Mark D. Roberts

Part 4 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
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So far in this series I’ve served two morsels of advice for pastor search committees:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.

Today I’ll add two more morsels to the list.
3. Be open to God’s surprises
Most search committee members begin the process of seeking a pastor with an image of the kind of person they’re seeking. Often this image is colored by their perceptions of the previous pastor (if there was one). If they liked that pastor, they’ll tend to envision someone quite similar. If they didn’t like that pastor, they’ll imagine someone quite different, often an idealized version of some former pastor. Sometimes committee members start with somebody like the former pastor in mind, only without that pastor’s perceived weaknesses. Perfect pastor here we come!
I don’t think it’s wrong for search committee members to begin with a picture in mind of their next pastor. But if you’re serving on a search committee, don’t let this image keep you from being open to something or someone unexpected. In many cases, committees end up being led by the Spirit to someone who is not at all what they at first anticipated.
Take, for example, the committee that brought me to Irvine Presbyterian Church. Not surprisingly, they began by looking for someone quite a bit like my predecessor, Ben Patterson. They wanted a strong preacher and leader, a person committed to Christ and to prayer. They also envisioned someone who, like Ben at his time of departure, had senior pastor and parental experience. (Ben had four children and had been Irvine’s senior pastor for fourteen years.) The committee that eventually nominated me was not expecting to call someone who was only 33 years old, who had been an associate pastor for just three years, and who didn’t have children. Yet, because the committee was open to God’s surprises, they came to believe that I was the surprise. And, looking back at my sixteen years of ministry at Irvine Pres., I would say that the committee rightly discerned God’s will, both for the church and for me. (Photo: Ben Patterson, Lloyd Ogilvie, and me at my installation as pastor of Irvine Pres.)
4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), the process of searching for a new pastor usually takes at least a year. It can take twice as long if the search committee is also responsible for doing a large-scale mission study as the first part of the discernment process. Furthermore, unlike ordinary church committees, pastor search committees meet often, perhaps even weekly. During certain seasons of committee work, members are also busy on weekends, visiting the churches of potential candidates or hearing them preach in “neutral” pulpits. (“Neutral” means “not the candidate’s home church and not the committee’s home church.”) Of course most committee members have a life outside of committee work. When you put all of this together, you have a formula for exhaustion, and exhaustion can lead to unhappy results.
I have seen this sort of thing happen several times in churches, and I experienced it once myself. Years ago, I was part of a search committee for an associate pastor. We worked long and hard for many, many months. As we neared what we had hoped would be the end of our labors, we had two decent candidates. But neither one really seemed quite right. Nevertheless, after so much effort, we just couldn’t face the possibility of starting from scratch. Se we ended up deciding upon a particular candidate, even though we all had some reservations. The result was a dismal one both for this individual and for our church. As I look back on our search committee process, I’m convinced that our exhaustion led us to make an unwise decision. In fact, I think physical, mental, and emotional tiredness weakened our ability to think clearly.
So what can a search committee do to avoid letting exhaustion negatively influence both the committee process and the result? First, if all members of the committee are aware that the road ahead will be a long and tortuous one, then they’ll be better prepared to keep on going when there’s no end in sight.
Second, the committee should help itself avoid exhaustion. Too many long and late meetings can add up. Sometimes a committee needs to take a break. Members should be especially attentive to exhaustion in themselves or in others.
Finally, I think it’s better for a committee to call nobody rather than to call the wrong person as a pastor. The pain and damage that come both to church and pastor when there’s a bad match should be avoided at all costs. If a committee comes up empty, it should take an extended break before beginning again. In some cases, a committee might even need to disband, and a new committee be formed. I know this sounds terrible. The good news is that, in most cases, search committees will come to a positive conclusion.

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