Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Get The True “Downside” on Candidates

Part 6 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
So far in my series, Advice for Pastor Search Committees, I’ve suggested the following:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.
3. Be open to God’s surprises.
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.
5. Represent your church accurately.

Once again, I want to build today’s recommendation a comment submitted in response to a recent post. Yesterday I suggested to pastor search committees: Represent your church accurately. John Schroeder commented:


You know, this advice runs both ways. I know situations where a candidate’s info packet and even the advisory letters from former Presbyterys downplayed or even failed to mention a candidate’s foibles – leaving the church that ended up calling him with any number of easily avoided issues had honesty been the order of the day.
In other words, the church did not get what it bargained for. As a result I typically advise PNC’s to go “outside the loop” when they think they have a candidate they really like. That is to seek information about the candidate in ways not typically available inside the PC(USA) process.

John is absolutely correct. If I were writing this series for folks seeking pastoral positions, I would say: Represent yourself accurately. But since I’m currently writing for pastor search committees, I’d say, instead: Get the true “downside” on candidates.
I realize that doesn’t sound very nice, but it is essential. No potential pastor is perfect. Nobody does everything well. Everybody has weaknesses. Every candidate has a true downside. Committees need to know this, not only so that they can weed out candidates who wouldn’t be a good match for their church, but also so that their expectations are reasonable. Moreover, if a church is aware of the weaknesses of its new pastor, it can help provide support to work around those weaknesses. If, for example, the new pastor is a great preacher and kind caregiver, but somewhat disorganized, a church can work with the pastor to provide systemic personal and organizational support.
But it is hard for a search committee to get negative input on candidates. Nobody likes to say bad things about people. And these days, fear of lawsuits can keep people from saying negative things that really ought to be said. I’ve had legal experts encourage me to say almost nothing about people who used to work for me who didn’t work out. I’m supposed to confirm that they worked for me at such-and-such a job for a certain duration, and that’s about it.
So what’s a search committee to do? John Schroeder advises search committees to go “outside the loop,” that is, “to seek information about the candidate in ways not typically available inside the PC(USA) process.” I’d be interested to know some of these ways John recommends. I can think of a few. For one thing, when a search committee rep calls the list of recommenders, that person could ask for others that might be called. This can be delicate, however, because pastoral candidates are generally trying to keep their intentions secret. For another, a search committee should scrutinize a candidates resumé to look for potentially problematic items. For example, if a pastor has moved around a lot, this may well reveal problems in that pastor’s performance.
In my experience in the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the best channels of truthful information is what we Presbyterians call the Executive Presbyter. Other denominations have District Superintendents, Bishops, or similar roles. In our system, Executive Presbyters are the leaders of regional church structures. They tend to have a high level of mutual trust and openness. If an Executive Presbyter asks another Executive Presbyter about a potential candidate, the whole truth is generally told: the good, the bad, the ugly. I have found that input from Executive Presbyters can be extremely valuable.
I realize that what I’ve just said won’t be helpful to those who are in independent churches and the like. So let me note one other source of potentially crucial negative information on a candidate: the feelings of committee members. Yes, yes, this is quite subjective. And, yes, yes, sometimes committee members won’t be fair. But I have found, on the contrary, that search committees are often too fair to candidates. It is easy for a committee not to give sufficient weight to misgivings of committee members. (Photo: Should pastor search committees use one of those pain charts found in hospitals?)
For example, I have referred earlier in this series to a search committee on which I served. We were looking for an associate pastor. The person who ended up at the top of our list had many positive attributes. But several members of the committee just “had a bad feeling” about this person. They had a difficult time explaining this “bad feeling,” so, in the end, they were persuaded to call the candidate. Well, as it turns out, their “bad feeling” was 100% on target. In retrospect, I wish we had taken what they felt more seriously.
I realize that what I’ve said in this post could be abused. Sometimes committees are dominated by immature members whose feelings make a mess of things. And sometimes denominational officials haven’t been fully truthful. Perhaps some of my commentators will have some wise input on this matter.
Of course, if a committee is looking for the “perfect pastor,” it might well give too much weight to the “downside” of a given candidate. I’ll talk about this in my next post.

  • John Schroeder

    It’s expensive, but the best idea I have come across is to “hang out” with the congregation that the candidate is leaving and talk to people there that are not a part of the normal leadership loop. Of course, one must be clandestine, but….
    In the most egregious case I know of, a pastor had been fired by the congregation and was more or less on the Presbytery payroll (lots of interim and supply work – lot of it). Of course, all the paperwork showed it as a “mutual and happy parting of the ways.” He was an old seminary chum of the senior pastor at the new church that hired him, so everyone seemed happy.
    However, chum and intimate are two different things and problems soon started to present themselves. Matters soon came to light when a member of the old congregation serendipitously joined the new one, even though the churches were separated by a continent. When he told the story of what happened at the old church jaws hit the floor.
    Had that PNC spent some time, any time really, talking to the old church’s membership it would have been a different world, and in this case conversation would have been easy since the guy was already gone from the old church.
    Of course, talking to the congregation is much harder when a candidate is leaving one good situation for another, but that is increasingly not the case anymore. But just having as PNC member hang with a congregation for 2-4 weeks, pretending to be considering membership will reveal so much… (Yeah, it’s a little sneaky, but I don’t know how else to get that kind of unvarnished feedback)
    And things for agreeing with me!

  • Jennie

    It is also helpful to ask REALLY specific questions. If you are looking for a strong teacher, ask questions about that. If you need a strong leader, ask how the candidate handled situations with congregants and their session (or vestry, or whatever) … etc. I think it’s even appropriate to ask directly if the reference has witnessed a difficult situation in their church and if so, how did the candidate handle herself? It is the tendency of church staffers and/or lay people to put their best reference forward because it’s uncomfortable to NOT help a person get a job. And, it is my experience that with most people, you can come up with a couple things nice to say about them. But, if there are some significant leadership or interpersonal or spiritual attributes that you are looking for in a candidate, it’s best to ask really specific questions. The answers you get … even if it’s just the person on the other end of the phone stumbling all over themselves to say something good … are worth taking the time to come up with questions that reflect the needs of your congregation.

  • Mark Roberts

    John and Jennie: Great comments. Thanks so much.

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