I can’t prove some of what I am about to write. But I have heard this story told often enough that I think it constitutes a trend. It goes like this: a pastor search committee begins looking for a candidate. They are doing their best to understand God’s leadership. They accumulate resumes, they follow a process, and they bring in a candidate. But something goes haywire! The candidate inexplicably doesn’t receive the votes needed to become pastor.
The committee must represent the congregation, and the congregation must trust the committee.
In our Baptist system committees are elected representatives of the larger congregation. That is a two way street. The committee can’t act as though there are no consequences out there at voting time if they are failing or refusing to read the congregation’s signals. Don’t discount the rumblings. Listen to the scuttlebutt; read the tea leaves. If there are murmurings of discontent with the committee’s work you’ve got to pump the brakes and check on that.
Bringing a candidate into a situation where, unbeknownst to him, he can’t win, is patently unfair. If the congregation and the committee are not in alignment, even if it’s as little as seven degrees (to give a visual analogy), that’s enough to derail the outcome.
The staff/interim candidate conundrum.
Sometimes the committee is faced with the decision of whether or not to consider a staff member for a vacancy. Or they are left to determine if the interim pastor can be a candidate. Concerning the interim, I formerly trained committees to exclude the interim from consideration in the beginning to avoid conflict and confusion later.* Now I say, “Decide in advance whether the interim can be a candidate.” That creates alignment.
Vanderbloemen Search Group, a professional staffing agency, teaches churches to tell staff members who want to be candidates to prepare to tender their resignations if the church does not extend a call to them to fill the pastor vacancy. That anticipates the messy, complicated residue of a failed candidacy. Of course most Baptists are too “nice” for that.
Another way that I suspect committees are missing alignment with the congregation is in their failure to recognize generational dynamics. More than once I have heard of committees hitting the wall in their search when they bring in a candidate because they weren’t listening to what all of the age groups in the church were signaling to them. Surveys can help with this kind of thing. It’s not a perfect solution, and neither is committee diversity (though I suspect that helps). Not that most of our traditional churches are overrun with millennials, but I do think it is important to understand that this generation is characterized by a basic mistrust of institutions. So if that’s a factor, you’re going to need to be clear and above board about everything you’re doing.
Do the hard work God has called you to do.
I think agreeing to serve on a search committee is a lot like being married. It’s going to be in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, (not quite) til death do us part. You’ve got to make the finish line. Like marriage, it won’t be easy sometimes. But you made a promise to your congregation. Seek advice. One thing I am learning is to invite scrutiny on what I’m doing. You aren’t perfect and everyone has already figured that out. Just admit it and talk to someone knowledgeable. Get other eyes and other perspectives on your difficult problems.
Think about the shrapnel of failure.
There are lots of implications. Especially to the candidate who is going to receive a “no” vote as a punch in the gut. This is a real human being and he probably has feelings. And this process has probably disrupted his ministry already.
There are implications for churches, too. It’s not impossible to imagine that failed candidacies are also disruptive to congregational harmony. I’d say that’s a given. Probably the issues were there already and the search process just bubbled them to the surface. You can either use your time machine to go back and fix this stuff, or hit the pause button at the appropriate time. If this candidate is “God’s man” as we say, he won’t mind you straightening this out before you vote on him.
*Committees rarely stay trained.
Bobby Braswell serves as associational missions strategist for Middle Baptist Association, based in Sylvania.