Firing and Hiring Ministers: The Search Committee

I just received an email asking an important question I can’t recall having addressed before. I asked for and received permission to post an edited version of the question —

Jay:  I’m a recent convert to your “One in Jesus” brilliance…thanks so much for doing it.  I don’t know how you churn out so much material on a daily basis!

Our church just went through a preacher-less span.  During that time, the task of seeking out and hiring a new preaching minister was given to a search team, composed of a cross-section of elders, staff, and members.  The new hire was announced.  It was the first time 99% of us had seen his face or heard his voice.

I would prefer the “good ole days” procedure of having tryouts.  I know the drawbacks.  When I asked one of the search team members why we weren’t having tryouts, he said that they feared the cliques that would inevitably occur – with one group liking the guy and another detesting him.  I also know that it places the tryout preacher in an awkward situation, with him not necessarily wanting his congregation to know he’s looking elsewhere for work.

But to me, these reasons are not enough.  I think the members deserve to hear the candidates in person and then be given the opportunity for input.  This is the second time I have been a part of a church that has handled the process this way.  The first time resulted in a ho-hum hire, and now, 5 years later, that particular congregation is treading water.  I fear the same for the group with whom I now worship.

What’s your take on this?

Hiring a pulpit man is always a tough process. I’ve been through several searches over the years, two where I was a significant participant. Here are some of the problems the search committee faces —

* There’s much more to a hire than great pulpit skills. Some great speakers are lousy at the other parts of the job. The church may favor the best speaker not realizing his deficiencies in other areas.

* Try-out sermons guaranty that word will get back to the man’s original congregation — and he may well not want to announce his job search until he’s found a new job.

* Nowadays, a search committee can often listen to sermons via CD or even internet download — often without the preacher even knowing he’s being considered. They may have heard literally dozens of his sermons by the time the hiring decision is made. The congregation will have only heard his one “try out” sermon, which will be his very best stuff and may not be typical.

* Some churches insist on hearing the top three or so candidates, but there’s often only one or two candidates that the committee would actually recommend. Is it fair to the man trying out and to the church to have a man speak if there’s no real chance that he’ll be hired?

* Particularly in larger churches, the standards can be quite high, and there may only be one candidate that the committee really wants. They may have to recruit him. Indeed, rather than one church having 3 or 4 candidates trying out, the preacher may have a choice among 3 or 4 congregations — and may not be willing to wait until other candidates are found and try out. The committee may have to pull the trigger right away or lose the chance to hire a rare talent.

* The clique comment mentioned in the question is a serious one. If three men try out, the church may split three ways on who to hire. How is this to be prevented?

* On the other hand, if the congregation feels no ownership in the decision, or the committee badly misses the heart of the church and hires the wrong man, bad things happen. Is it fair to ask a man to step in when the church had no input in the decision to hire him? How is the church to feel like he’s their preacher when they had no input?

And so, what’s the solution? What’s the best way to hire a preacher so that the church has input, feels ownership, and bad choices are avoided?


14 Responses

  1. First of all, I doubt there is a single solution for all. But I suggest one of the first things to consider is getting congregation input up front on what criteria should be applied during the search process. And perhaps even having the congregation participate in selecting the search committee.

    Is it too radical to have a vote on who should be on the search committee?

  2. Hoping not to sound like a Luddite, but I sometimes think things have gotten too scientific. We need congregations to commit themselves to a serious time of prayer and fasting when facing such decisions.

    As is, it usually comes down to the same thing as the business world… who do you know.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. One thing I’m curious about is the size of the search committee…the larger it is, the more likely it will do the will of the people, it seems. But if too large, it becomes unwieldy and maintaining the necessary secrecy is more problematic.

  4. No magical pill here but another idea. One place where I attended would send search committee members to hear a prospective candidate on a Sunday where the person currently preaches.

  5. Speaking from a ministers point of view, the tryout process is a horrible crucible to endure. Your every feature being examined and scrutinized along with your family. “He didn’t speak to me.” “He spoke to brother so-in-so too long.” “His wife didn’t seem too friendly.” and so on and so on.

    I feel confident that I could go to any congregation in the country, preach two sermons and be considered one of the leading candidates for the position if sermon presentation is the leading factor. Not because I’m that good, but because I have two sermons that I have delivered several times that are that good. But am I the right “fit” for the congregation? Does my personality fit the congregation?

    Interview, research, do your homework for anyone interested in the position. If you want to know how a man is as a speaker then listen to his podcast, if he doesn’t have a podcast, send someone to hear him without letting him know. These two methods ensure you have an honest representation of his abilities.

  6. I loved this article. It is a thought provoking issue that each congregation will have to “muddle through” in their own way. I said, “amen”, to Mitchell’s reply. As a minister, the hiring process can be a horrible time. However, the best process I went through in 30 years of ministry was one where the elders did a lot of homework. They called men who were possibly looking to relocate and filled them in on the congregation and asked if that would be something they would be interested in pursuing.

    Then these elders, without my knowledge, came to the congregation where I was currently the minister. They didn’t ask the members a lot of questions, but they observed the spirit of the congregation and how I fit in with them. They then culled the list to 4 men and asked them to come meet the congregation and preach.

    This is where it got interesting. After the last man had spoke, they gave the congregation paper ballots and said, “Which guy is your favorite?” The plan was to collect the ballots and the bottom guy would be eliminated. They would then hand out papers again and ask, “Now which guy do you favor?” And again, the bottom guy would be eliminated. They would then, again, poll the congregation and have one man that had the majority support.

    I can see where there would be problems with this in some congregations, but it worked really well in this congregation and no man came into the work with 33 1/3% of support.

  7. Oops, one clarification. The men came in on consecutive weeks. They didn’t just line us up like a game of Red Rover. Sorry I wasn’t more clear. (Communication is my life.) 🙂

  8. I agree with the first commentor who says there is not one solution that fits all situations. But when we hired our pulpit minister about five years ago, we brought in one person (generally recognized as an individual with rare gifts). He came for a weekend, met with different groups of the church, and preached on Sunday. At the next midweek we asked the church whether they wanted to extend an offer. They did, we did, and he accepted.

    When hiring a youth ministry couple, we brought in two candidate couples on separate weekends, with a similar agenda to the pulpit process described above. After both had come and gone, we gathered input from the congregation. Then a group consisting of elders and wives, minister and wife, and pertinent deacons and wives (who had responsibilities directly related to our teens) met. We asked them each to write on a piece of paper their first choice (or to indicate that neither choice was satisfactory). The results were unanimous, and we hired the couple that was selected.

  9. From a CENI point of view, wouldn’t you have to cast lots to make the selection? (Acts 1:26).

  10. My first response is this. How was it done in the earliest days of the church? I doubt there was any “try outs”.

    Secondly, I agree with Tim Archer’s comment. Praying together is the missing ingredient in many church issues.

    I have served on two search committies. The first man we asked both times was eventually chosen. Once we had made our selection we invited the man to come preach and told the congretation he was our recommendation. In both situations the congregation agreed with us and the first stayed 22 years and the second (at a different congregation) for about 3 years. In the last case it was the right man, wrong church.

    There is no right way to hire a pulpit man but prayer is the place to start. He is to be the man with God’s message to the people every week. He is not an activity director, psycologist, or office manager. His number one job should be “prayer and the ministry of the Word”.

    Isn’t it sort of odd for sheep to have “input” into the selection of the shepherd? lol


  11. The hiring and firing of preachers or any church personnel is one of the reason progressivism exist within our theology. The idea here is a merging of church business and church profiteering. The only difference is we conclude the profit is spiritual in nature rather than monetary. The truth is (and we all know this) we look for measurable results. It is these results whether in better giving or growing congregation we believe we get our moneys worth! Is it Christ like and apart of the church Jesus intended? Well its hard to say.

    But we know this the system has its flaws. How sad it is to fire a preacher and what in the world does it mean? What does it mean to hire a preacher or youth minister worship leader a preschool worker? Do Elders ever apologize to the wife or kids for the father they just fired? What if we really do need to fire someone for a flagrant error? Anyone who has talked to the church insurance agent knows what I mean the reason your church insurance is a 4000.00 to 6000.00 dollars a year.

  12. Stop using full time preachers all together. What would Paul say? Most people would not hire Paul. He didn’t get along with the religious leaders. He was in prison and many other things that would automatically disqualify most preachers. The best people to teach to those who already believe are someone from another congregation because they know they can really speak their mind and then go home. The best people to minister to the lost are those who know what it is really like to feel and be lost.

  13. As a seasoned minister I can share with you that until you have been a part of a preacher search process, it is impossible for one to truly understand the dynamics that must occur from both sides of the table. I have been on both sides of the debate…as a part of the committee and as the one being examined. And both places are indeed very different.

    Too often, the preaching candidate is put under an unbelievable magnifying glass only to have the church do everything possible to hide their own blemishes from the candidate. That is totally dishonest but yet it is reality! You are asking a candidate to make a huge commitment to your congregation; physically, mentally, spiritually and financially. If it doesn’t work out they are often the ones who suffer the most. They can’t just go down the street and find another job, they must relocate and that often means a financial hardship. Truth be known, it is almost impossible for a candidate to gather the information he needs to know about a church before he makes a commitment to you. Things such as: leadership strength; willingness of the church to support new ideas; internal attitudes and strife; financial stability; personal habits of the members; and the list could go on!

    As a candidate, when you ask me to “try out” you are asking me to put my best foot forward. However, the congregation often comes to church with intentions to hear the “tryout” not the word of God. Thus, they come with a critical ear rather than an ear for the Word of the Lord. That makes a huge difference in how the speaker is received. Some will be tired and not ready to listen; others have plenty on their plate that day and are distracted; still others have one of many personal agendas they are listening to see if they will be fulfilled. Thus the audience is not always at their best which leads to different opinions of the speaker. And no matter how good a job the candidate does, you are placing him in a gun fight with one bullet in his gun. He can’t kill all the “wants” with only one bullet.

    And speaking personally, as a minister of the Gospel…I am called to speak from my heart; to allow God’s spirit to speak to me in my study and preparation so that I can tell the story in a moving, relevant and meaningful manner. As soon as you put me (personally) in a situation where I must “perform”, I am no longer allowing the Spirit to speak through me. Instead, I am speaking as a man who is trying to “impress” people. That is so opposite of what we as preachers are called to do.

    I might suggest that there are more important steps that a church must walk through in order to ready themselves for their next teacher of the Word. If a congregation goes through the right steps and properly prepares themselves through self-examination and evaluation, then the input that people desire in the process can be objectively received and considered long before the process of ‘looking for’ a new preacher ever begins. Sadly, this process usually does not occur until the search process begins. The early interviewees are the ones who usually wind up steering the church through the steps of a search process as something is learned in each new interview that eventually leads the church to arrive at an understanding of what they are looking for in a new minister. But that unfortunately leaves the majority of the congregation out of the process since they are not involved in the interviewing. Therefore they feel the need to pass judgment on the final selection. That can cause division, especially if there are multiple candidates and a difference of opinions within the congregation. And once a selection has been made, the new preacher must then deal with the negative attitudes of those within the church who would have preferred another selection. (I was once told by a person that they preferred another candidate because that man wanted to rent a home instead of buying…and of course this person had houses to rent) When they should be allowed to enter the new ministry work with a “clean sheet of paper” instead they must now start by changing opinions others have already formed of them.

    However, if the people of the congregation are properly included in the process early on so that they feel that they had input in the job description, family qualities and giftedness of the next preacher; then the selection committee will have a stronger and more concise mandate from the church and understand the specific qualifications they are looking for in a candidate before the first interview takes place. That results in a much higher probability of finding the man that God intends for the church to hire. Then when they present the man to the church they are merely seeking confirmation of a choice already made based on input already received.

    It all starts with prayer, lots of prayer. Followed by lots of self-examination. Then consultation with those who know how to lead a church through this process such as college professors who deal with churches and ministers all the time. They have an impartial view of your church and the process.

    Most of all, remember that no one is perfect…including preachers! So show some mercy and grace, to the selection committee and the candidates. Everyone is working for the same goal…the right man for the right church.

    And most of all, try and remember that Jesus taught us to take the log out of our own eye before we try and find the speck in someone else’s eye. That’s just good advice in general.

    God Bless!

  14. Don,

    Thanks for your wise counsel. I’ve never been a preacher, and so it’s especially helpful to hear what it’s like from the preacher side of the pulpit.

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