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How to Launch a Healthy Start for Your New Pastor

Richard Blackburn, a Lombard Peace Center trainer, was a featured speaker at a recent training event for congregational conflict interventionists.

“When I look into the history of churches I go into for a conflict intervention, I almost always find they had a bad pastoral transition in the past,” Blackburn said.

The call process for these churches is a unique and nuanced blend of divine intervention, spiritual discernment, naivety, blended human resources intelligence, wishful thinking, unrealistic expectations and occasional luck.

I have coached nearly two dozen pastor search committees over the past five years.

For some, the work has been something akin to spiritual renewal, while others have wondered what they did to make God so angry with them.

My organization has developed, through trial and error, a much healthier and more robust process than most congregations expect or initially appreciate.

We are finding that the likelihood of a successful and mutually satisfying call to a new pastor is the result of the following:

1. Rigorous and thoughtful spiritual discernment

2. Congregational self-study

3. Using best practices from multiple vocations

4. A humble spirit of proactive invitation

There are two specific windows of critical importance during the call process, both dealing with beginnings.

The first is the initial formation period for the committee. The second is the first 100 days of a new pastor’s tenure.

The beginning of any search process actually starts with an ending of the previous minister’s tenure.

Ending well is a key predictor for the success of your next pastor. Even when circumstances are difficult, there is a right and gracious way for a congregation to manage closure.

There are often mixed emotions at a time of departure, but our experience is that congregations that are generous and magnanimous in spirit reap a huge return on that investment.

Conversely, congregations that pout, are petty or willfully ignore deeper truths often plant the seeds of dissent within the congregational system for the next pastor to harvest.

We encourage congregations to celebrate a minister’s tenure and err on the side of gratitude and confidence in the providential leadership of God’s spirit.

The initial formation of the committee begins with the method a congregation uses in selecting the transition committee, search committee or both. The makeup of the search committee is an essential and controllable factor in the search process.

A church can construct a matrix of variables for committee members that are managed by a thoughtful nomination process.

Representation must consider factors like gender, tenure, theological diversity, age, worship preference, denominational loyalty, ethnicity, internal/external focus, personality types and so on.

Wise churches invite nominations from the congregation but are not bound by the frequency of those nominations.

Some of the most unfortunate call experiences we have observed begin when a committee is simply elected by popular vote in a congregation.

Such a process invites imbalance and is prone to manipulation, even if unintentional.

For example, one pastor search committee elected by popular vote had members that were nearly all in or related to the adult choir.

Such block voting by small groups in the church, even if unintentional, has the potential to skew the committee’s makeup and impact the effectiveness of the search.

Once a committee is nominated and elected, the temptation is to jump in quickly and begin the active search process as soon as possible. Two hard-learned suggestions:

1. Invite some objective, external voice to coach your search committee process and begin with an intensive orientation to the new realities of pastoral search.

It really isn’t the same as hiring at the plant, in the school system or at the hospital or when you last called a pastor.

2. Take the time to do a thorough congregational self-study that explores deeply how your congregation came to be, where you are today and where you sense God is leading you.

If you use an interim pastor or a congregational coach, they can probably be of help with this. Many resources exist; use them.

These simple suggestions can get the process off to a healthy start and dramatically increase the likelihood of a healthy call.

The first 100 days of your new pastor’s tenure is a one-time-only opportunity to start well and establish healthy patterns that will last many years.

Rather than leave a good beginning to chance, many churches are realizing how vital it is to plan those days well.

Coaching for pastors during the first 14 weeks in a new congregational system is vital.

Pastors and congregations should break those first 100 days into 10-day blocks of time, using those time units wisely to address critical opportunities and issues that merit immediate attention.

Those who have tried this proactive and thoughtful approach report a remarkable return on the investment in terms of early momentum, a strong sense of clear purpose and met expectations.

These two windows of beginning only last a few days but have a disproportionate amount of influence upon the long-term impact of a minister.

Pay attention and reap the benefit of a healthy beginning.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.

Editor’s note: A Skype interview between Wilson and EthicsDaily.com’s media producer Cliff Vaughn on pastor search committees is available here.