3 Common Mistakes in Pastor Searches

Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you…Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Joshua 1:5, 7-8


Leadership changes are scary…and not just the political ones. Leadership changes at church are just as troublesome. None are more scary than changing shepherds of a congregation. Having served on pastor search teams myself, and having trained dozens of other such teams and processes for various churches and organizations, I have lots of stories of the many “pitfalls” and traps which await us when it comes to prayerfully searching for a new shepherd. So, for those of you who find this topic relevant, here are three mistakes Pastor search teams often make:

1. Making it a secular process. As laymen, we all bring whatever experiences and expertise we may have from our industries to our ministry, and it would be easy to think of the pastor search process as primarily (or essentially) a human resources process. But it is not…not primarily. Rather, it is first and foremost a spiritual discernment process. And as with any spiritual discernment process, it should bubble up out of deep and humbling gathered prayer. Indeed, prayer should not only be foundational and central to the process, but it should actually BE the process. I have said it many times before (and have seen it countless times)…when it comes to pastor searches, you get what you pray for. If your church is without a pastor, somewhere out there is this very large world God has already begun to disrupt the life and contentment of a person whom He is calling to shepherd your church. Your job, as a pastor search team, is to find that person. And how would you ever expect to find the person God is calling, except by spending huge amounts of time together in God’s presence?

2. Being out of touch with the “political will” of the church. It is not unusual that pastor search teams end up being comprised of many of the most progressive thinkers in the church. It is also not unusual that those very progressive thinkers might feel they are adequately “representative” of the rest of the church. And so, it is far too common that the search team signals (usually in many different ways) to a pastoral candidate that they (the church) are ready, willing and able to implement huge change. Then, when that change-oriented pastor gets on the field, he/she learns the sad truth about the church, coming face to face with the “old guard” who will have nothing to do with change. It is a huge mistake to represent the church to a pastoral candidate unless and until you have first spent many many hours searching the hearts and the will of the congregation, so that you can represent it accurately to the would-be pastor.

3. Failing to use the interim time for some critical self-assessment. The “hurry up” sentiment is usually expressed in some iteration of this: “Without a vision, the people perish! We need to get a pastor in here quickly to provide some vision for us as a church.” The implication, of course, is that we as a congregation simply have no idea who we are nor where we are going unless and until we have a pastor here to tell us. Not only is that the picture of dysfunction as a church body, but it places an inordinate amount of pressure on that poor new pastor who is expected to have us all doing amazing things within the first year or so of his pastorate. Rather than rushing through a pastor search process so that we can then get back to being God’s people, the pastoral interim is a perfect time for us to spend some time together as a church figuring out what God is doing among us (with or without a pastor) and who we are as a local body of believers. Indeed, I would argue that, until we have done that, we have no reason to think we could ever rightly discern whom God is calling to shepherd us. Moreover, depending on our recent history with pastors, we may also need time to properly grieve the loss of our last pastor and have a refresher course on how best to love our next pastor.

When the people of Israel were expected to grieve the loss of Moses and begin to follow their new leader, Joshua, it was a scary prospect. So, perhaps God’s word to them was every bit as applicable to us today as it was to them: do not be afraid. If you are in a season between leaders, maybe that is the best counsel of all. God has been with you up until now, and He will still be with you in the season ahead. Trust that.

© Blake Coffee
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