Searching for a new pastor is nothing new.
But if you're feeling overwhelmed by the thought of finding a new pastor, you’re not alone.
For good, bad, and ugly reasons, pastors often transition.
But look on the bright side.
Since this is the case, there’s a ton of helpful advice out there on how to find your next pastor.
In this post, I created a short guide based on the best available advice to help you put together a pastoral search. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, let me save you some heartache and lay out the four common mistakes to avoid when searching for a new pastor.
4 common pastoral search mistakes
You’re going to make plenty of small mistakes along the way, and that’s okay. But you want to avoid stepping on one of these landmines during your pastoral search. One of them could blow up your entire process. So, tread lightly. 🙂
#1 – Avoid advice
Let me state the obvious:
Finding a new pastor is challenging.
Know what else?
This task isn’t something your church does every day.
In this post, I’m going to share practical advice handed down over years of pastoral search committee experiences. Following these tips will place you on the right track. But there’s one colossal limit this blog post possesses:
It will not turn you into an expert.
Becoming an expert in anything takes time, dedicated practice, and experience.
Does this mean you shouldn’t move forward in your pastoral search?
Far from it.
Here’s what this means:
In your search for a new pastor, don’t overlook your potential lack of experience with hiring people. Instead, be humble. Acknowledge the possibility that you, your church staff, or your church members may not have the skills you need to promptly find the right pastor for your church.
This process isn’t a simple task you can mark off of a church project-management to-do list. The life of your church marches on without a senior pastor, and in his or her absence, you may lose church members, experience a decline in giving, or lose forward momentum. When (not if) this happens, your search for a new pastor will feel more urgent, which can lead your search committee to make a rash decision.
As you prepare to search for a new pastor, consider soliciting advice from outside sources, such as your:
#2 – Searching too fast—or too slow
Timeliness is of the essence.
When it comes to pastoral searches, many churches have erred in two ways:
1. Moving too fast
2. Moving too slow
First of all, there’s no need to move too fast.
Don’t offer the position to the first person you interview. Give yourself and your search committee time to interview several candidates. There’s no need to rush the process.
The other error you want to avoid is moving too slow.
It’s easy to make the position public, receive interest, and then never return an email or phone call. Moving too slow will cost your church the interest of great candidates, and an unnecessarily lengthy search process will negatively influence your church members.
#3 – Lack of communication
Searching for a new pastor is a public (church) thing—not a private matter.
Even though your church may have a board, bishop, or search committee who’ll make the final decision in hiring a senior pastor, you shouldn’t leave your church members in the dark.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget to keep your church up-to-date.
How’s the process going?
Has your search committee narrowed down their list?
Will you invite a candidate to interview soon?
These are just some of the questions your church members are thinking. Instead of tempting them to gossip, it’s best to continually share updates while being open and honest..
Know who else needs to know what’s going on?
People who’ve applied for the position.
As you work through the pool of applicants, be quick to let those who didn’t make your short list know, and provide them with encouraging words to keep pursuing their vocational call to ministry.
Have you identified candidates you’d like to learn more about?
It’s best to let them know as well.
As I shared above, you don’t want to keep your candidates sitting in the dark for too long.
#4 – Unrealistic expectations
Executive skill set.
These are just some of the characteristics you may be looking for in your next pastor, and it makes sense. It’s nice to have someone who can “do it all.”
But here’s the deal:
From vocational ministry to the business world, you’ll never find someone who is or can do everything. So, be careful that you don’t place unrealistic expectations on the pastor you’re searching for that Jesus himself can't fulfill.
In your pastoral search, your search committee will have to define exactly what you’re looking for in a candidate. During this process, be sure to clarify your church’s priorities versus qualities that are nice to have.
A 7-step playbook for finding your next pastor
Now it’s time to get work.
After pouring over a ton of different resources from denominations, networks, and independent churches, I put together this 7-step playbook for finding your next pastor.
Here is the table of contents:
1. Pray, pray, and pray
2. Build a search committee
3. Find an interim pastor
4. Know the vision of your church
5. Know who you’re looking for
6. Review your applications
7. Interview your candidates (thoroughly)
It's time to get started.
#1 – Pray, pray, and pray
At ChurchFuel, we’re practical people—it’s what we do.
We have a biasness for action, and a tendency to act first.
We’re not alone.
As a church leader, you’re beyond busy.
Your schedule (LINK) can be unruly.
You have more work to do than hours to do it.
Now, in the search for a new pastor, you have a huge task to accomplish. At this point, it’s easy just to put your head down, make a plan, and start knocking out the work you need to do like whack-a-mole.
Take a breath and prepare to pray—a lot.
Calling a new pastor to serve your church isn’t a simple task. Sure, you can hire anyone you like. But you want to do more than find a hired hand. You want to discover the next pastor God is calling to lead your church, and this is a spiritual matter that can only be accomplished through prayer.
As you prepare to search for a new pastor, here are three things you’ll need to pray for:
2. Search committee
3. Future candidates
As for wisdom, you need to submit your work to the Lord. Place yourself and your church in his hands, and ask for him to lead the way. A prayer for wisdom isn’t a one-time event. Seeking God’s input through prayer is something you’ll need to do on an ongoing basis.
In your prayers, you’ll also need to pray for your search committee. At this point in the process, you haven’t put together a search committee. But you’ll want to start praying for God to put together the right team.
Don’t stop praying for your search committee after they're formed. You’ll want to lead your church to pray for them throughout this process. So, however you share prayer requests with your church members, be sure to include a call to pray for your search committee.
Finally, you’ll want to pray for your future candidates. Ask the Lord to lead the right person to serve your church, and pray for that person’s well-being and family throughout this process.
#2 – Build a search committee
Remember, searching for a new pastor is a public (church) task.
This is a principle that undergirds finding a new pastor—especially when it comes to forming a search committee. If prayer is the fuel that drives your church, the search committee is the engine behind finding your church’s next pastor.
Since forming a search committee is vital to this process, let’s take a moment to talk about the following:
- What is a search committee?
- How many people should be on your committee?
- Who should be on your search committee?
- What roles should form your committee?
Let’s dig in!
What is a search committee?
A search committee is a group of people in your church who are temporarily organized to find your church’s next pastor. From developing a job description, screening candidates, and setting up interviews, the search committee leads the process of finding your church’s next pastor.
How many people should be on your search committee?
For your search committee, it’s best to have an odd number of people, in the range of 7–11.
An odd number of members will help your team to avoid a stalemate.
Shouldn’t the search committee unanimously agree on the decisions they make?
This would be nice.
But a unanimous decision isn’t necessary.
Here’s the deal:
Your search committee should be made up of people with different perspectives. When this is the case, there’s a good chance that not everyone will agree on whomever your church decides to call as their next pastor.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a bad thing.
When disagreements are present, then your search committee will be able to talk through differences, make a compromise, and move toward the middle in whatever decisions they make.
For your church committee, you don’t want fewer than 7 members, and you want to avoid having more than 11. If you have less than 7 people on your search committee, then there’s a good chance your committee will get overwhelmed by the work and move too slow during the process. On the other hand, if you have more than 11 people, you run the risk of taking too much time to make decisions.
Who should be on your search committee?
Your search committee should reflect your church.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Involvement in the church
- Positions in the church
Regardless of the polity your church does or doesn’t have for selecting a search committee, make sure your committee reflects the life of your church as best as possible. This way you can ensure that this process is a public (church) task.
What roles should form your committee?
Here are the three essential roles you need to fill in your search committee:
- Communications director
The chairperson is the man or woman responsible for leading the search committee. The chairperson’s primary role is to schedule meetings and oversee the work that needs to be done.
The secretary will take notes and help everyone stay on track.
Finally, the communications director is the person responsible for communicating with the church and with the candidates.
Don’t overlook this last position. Without having a dedicated communications director, you run the risk of keeping your church and candidates in the dark or slowing down communication to a standstill.
#3 – Find an interim pastor
In between senior pastors, your church will have a considerable gap to fill—especially in the pulpit.
One idea to consider during this pastoral transition is to identify an interim pastor.
An interim pastor is someone you can hire, an assistant pastor, staff member, or even shared responsibility among your church's leadership. Whatever your church decides, be sure to clarify the most critical work that needs to be done in the absence of your previous pastor, and ensure that someone or a group fulfills these responsibilities.
Here’s what else you need to know:
Having an interim pastor will help you fight the urge to hire someone too fast.
An interim pastor can preach and take on other responsibilities while your church works toward calling its next pastor.
#4 – Know the vision of the church
There’s one vital step your search committee needs to take before moving forward:
Your search committee needs to agree (not by a vote) on the vision of your church.
Thankfully, this isn’t something your search committee will need to define. This is something your church has probably already nailed down in a vision or mission statement. So, your committee won’t have to recreate the wheel at this point.
Here’s why this important:
The mission and vision of your church will influence the type of pastor you call.
In one way, the location of your church (urban, suburban, or rural) will naturally influence the type of pastors who will submit an application or be open to considering serving your church. Differently, your church’s mission, worship style, and philosophy of ministry will also influence what type of pastor you hire.
Here’s what else to keep in mind:
What is your church’s vision for the future?
For the answer to this question, your search committee needs to take stock of where you’re at and what type of pastor you need to help you get to where you want to go. When your team is armed with this information, then they’ll be in a better position to define what type of pastor can help your church fulfill its mission, which leads me to the next point.
#5 – Know who you’re looking for
Creating a job description is one of the first big tasks your search committee will need to complete.
Don’t treat this as a simple task to complete.
This job description is so much more than a random posting on a church staffing website. This description stakes a claim about your church and the type of pastor your church is seeking. What is more, the description you create will also influence the kind of candidates who apply.
When creating the job description or ministry profile, here are specific things you want to include:
- Academic qualifications
- Ordination requirements
- Ministry experience
- Necessary skills
- Personal, familial, and spiritual characteristics
- Job (pastoral) expectations
- Philosophy of ministry
- Ideal ministry setting
- Personal testimony and call to ministry
Don’t rush this process—your search committee won’t be able to complete this in one evening. For a lot of this information, if your church is affiliated with a denomination or network, then you can lean on your network for input.
Keep in mind the future of your church. For example, if your church needs help breaking the 200 barrier, then it’s ideal to find a pastor who has experience doing this.
Know what else?
Depending on the size of your church, you’ll need to be careful of what type of pastor you call. For example, it’ll be difficult for a pastor of a 200-member church to lead a church of 2,000. Can he or she learn how to do this? Sure. Unless you have the time or a transitional plan in place where your current pastor will mentor the next pastor, then prayerfully move forward if your committee “believes” a candidate may fit the bill.
Here’s a different side of this coin to consider:
A pastor transitioning from a solo situation to a team or a team to a solo situation may struggle.
The skills anyone needs—including pastors—to work with or without a team are different. If someone is skilled at being a solo pastor, then he or she will need time, resources, and support to learn how to work well with a team.
If a pastor akin to working with a team is considering a solo pastoral opportunity, then be sure to ask him or her if they’re ready to work without a team. This might seem inconsequential. But the type of work required in a solo setting versus a team setting differs, and the pastor considering a call in this scenario needs to consider this.
#6 – Review your applications
Let’s say you’ve already completed the steps listed above.
What is more, let’s also imagine that a couple of months have already passed, and you’ve received multiple applications.
What do you do next?
Are you supposed to interview every candidate?
After you receive applications, the first step your search committee should take is to create a short list. Based on the criteria you established in the previous step, examine applications and decide whether each candidate fits the qualifications.
At this point, there are three things you can do:
At the first step, you can simply pass on candidates who do not meet the requirements for the position. As a search committee, you need to be prepared to receive applications from candidates who do not meet the qualifications—especially in the area of skills and experience.
In pastoral searches, many people will wrestle with a perceived internal call from God to serve as your next pastor. Some candidates may be called to serve in vocational ministry. But based on their pastoral experience, they are not the right person for your church. In these cases, it’s okay to say no and to let them know as quickly as possible.
During your search, there will be other candidates who you’re on the fence about. In these moments, it’s okay to pause and further explore this candidate. When you run across candidates who you’re not sure about passing on or moving forward with, you can follow up with them to ask a few questions. This can be done via email or someone from your search committee can speak with the candidate directly and report back to the team.
Finally, if an applicant meets the qualifications for the position, you can go—move forward—with interviewing them as a potential candidate, which leads me to the next point.
#7 – Interview your candidates (thoroughly)
Have your short list handy?
Great, now it’s time to move on to the interviews.
How many candidates should you invite to interview?
Well, it depends.
At a minimum, we suggest interviewing at least 3–5 candidates.
Now, when I say interviews, I’m not only talking about a friendly fireside chat over the phone. What I have in mind is inviting the candidate and his or her spouse to visit your church for a few days.
For this process to be effective, you’ll want to schedule 3–4 days and make sure they connect with multiple people and groups, including:
- Church leaders and spouses
- Ministry leaders
- Long-standing members
- Small groups or Bible studies
Basically, you want candidates to meet as many people as possible.
By making multiple connections through your church, you’ll be better able to gauge how well your church members respond to candidates.
What is more, during your interview process, there are three areas you want to look into:
2. Personal life
3. Family life
Let’s take a look at these in detail!
#1 – Experience
When it comes to a candidate’s experience, look closely.
Here are some things to be on the lookout for:
- Bible studies
- Social media accounts
- Supplemental material
When your committee is reviewing a candidate, it’s essential to connect with his or her referrals or recommendations. This is a time-consuming yet vital step you don’t want to skip. There have been plenty of cases of churches who did not connect with a candidate’s referrals, and then discovered months or years later of significant issues that disqualify him or her from the ministry.
Here’s what else you’ll need to do:
Invite your candidates to preach and teach.
At a minimum, you want every candidate you’re seriously considering to preach. It’s one thing to listen to a candidate’s sermons. It's another thing to hear him or her preaching from the Bible for your church.
Also, depending on your church and the candidate’s time, it’s also a good idea to have him or her teach a Sunday school class, lead a small group, or whatever is essential for your church.
Requiring this step will give you and your church first-hand experience of each candidate’s ability to preach and teach.
#2 – Personal life
The pastor you call is your next shepherd.
He or she should be able to set a grace-filled example of what it means to live and love like Jesus.
There’s only one way you can find this out:
By asking each candidate questions, listening, and chatting with referrals.
Here are just some of the questions you’ll want to ask:
- What are your views about [fill in the blank]?
- What do you think about the use of alcohol? Smoking?
- Can you describe your devotional life?
- What place does family have in your life?
- How do you approach sermon preparation?
- Are you involved in your community?
- What hobbies do you have?
There are many more questions you can ask. But this list will get you started.
#3 – Family life
Finally, the last big area you want to explore is a candidate’s family life.
Assuming your candidate is married and has kids, you might ask these questions:.
- How often do you go out with your spouse?
- In what ways are you discipling your children?
- How would you describe your relationship with your spouse?
You don’t want to leave these questions to your candidate. During the interview process, you can also ask his or her spouse similar questions to gauge their relationship.
Before moving on, there’s one last thing I’d like to emphasize:
Require your search committee to maintain strict confidentiality.
It’s okay for your team to speak in general terms. But it’s best for everyone to hold back their thoughts on individual candidates until a final decision is made.
Calling your next pastor
In the end, it’s time for your church to make a decision.
How this decision is made will be influenced by your denomination or network. For example, do you allow your church committee to make a decision or recommendation, does your church’s leadership (elders, deacons, board) make the decision, or does the entire church cast a vote?
To make your decision, we don’t suggest requiring a unanimous vote. Instead, we suggest requiring two-thirds (2/3) of your committee or church to vote in favor of your next pastor.
Regardless of whom you call, your work isn’t done.
It’s now time to partner together with your future pastor to share the gospel, make disciples, and be a light in your community.