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17 Ways to Avoid Invasion of the Pastor Snatchers

An increasing part of my life is spent advising and coaching pastor search committees. A healthy search process requires great patience, spiritual maturity and hard work.
Done well, it can lead to a season of hope and health for a church and its pastor. Done poorly, it can lead to disaster.

The free-call system can be baffling. My pastor friend, Bob Setzer, recently described a conversation with a parishioner who found out he was leaving for another church.

According to this layperson, the Baptist search process for a new pastor is quite unseemly. In fact, he argues, it brings out the worst in everybody.

“First,” he says, “you have to start coveting somebody else’s pastor. And according to my Bible, coveting is one of the Big 10 things you’re not supposed to do.”

“Then the search committee must master the art of seduction because nobody wants a pastor who is unhappy or unemployed and wants to move. They come after somebody like you who is perfectly happy where he or she is.”

“Then, without anybody at our end having the opportunity to make a counter offer or otherwise talk you out of it, the ‘pastor snatchers'” – that’s what he calls the search committee, the ‘pastor snatchers’ – “invite the candidate into an intricate game of intrigue and deception. And the pastor’s unsuspecting congregation doesn’t know a thing until the whole sorry deal is done!”

“And here’s the worst part,” he says still fuming. “We’re about to turn around and do it to somebody else!”

On the heels of many such conversations, I jotted down some random thoughts that, considered at the outset of the search, promote a healthy process. I hope they are helpful.

1.        This is a spiritual discernment process. The sooner you understand that, the better. Pray. This is more drama than documentary. Pray. More a dance than a march. Pray. Everyone needs to get his or her prayer life in order. One more time: Pray.

2.        Your committee needs to experience true community. Work at that. If you approach this deliberately and prayerfully, the many hours you spend together will grow you very close to one another. Hopefully, this will turn out to be one of the spiritual highlights of your adult life.

3.        Own your agendas. Everyone has them. Identify them and do your best to set them aside in lieu of a divine agenda. That’s a lot harder than it sounds.

4.        Remember that you represent the congregation in this process. Your personal agenda or wishes are secondary, at best.

5.        Be honest with yourselves and the candidates you talk with when it comes to your church. No church is perfect. (You’ll soon discover that is also true about clergy.)

6.        Confidentiality is essential. No exceptions.

7.        What you think you know can hurt you. This is not an executive search; it is not like filling a position at your company or school system or nonprofit. Take all your prior experiences and put them aside. What you are about to do is unlike anything you have ever done.

8.        What worked for the last search committee probably won’t work this time. Things have changed, dramatically, in recent years. Please don’t keep talking about last time.

9.        Your success or failure will likely be determined by the work you do as a committee prior to ever having a conversation with a candidate. Please take this part of your task seriously. Seriously.

10.     The profile your congregation has produced of itself and of your next pastor (hopefully you did this) must be adhered to ruthlessly.

11.     The more confident in yourselves that you are, the more likely you are to make a wrong turn. Humility is your friend.

12.     Think like a recruiter rather than an HR professional who posts a job and then waits for resumes to arrive.

13.     You will have to convince your best candidates just to have a brief conversation with you. You are inviting them to introduce spiritual discord into their life, not doing them a favor by considering them.

14.     It’s the small things that will make or break your search. Don’t take shortcuts. Pray hard. Be considerate. Don’t make promises you won’t keep. Practice the Golden Rule with your candidates even when no one is looking.

15.     Beware of becoming enamored by one good sermon. Everyone can preach one good sermon. Beware of over-valuing sermons in general. Most of what goes awry with pastors takes place between Sundays.

16.     Hold out for consensus agreement. That doesn’t mean everyone is equally excited about the candidate, just that you can all stand before the congregation and present a united front with integrity.

17.     Be patient. With a healthy search process, fast is slow, and slow is fast.

BillWilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.