Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling

A pastor search is not just about searching for a pastor

By Laura Stephens-Reed

A few years ago, I was a regular guest preacher at a church in the city where I lived after the minister there had submitted his resignation and as the church awaited the arrival of an interim. On the first of those Sundays, a woman stood up during the announcement time and shared that the pastor search team would meet that afternoon. (The departing minister hadn’t yet been gone a full week, but the people who would find his replacement were already mobilizing.) Usually, I have a good poker face, but I didn’t that day. I had to pick my jaw up off of the lectern at this sudden spin-up of search activity.

Laura Stephens-Reed

When a pastoral leader moves on from a congregation, the explicit or implicit first reaction is often, “How fast can we get a new minister?” This is a normal response. Change breeds discomfort, and our very human tendency is to eliminate that unease as quickly as possible. Plus, we think of pastors as constant presences, the tangible embodiment of Christ’s love as we move through life’s ups and downs. Who will be that for us if there’s no settled minister? (Spoiler alert: We can be that for one another.)

It’s crucial, though, not to hurry through a pastor search. Rush jobs are done out of anxiety to find someone (anyone?) and out of reactivity to what the last minister did or didn’t do well. The rush often results in cutting corners in assessing candidates out of an incomplete or unexamined sense of what the church needs in a pastor and not spending the time needed to research and get to know those who are interested in your congregation’s position. Too often, the outcome  is a new minister’s short tenure and plenty of conflict to accompany it.

But the real tragedy in speeding through the process is all of the lost opportunities that a slow and deliberate pastor search offers. Sure, the big goal of a search is to call a leader who is a great fit. But a thoughtfully-conducted approach can yield so many additional benefits: 

Assessment of congregational purpose and steps toward it. Pastoral transitions are the best points at which to discern a church’s direction and make course corrections as needed. This work can be done separately from the gifts and passions of a particular pastor and instead be based on the congregation, the most constant variable across leadership transitions. Time spent in discernment benefits the church for many seasons to come and provides the information on which a successful search is constructed. 

Spiritual transformation. When we experience upheaval, including that which comes with a pastoral departure, our brains remember and our bodies feel that we need to rely on the grace and goodness of God. We ramp up our individual and collective prayer lives. We become more attentive to where God is moving in and around us. 

Strengthened connections with ministry partners. It’s easy for churches, especially autonomous ones, to go about their business without paying much attention to their broader networks. But pastoral transitions prompt us to reach out to those beyond our church who are invested in our ministry and seek their help. These contacts reinforce that we are better together as we keep our partners front of mind for other initiatives. 

Deepened relationships among those on the pastor search team. A pastor search requires a lot of energy and time investment on the part of search team members. This reality naturally leads to intensified bonds. Add into the mix worshiping and working through the challenges together that the search poses, and that heightens the experience. These relationships are gifts to those who are in them and can lead to bridges built across groups within the church.

Encouragement to those who interact with your search process. This is the opportunity that is most hidden, but one which can make the biggest ripples beyond the congregation. If the search team welcomes candidates as whole people, with hopes and needs and worries and gifts, those pastors will feel seen and valued. Even those who hear a “no” from you will be glad that they had a chance to engage with you, and they will carry forward what they learned in feedback from the process to the benefit of the churches they eventually will serve.

Increased understanding of the biblical concept of hospitality. A fully fleshed-out pastor search will genuinely invite the voices and stories of the congregation, the larger community, search team members and candidates into the process. In doing so, the search team and, by extension the church, will “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” and might even “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NRSV). This expansion of welcome can catch hold during a search and be built upon thereafter.

Does a pastor search – done well – take time? Absolutely. Does the process get draggy in the middle, especially to those beyond the search team who don’t have the full picture of the work being done? Sure. But a search that is intentional at every step prepares the church for the coming fruitful season of ministry and can reshape the congregation in faith-full, long-lasting ways. 

So, let us take the necessary time. Call an interim minister who can offer a steady pastoral presence while the search work is done. Even better, call a transition expert who can pastor and ably train and resource the search team (but not do the work for them or suggest specific candidates). Settle in, trust God and know that the effort expended will result in good far beyond what you can now see or might ever know.

Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.

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