What do Pastor Search Teams need now? My interview with William Vanderbloemen, author of SEARCH: The Pastor Search Committee Handboook
Dave Travis here. My friend and colleague William Vanderbloemen has another key book out to help those churches with their pastor search process. His previous book, NEXT, written with our Research Director Dr. Warren Bird, helped larger church pastors think about their own succession plans. This book focuses on the work of the teams searching for a new pastor.
Dave: What inspired you to provide a handbook for pastor search committees?
William: Whenever I sit down with a pastor search committee, I ask, “How many of you have experience hiring a pastor?” Maybe one hand in the room goes up, but nearly every person on the search committee is a discerning volunteer with no church staffing experience. Some pastor search committee members have hired for their corporate jobs, but hiring for ministry is much different than hiring in the corporate world. They don’t know what they don’t know, and one of my favorite parts about helping churches find their staff is working with search committees. They feel the weight of their sacred responsibility and really want to navigate the overwhelming pastor search process well. However, they often don’t even know where to start.
So when B&H Publishing came to me and asked me to write a handbook – a field guide – for pastor search committees who are navigating the weighty process of discerning who God is calling as their next pastor, I was honored and excited to write it. It’s been a fun project to work on, and my prayer is that it will provide a common blueprint for pastor search committees.
Dave: Your team at VSG helps churches in the process, what does this book add to that custom work you do?
The book will be a great resource for search committees, but it isn’t a solution. Every church is unique, and every search is unique. Having an outside set of eyes, a trusted advisor, and a larger pool of candidates will benefit every committee. We don’t pretend to know a church better than a search committee does, but with over 800 searches under our belt, we have done this more than anyone, anywhere. And that brings a value that is well worth the cost.
What is the biggest challenge pastor search committees face?
They’re scared to death. There’s huge anxiety in the pastor search process. It doesn’t matter what your church polity is, whether you’re Anglican, Baptist, or non-denominational, it’s daunting to be in a group of people selected for the sacred task of making one of the most important decisions that the church will ever face, and hopefully one they won’t have to face for another decade or so.
This anxiety can cause committees to fight, feel directionless, choose the wrong person, or feel like no one is good enough. My prayer is that this book will be a resource to help calm their anxiety by providing a step-by-step manual, enabling them to focus on what they should be doing – praying and discerning who God is calling to be the next pastor of their church.
Dave: Chapter 4 of SEARCH is all about forming the pastor search committee. What is the most important factor that churches should consider when forming the pastor search committee?
Watch out for people who are coming to the process with an agenda. I would carefully consider the first five people that volunteer to be on the committee. Are they coming with hearts of discernment, desiring the best for the church, or are they coming with an agenda?
I’m reminded of Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (ESV)
When I was a young pastor, I made the mistake of putting curmudgeons on committees, because they stated their opinions the loudest. I thought that if I put them on the committee, I wouldn’t have to hear them complain about the decision the committee made. Now I realize that it always backfires and creates a polarized committee. I see way too many churches make this same mistake, and it never works. Avoid putting the church curmudgeon on the committee.
I’d also tell churches to be wary of how they represent the church by the makeup of the committee. We did a student pastor search recently where the committee put a couple of students from the youth group on the committee. I loved that they wanted to represent the church body by having diverse age groups, but the committee’s primary task is discernment. It’s crucial that you have discerning committee members who are mature in their faith and are thinking far into the future. Think less about the age groups represented on a committee and focus on finding discerning people you trust to steadily seek the Lord on behalf of your church.
While discerning is the top gift committee members should have, I also recommend looking for people who are natural recruiters – people who believe in your church, are passionate about its vision, and are excited by the prospect of inviting others into that process.
As Matthew 9:37 says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” There really is a supply and demand issue in ministry. The reality is that most committees have high expectations that might be unreasonable. You want people on the committee who can both discern who might be the right fit as well as cast vision for the future of the church to potential pastoral candidates.
Dave: So what are the smallest and biggest teams you have ever seen for this process?
William: 1 and 34.
Dave: Both of those numbers scare me! Chapter 6 of the book is titled “Know Your Church.” How can pastor search committees truly understand what their church needs in their next pastor?
One of the key questions a pastor search committee should spend time pondering is, “How does our church navigate change?” Think about the last time your church changed something in the building or in a ministry program. How did the congregation react? You want to reach for your ultimate redemptive potential as a church, but you don’t want to stretch it too much to where you break it apart. Know yourself as a church to ensure that doesn’t happen.
I’d also bring in an objective set of eyes to ask the pastor search committee strategic questions. Navigating change is one of the most difficult parts of the search process, and bringing in a third party who can objectively ask questions to help you shape the job description and candidate profile is a big help to pastor search committees.
I would encourage pastor search committees to buy SEARCH and read through it together, especially chapter 6. Knowing yourself as a church is crucial to a smooth pastoral search process.
Dave: What about mistakes toward the end of the process? Many pastor search committees get down to one candidate, and then it doesn’t work out. What should committees be aware of before they get to those final steps in the process to avoid having to start the process over?
Begin with the end in mind. Stephen Covey says this, and it’s so true. Have a road map for your church. We have a suggested timeline in the appendix of the book to help pastor search committees. Having a plan and trying to follow it will help avoid frustration in the long run.
So many committees get frustrated at the end of the process and then jump at the first person that says yes. To avoid rushing into the wrong hire, have a road map at the beginning. The most expensive thing you can do for your church is hire the wrong person.
Dave: What’s the most hopeful thing you are seeing now in the process?
William: That they are asking for help early in the process. When I started, I would get calls from committees who had been looking for a year. Now, we get calls from board chairs before the committee is even formed.