One of the most critical, anxious seasons in a church’s life is the time of transition that follows the choice of a new pastor. More often than not, the task of making sure that transition goes smoothly falls to the church’s lay leaders, who may or may not be equipped to handle such an enormous responsibility.
To help our readers think through the challenges that come with changes in church leadership, The Local Church reached out to William Vanderbloemen, CEO and founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, a firm dedicated to placing leaders in a wide range of faith-based organizations. Vanderbloemen is a recognized expert on pastoral succession with experience ministering as a senior pastor, serving in church leadership teams, and working in human resources for Fortune 500 companies. His latest book, Search, is written to help churches find their next pastor. Here’s what he had to say about how your church can not only survive, but also thrive during the pastor search process:
In your experience, are most churches equipped to search for a new pastor?
The short answer is “no.” Whenever I meet with a pastor search committee, I ask for a show of hands: “Who here has experience hiring a staff member in the corporate realm?” Often, a few hands go up. Then I ask, “Who here has experience hiring a pastor?” More often than not, no hands are raised.
Hiring a pastor is an entirely different animal than hiring in the corporate arena, and search committees don’t know what they don’t know. Not only do churches face the lack of pastor search expertise when they dive into a search process, they also face a huge challenge of time—both their lack of time available to devote to a full-time search and the large amount of time it takes to complete a pastor search. The average church takes 12 to 24 months to find a new pastor when the previous pastor vacates the pulpit. This is a huge challenge to most churches; as momentum and direction is lost, some members leave the church, and giving often goes down as well.
What is the most important way for a church search committee to prepare for a pastoral search?
Before beginning a pastor search, it’s vital for churches to decide how many people will be on the search committee and who will be on the search committee. If you get this part wrong, the rest of your search can be a mess.
Every church’s polity is different, but I typically recommend that the size of the pastor search committees be around seven to eleven people. Making sure the committee is an odd number of people prevents any stalemates when taking any votes. You should also beware of forming a pastor search committee larger than eleven members, since it’s difficult to reach any consensus when there are too many opinions involved. The more differing opinions and voices that need to be heard on your search committee, the longer the pastor search process will take.
Find people for your pastor search committee who have in mind the best interests of the church as a whole and who have broad enough perspective to see beyond their own personal preferences and needs. Select people who have spiritual depth, who have a broad vision for the church and its mission, and who truly want what’s best for the church and not what’s best for them.
Some churches will put a “squeaky wheel” on the committee—the somewhat difficult person who insists on having a say and giving their critique on everything. It may be tempting to put this person on the pastor search committee: you may think, “If we give them a voice in the decision, they won’ t complain about it after the person they chose is here.” While this may seem logical at first, though, it’ s a quick way to torpedo your pastor search. This type of person can bog down the entire process.
What is the one thing search committees often get wrong in their searches?
Too often, pastor search committees fail to establish a communication plan at the beginning of the search. One of the biggest tension points churches have is miscommunication or lack of communication between the committee, the church staff, the congregation, and the candidates. A communication plan minimizes the risk of this tension. Clear and consistent communication of your pastoral transition is paramount to the success of your search; it not only keeps the congregation involved and engaged, but also garners support for the search committee efforts and sets proper expectations for the process and timing of the search. Without effective communication, the church will grow impatient, the chance for gossip increases, and candidates may pull out of the running.
A great way to maintain effective communication with the congregation, staff, and the candidates is through a webpage on the church’s website. There, you can include a job description, contact information, search and timeline updates, and answers to frequently asked questions.
What is something aspiring senior pastors get wrong as they candidate for open positions?
Sometimes, we see candidates who are being unrealistic about the kinds of positions they are qualified for. Not many pastors can make the leap from leading a church of 100 to leading one of 3,000. I advise pastors to be realistic about what is next on their ministry path, always following God’s leading, and to be sure that their resumes and their video teaching samples are up-to-date and are a clear, professional representation of their experience and expertise. Search committees place a huge value on video teaching or preaching samples, so you should make sure yours are high quality and not outdated.
How can church leaders best prepare their congregations for a pastoral transition?
Churches are often tempted to try to protect the congregation from too much information. In doing so, though, they usually create more questions, more controversy, and more division. It is best to be direct and honest. Your church members will feel respected, and in turn, they will give more trust when they know you are being transparent. Tell them what is happening and how the church leadership is moving forward.
Posting a video announcement is a valuable way to help your church community process the transition that is taking place. Not every Senior Pastor transition will have the ability to make this a part of their communication plan, but it is extremely useful when possible. Pastoral transitions are difficult for church members, and allowing them to hear the announcement directly from the pastor will lessen the confusion and hear-say that can often follow a pastor's transition announcement. It also mitigates the chances of people hearing different versions of “what happened.” Finally, it allows everyone to hear at the same time. If you’re in a church with more than one worship service (or more than one campus), serious consideration should be given to a video announcement. In the case of retirement, your outgoing pastor can also write about his succession plan on their personal blog, which is one of the most effective ways pastors can communicate with your church community about their own transition process.
Additionally, we recommend the entire church have a prayer calendar they can pray through together. A sample prayer guide is included in SEARCH as one of the 13 practical search committee appendixes.
You can purchase a copy of Vanderbloemen’s SEARCH: The Pastoral Search Committee Handbook at PastorSearchBook.com.