Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Advice for Pastor Search Committees: An Introduction

Part 1 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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For some odd reason, these days I seem to have several friends who are serving on church committees charged with seeking a new pastor. They have asked me, not only for suggestions of potential pastoral candidates, but also for any advice I might have for them and their committees. In this blog series I want to collect and share a few of my thoughts about pastor search committees and what might make them successful. I realize that this series won’t be directly relevant to many of my readers. But you may know people who are in the midst of a pastor search. Or you might want to read this series out of curiosity, or to prepare for your own future service on a committee.
In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we call such committees “Pastor Nominating Committees” because their goal is to nominate a candidate for a pastoral position. Only congregations in the PC(USA) have the authority to call a new pastor (with concurrence of their presbytery, the local governing body). But I’m calling this series “Advice for Pastor Search Committees” because it will be more easily understood by Christians from various denominations and independent churches. For the most part, what I want to share is not relevant only to Presbyterians. (Obviously, if you’re in a church where pastors are assigned by bishops with no input from congregations, or where pastors pick their own replacements, this series won’t be especially relevant to you. But even bishop-led denominations often rely on pastor search committees to assist in the calling of pastors.)
I mentioned that I have several friends on pastor search committees. One obvious reason for this is that my former church now has such a committee in place in order to find my successor. It’s no surprise that several of my friends are on this committee. But I also have a number of friends and acquaintances from other churches who are on pastor search committees. Some of these have asked for my counsel about their process as a committee. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I grew up and where I served on staff for seven years, is looking for a new senior pastor.)
What I offer in this series is not meant to be some sort of definitive guide for a search committee. Rather, I want to share some random ideas in the hope that these may be helpful to my friends, and perhaps also to others who are in the pastor seeking process.
My advice here is based on a number of things. First, I’m reflecting on my own experience serving as a member of a pastor search committee. Four times while I was senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church is was a member of such a committee as we were looking for associate pastors. (Different presbyteries have different expectations for pastors. Los Ranchos Presbytery required me to serve on the associate pastor search committees.) I have more limited experience as the person being sought by a committee. Only twice have I had more than an initial phone call with a pastor search committee (once with Irvine and one other time). But I have spent lots and lots of time throughout my life listening to pastors and members of search committees. I have watched search processes that have been successful. And I’ve watched those that have failed. (A successful search, in my opinion, produces a pastor who serves fruitfully in a church for at least five years.) So, what you’ll get in this series is the compilation of my experience and that of many others.
A Word for Individual Committee Members
Before I get to my first bit of advice for committees as a whole, I want to say a word for individual committee members. Most folks join pastor search committees because they care deeply about their church and its future, and they want to help their church to have a good pastor. They see the committee process, therefore, primarily as a task that will lead to a positive result for the church.
This perspective is fine, and substantially true. But I want to suggest another dimension of serving on a pastor search committee. It has to do with the individual member’s spiritual growth. Over the years I have heard from many people that serving on a pastor search committee helped them to grow significantly in their faith. Such growth is a result, in part, of members gathering on a regular basis to talk about the kingdom of God and its implications for their lives. Also, growth comes because committee members tend to spend much more time in prayer during a search process as they pray with the group and on their own. Then there’s the whole matter of trusting God. Given how much rides on the decision of a pastor search committee, members often feel overwhelmed. They find that they have to trust God more than ever, and such reliance on the Lord is essential to spiritual growth.
Now I’m certainly not suggesting that somebody should volunteer to serve on a pastor search committee primarily as a means to grow in Christ. The first motivation should find the right pastor for their church. But, if you’re ever on a search committee, I’d encourage you attend to what God is doing in your life through the process. How are you being challenged? Encouraged? Stretched? Reassured? How might you be different at the end of the process, by God’s grace?
In my next post I’ll offer up my first piece of advice for committees. Stay tuned . . . .

  • Mariam

    I look forward to this. The process does seem to be transforming for many people who serve in that capacity. And the way these people bond as a group always surprises me. However, I’m not convinced that the PCUSA method of calling a pastor is necessarily the best way.

  • Chris Brauns

    Great topic. This was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I focused on how pnc’s evaluate preaching. You can read some about my project here:

  • Mark Roberts

    Mariam: Thanks for the input. Yes, though I’m not sure there is a best way. Well, okay, the best way is for God to send an angelic messenger or something. Doesn’t happen too often.
    Chris: Fascinating! Thanks for the link to your post. Very helpful.

  • Ray

    I chaired a PNC several years ago. I echo your observation that spiritual growth is a byproduct of serving in that capacity. I’m very intersted to hear what others say about the process and their experiences as we move through this series.
    One mistake we made, I think, was seeking to be “of one mind”. We proactively decided at the very beginning of our work how we would handle disagreements about candidates, and we stuck to that framework, which was helpful. But in the end we placed too much emphasis on consensus and unanimity. I think if we had wrestled with each other a little more our final decision may have been different (funny how I seem to slight God’s sovereignty here, huh?). My advice would be to welcome frank, honest disagreement and allow it to color your thinking about individual candidates. Don’t allow any member of the committee to be shy about expressing opinions.
    Also, don’t underestimate the time commitment. It’s a LOT of work. But rewarding!

  • Chris Brauns

    Elizabeth Achtemeir’s book, So You’re Looking for a Preacher, (or something close to that) is worth looking at. It is out of print, but might be available used.

  • Matt Ferguson

    Amazingly, Achtemeir’s book is still being sold by in paperback.

  • Nancy Norris

    Thanks for this awesome series of postings. As I sit on the PNC of FPCH, I will concur with your comments about Spiritual growth.
    I feel humbled to be on this committee. It also is a weight. It feels heavy and daunting. I do love our committee members and we are working hard together. I do love our prayer times and find myself praying throughout the day for our next pastor. We have many praying with us. This is also humbling. I am a bit behind on my readings…so I am catching up today and tomorrow. I am so excited to pass these postings on to our committee. We are grateful for this. I know you are praying for FPCH. Bless you. I know you care for the future of this amazing place. love, nancy

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