregation about how things are going to work.
3. Communicating too little.
As I’ve said before, a search committee should not be a stealth committee. Communicate early and often, with the congregation and with all prospective candidates. Even if you can’t give specifics, you can tell the congregation, “We are still putting the job description together,” or “We are gathering names to consider,” or “We have narrowed the field down to three candidates.”
Likewise, those who have expressed an interest in the position do not expect insider information, just basic courtesy. Acknowledge that you’ve received their forms. Let them know when they can expect to hear from you again. Give them a sense of your timetable. They are thinking through a major life change. Keep them in the loop.
4. Taking lots of time just because.
No doubt, some search committees rush through the process, imagining everything will fall apart without a pastor (it won’t; we’re not that important). But I think the opposite danger is more common: taking a lot of time for no reason in particular. Some search committees meet too infrequently to ever gain much momentum. Others insist on listening to sermons from all 200 candidates. Narrowing down the field is hard work. It may mean difficult phone calls or disagreement on the committee. It’s always easier to keep pondering your choices for another month. And sometimes committees feel like their work won’t seem legitimate unless it takes a really long time.
How long should the search process be? As long as it takes for you to find the right man for the job. Don’t make it shorter or longer than that.
5. Crafting an impossible job description.
Many churches are looking for the same pastor: an amazing preacher and visionary leader who is great with people, a gifted administrator, a fruitful evangelist, a missions champion, good with kids, beloved by the elderly—a young dynamic pastor who somehow also has 20 years experience. Get real.
Here’s a better approach: make high character and shared convictions non-negotiable, then prioritize preaching, then make sure he has basic people skills, after that figure out the two or three other things that are really important in your context. It’s great to set the bar high, just so long as real non-divine people can clear it.
6. Failing to check references.
It’s baffling how search committees can be so thorough when it comes to theological questions, sermon listening, and umpteen phone interviews, but then fail to check with the people that know the candidate best. You should always talk to the man’s wife, not to grill her as if she were applying for a job too, but to learn about their marriage and how she feels about ministry.
Likewise, you should always talk to someone who has worked with, for, or above the man you are seeking to hire. People aren’t going to change dramatically from one job to the next, especially the older they get. What they were in one church is what they will be in the next church. It happens too often: churches find out six months later that their new pastor can’t administrate his way out of a paper bag, or he can’t get along with his colleagues, or he plays 72 holes of golf every week, or his marriage is a mess.
Of course, you can’t remove all risks, but a couple commonsense phone calls can save your church a world of hurt.
7. Expecting all the best candidates to come to you.
In most cases, the search committee will post the job opening on the relevant denominational, educational, and third party sites. Then they will wait and see how many applicants come in. For some positions, that may mean sifting through five applications. For the senior pastor position of an established church, that may mean hundreds of names. And you could very well have the name you need among those applicants.
But don’t be afraid to knock on doors. It’s not about poaching pastors or stroking egos. It’s just common sense. Some of the best pastors are probably happily and effectively serving their church at the moment. They aren’t looking around. But as a search committee you are. It doesn’t hurt to ask (provided you do it humbly and with the utmost attention to confidentiality). No one knows what you are looking for better than you do, so get looking.