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7 Ways Pastoral Search Teams Can Bless Applicants

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I recently resigned from a church that I pastored for over nine years to assume a pastoral position in an entirely different part of the country. I was engaged in the pastoral search process for nearly 18 months before the Lord showed us where he wanted us to go. As I’ve reflected on that season of my life, I’ve identified seven practices which, if prioritized by churches in their pastoral searches, will bless each applicant they consider.
  1. Maintain a high standard of courtesy.
This ought to go without saying. The fact that I am saying it reflects the unfortunate reality that it doesn’t go without saying. I’m sure that every pastoral candidate reading this could relate a story demonstrating this fact.
            Scripture stresses an attitude of mutual deference among Christians that ought to dictate how churches interact with their applicants, as well as how applicants interact with potential churches (more on that in the companion piece to this article). Passages like Romans 12:10, Galatians 5:13, and Philippians 2:3 all speak to believers’ burden of treating one another well for Christ’s sake.
            Over the course of my 18-month search, I had several negative interactions with churches. I spoke with an elder in one church who assured me that his priority was to be above-board with each applicant: that he had witnessed enough politics and discourtesy in pastoral searches that he wanted to make sure their search didn’t degenerate in that way. He explained to me that there was one other candidate ahead of me in the church’s preferences, and that he would call me personally as soon as they had made a decision, one way or the other. I was all the more disappointed then when I didn’t hear from him for several months, only to receive a very impersonal email from someone else on their search team, informing me that they had decided to hire the other applicant.
            Courtesy doesn’t have to imply a huge investment of time or human resources. I worked with a few churches who took the simple but classy step of sending a hand-written card to me with some encouraging notes as their way of declining to pursue my candidacy further. Courtesy may look a little different than that for your church, but a high standard of courtesy, in one form or another, is our responsibility to one another as believers, and will make your process a blessing to those involved in it.
  1. Keep initial questionnaires simple (for your sake and theirs!).
I won’t soon forget a certain church on the West Coast that had several layers of doctrinal and ministerial questionnaires involved in the first step of their application process, including an online personality profile that carried with it a fee of $20.00 to complete! And while I understand how that amount of information can help eliminate the poor candidates quickly, it’s a little heavy-handed for such an early stage in the search process.
            For most churches, a questionnaire of 8 or ten questions will suffice to insure a basic level of agreement on doctrinal and philosophical issues. A short list of questions like that will be more manageable both for the applicants (most of whom will be pastors somewhere already, and busy with their current ministries) as well as for the search team members (most of whom will be volunteers and busy with their own lives). Simple initial questionnaires will prove to be a blessing to both parties in the search process!
  1. Identify and communicate your theological non-negotiables early.
If your church aligns with a denomination, you may not need to specify every theological preference: First Baptist Churches probably don’t need to specify that they practice believers’ baptism; First Presbyterian Churches probably don’t need to specify that they practice infant baptism. BUT, if your church name or job description doesn’t make a denominational alignment clear, or if your denominational alignment doesn’t make a theological position clear, then the onus is on you to describe your beliefs.
            There were times in my search when I would be ten minutes into a job description before realizing that I was getting excited about a pastoral position at a Presbyterian or Anglican church (which would have been fine if I were Presbyterian or Anglican). I recall a relationship that I cultivated with one non-denominational church over the course of several questionnaires and phone interviews. After realizing that this particular church, though baptistic, was open to baptizing infants upon request, I suggested that I would not be a good fit for them. They urged me nonetheless to join them for a Skype interview. It was a short conversation. If we had each been clearer and firmer about our non-negotiables, we could have saved each other valuable time.
  1. Communicate promptly and clearly.
I’ve been in my new position now for nearly three months, and I stopped sending out resumes six months ago, but I still occasionally receive query emails from churches that received my resume a year ago or more. I understand that pastoral search teams are generally composed of volunteers, but even volunteers can commit to being prompt with applicants.
            Clear communication about the search process is just as important as prompt communication. Overcommunication is better than under-communication in this regard. I interacted with one wealthy church in the mid-West for several weeks; I had completed one or two questionnaires for them and participated in one Skype interview. From my perspective, the process was progressing well, but was still in its initial stages. Imagine my shock then when I received an email congratulating me on being one of the two final candidates for the position! I don’t know if they hired the other guy or not, but I decided I wasn’t interested anymore.
  1. Be honest about your church’s weaknesses and needs.
Honesty from all parties is another absolute necessity at every stage of the search process. The New Testament assumes that we will speak the truth to one another (Eph. 4:25; Col. 3:9). I will deal with the need for honesty on the part of pastoral applicants in the companion piece to this article, but this need is no less pressing for the hiring church. Pastoral search teams are notorious for their (sometimes unconscious) habit of downplaying their churches’ weaknesses and overstating their willingness to embrace ministry changes.
            As you interview applicants and interact with candidates, remember that you’re asking them to commit not just to a new job, but to a new family. They deserve to know the whole truth, including your concerns and fears. If we really believe that Jesus, as the Chief Shepherd, is the one who raises up pastors for each church (I Pet. 5:4; Eph. 4:11–12), then we can trust him to do so, even when all the ugly truths are out on the table.
            To set your minds at ease, consider this: every pastoral candidate who’s worth hiring will understand that there is no such thing as a perfect church. If your transparency and candidness scare him off, he wasn’t a good fit anyway.
  1. Be sensitive to the particular nature of each applicant’s current situation.
Some churches insist on complete transparency, not just between the search team and the applicant, but also between the applicant and his current church. Although well-intentioned, this level of transparency is not always feasible. There are many reasons why an applicant may choose not to reveal to his current church that he is searching for a new place of ministry, ranging from abusive church situations in which such knowledge could lead to summary termination to more nuanced pastoral concerns or simple matters of timing.
Correspondingly, the decision to keep such a job search private does not mean that the current church will be left in the lurch when the time of transition does come. In my case, I kept the matter private until the Lord’s leading was clear, and then I revealed my decision in stages to our church family, continuing to minister there for over a month before my resignation actually took effect. Your church can find a way to accommodate your applicants’ needs without compromising your integrity. Your sensitivity in this area will bless each of your pastoral applicants.
  1. Don’t lose heart!
The pastoral search process can be a long one. My new church, The Little Church in the Vale, in Gates Mills, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, had been searching for a new pastor for almost exactly the same amount of time that I had been searching for a new position—18 months. The elders here testify to a high amount of discouragement and weariness as they reviewed resumes, conducted interviews, and talked among themselves. But they persevered in their search and God, in his faithfulness, brought us together in his timing. He’ll do the same for your church. Don’t lose heart!

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