6 Mistakes Search Committees Make When Looking For A Senior Pastor
By: Jay Mitchell February 26, 2021
We are often asked to help churches and pastor search committees find a Senior Pastor after a hire that turned out badly or when they are struggling to identify good candidates on their own. As our team dug into what went wrong with the previous hire or why they’ve not been able to agree on what appeared to be highly qualified candidates, we've seen a few common threads among their missteps.
Pastor search committees, watch out for these six hiring mistakes when searching for your next Senior Pastor.
1. Overreaction to a previous pastor's style, personality, or ministry approach
We call this mistake the “pendulum swing.” Every Senior Pastor has both strengths and weaknesses. Over time, those strengths are often merely accepted while the weaknesses become more apparent. When a Lead Pastor moves on, it’s natural for a search committee to focus on shoring up those areas of weakness in a new Senior Pastor.
When this happens, the micromanager pastor with mediocre people skills is replaced with a laissez-faire pastor who loves the people but doesn’t have leadership gifts to move the church toward a new vision. Then when that new leader isn’t effective, the church will swing to the driven workaholic that people don’t enjoy working with. Rather than get caught in this pendulum swing, a better approach is for pastor search committees to affirm the positive qualities in the last Senior Pastor and to find a person who possesses some of those qualities while excelling in some of the qualities that the previous Lead Pastor lacked.
Set your expectations for their role during the interview process to leave no questions about the traits and approach you’re looking for this hire to bring.
2. Unrealistic expectations combined with a lack of clear priorities
When we launch a Senior Pastor search and sit down with the search team, we usually hear something like this: “We want a great leader who preaches compelling messages and will be a shepherd to our people. Ideally, they will be between the ages of 32-42 (to connect with a younger demographic), married with kids, coming from a church larger than ours, and willing to take a pay cut to move here.“
In other words, they want Jesus, but married with kids. The reality is, however, that there are no perfect Senior Pastors. Every Senior Pastor candidate is a real person with real strengths and real weaknesses. Remember that these weaknesses are also what makes them human and able to relate to and sheppard your congregation.
Before launching a search for a new Senior Pastor, take some time to determine your priorities in what you really need in the next Senior Pastor. What qualities are “must have” and what are the “nice to have” traits? What experience level would be required, and what would be preferred? How open are you to either end of your preferred age range? Once you have all your priorities listed, ask yourselves, "How realistic is it to find these qualities, gifts, and experiences in one person?"
Next, go through each of your priorities and rank them, giving the greatest weight to your top priorities. Which one(s) on your list are you willing to let go of in order to get your top priorities met? Also, be prepared to throw out your list when God makes it clear which candidate He has chosen to be your new Senior Pastor. Remember that David had none of the outer qualities and experiences needed to be King when God called him.
3. Not recognizing that candidates can adapt to new cultural realities
Another mistake that pastor search committees often make is pigeonholing a candidate based on their current church setting. “They are wearing a suit and tie in this teaching sample, so they are too formal to work here.” “They preach in jeans, and we are more traditional here.” “They have been living in the Midwest; they can’t adapt to a more laid-back California style.” Etc., etc.
Elite candidates will be able to adapt in order to best serve the congregation to which they’ve been called.
This has been the case since the Apostle Paul. Rejecting a candidate because of their style of dress or even their communication style without exploring how they might adapt to a new setting (or how they’ve adapted from a former setting) is short-sighted and limiting.
COVID-19 has made a lot of churches reconsider their approach, especially now that online is such a huge platform for messages. Even if some candidates are different than your typical hire, consider what strengths they could bring to the table and the new initiatives they might be able to pursue if you were to hire them before you discount them as an option. If they’re strong with technology or unique community outreach, they could be a good addition to your team, especially during this time.
4. Not budging from one specific preaching style
I once worked on a pastor search for a church following the retirement of a beloved pastor who was known for being an excellent preacher and teacher of the Word. The new candidates preached in a very different style from the former pastor, and the search committee almost eliminated one of their top candidates because they didn’t like the new style.
Over time, however, they realized that different didn’t mean ineffective. Once they got to know this candidate as a person, they began to really appreciate his style of communicating God’s word in a relevant way. That church has been one of the fastest growing churches in the country over the last couple of years. In a way, every church is different after COVID-19, so it’s a great time to revisit your priorities to determine if there are adjustments that need to be made.
5. Solely focusing on preaching as measure of a successful pastor
While one of the most important measures of any Lead Pastor is the quality of the teaching, it’s also true that it should not be the ONLY measure of a Senior Pastor. You’d be surprised how many times when I’m launching a new Senior Pastor search that I hear this: “He was a great communicator, but he never connected with our people personally,” or “The man could preach, but the church staff didn’t like him, and we lost a lot of people.”
Preaching is important, but without the relational and leadership gifts, along with a high emotional intelligence, hiring a great communicator alone can do more harm than good. In the long run, it's far better to have a good, solid communicator who has great leadership skills and vision than a great communicator who leaves a trail of broken relationships in his wake.
Now more than ever, it’s critical to have a hyper-localized pastor who knows his congregation deeply. 2020 created an enormous amount of loneliness, depression, and fear, and the most successful pastors were those whose focus was to speak to those needs in a personal way. Creativity, service, and agility were also critical necessities for pastors last year, and this will likely not change moving forward.
6. Overemphasis on educational background and degrees
I’m a huge fan of education. Knowing how to rightly handle the scriptures and navigate complex theological issues is hugely important in any Senior Pastor, and often those skills are best learned through advanced education. A Master's Degree or a Doctorate (whether a Ph.D or D.Min) is great, but if those degrees are not grounded in real world application, you could be getting a great professor who doesn’t know how to lead a church staff.
I would rather look for someone who is a life-long learner who will do whatever it takes to figure something out - even if that doesn’t result in a formal degree - than someone who has all the book learning in the world but can’t apply it. Some of the most effective pastors leading some of the healthiest and impactful churches have nothing more than a Bachelor's degree. Be sure to balance your desire for an advanced degree with a track record of healthy leadership and real world impact.
A great question to ask future hires is specific ways they handled the Coronavirus pandemic. Ask about their strategy shutting down and moving to online, reopening, and serving their congregation along the way.
What are some ways your pastor search committee can avoid these mistakes?