How NOT to Fall in Love With Your Unicorn Candidate


When launching a search, our team of experts starts by conducting an essential exercise: We “dream up the unicorn” to establish criteria for the ideal candidate. While this step is crucial for isolating the key traits to look for, there’s one problem. 

There’s temptation during this time to form too concrete of an image. We dream up our perfect candidate and then fall in love, forgetting that this exact person doesn’t really exist. You’d be surprised how easy it is to fall in love with an imaginary unicorn.

As one of our team’s Executive Search Consultants, Rick Callahan is a pro at finding real, amazing people to fill vacant positions. Here’s his guide for how to keep the ideal in mind while searching for the real. It’s how NOT to fall in love with an imaginary unicorn:

First, identify your non-negotiable criteria.

What core traits make the unicorn a good fit for your church specifically? Consider a couple of culture-fit traits, a couple of qualifications, and a characteristic that a candidate would not be considered a unicorn without. Once you’ve isolated those, begin to loosen your grip on the rest of your unicorn’s qualities. You may still find many of these bonus traits, but attempting to keep them all will only prolong your search.

Of the remaining criteria, determine what percentage you're okay with not having.

Now that you’ve loosened your grip on the ideal, sift through the remaining traits and allow yourself to recognize which qualities are “highly preferred.” If a candidate does not possess these traits, you don’t have to rule them out, but you can call them a “maybe.” You don’t want to be so blinded by what you thought you needed that you can’t see the unicorns in front of you.

When sifting through candidates, identify positives before negatives.

Look for the positives of every candidate as opposed to trying to find what is hidden or what you might have missed. When the first questions asked are oriented around, “Why this person is not what we’re looking for,” the likelihood of finding a candidate who fits decreases exponentially. Since your unicorn will look different from the imaginary, you have to view each candidate with a more positive lens. How does he/she fit (rather than fail) our essential criteria?

Meet potential candidates face-to-face.

Follow the recommendation of your consultant by actually talking face-to-face (yes, video counts) with the candidate before making a final judgment about them. Carefully edited video snippets and a resume cannot capture all of a candidate’s qualities. What you know about the candidate through the content they send in the early stages is just the tip of the iceberg.

The decision is the Lord’s.

When it comes to God’s Kingdom, the leader He taps on the shoulder doesn’t always look like someone from central casting. Remember how King David got selected – Samuel knows there are seven who look the part, but none were God’s man. There was another who didn’t look like Samuel thought he should (1 Samuel 16).

Remember your context. 

Many good churches of small to medium size hope for the caliber of skill they see in a person with a national following and influence. “They need to speak like Tim Keller, or Craig Groeschel, or Francis Chan [or fill in your favorite speaker].” These churches need a gentle reminder to match their expectations with the church’s. A weekly attendance of 200 is magnificent inside a small town, but expectations need to be right-sized. 

Conversely, larger churches often expect hit worship singers like Brandon Lake, Phil Wickham, Amanda Cook, or Pat Barrett to come off the road to be their next Worship Pastor. They forget that they require their unicorn to have seminary training. When churches hold on to unrealistic expectations, they miss out on the real unicorns filling out applications, eager to serve a church with the ways the Lord has equipped them.

The key is to remember that identifying your next pastor of any kind is an exercise in prayerful discernment. The Lord is training up and equipping qualified pastors for more than what you want or expect in a candidate - the one the Lord appoints may bring what you don’t know you need. Isolate your must-haves, identify any candidates, and pray about discovering who God is tapping on the shoulder to join your team.

Even with all the tips in the world, finding that missing piece can seem impossible. Vanderbloemen would love to partner with you. After meeting with your search team, we search our pool of qualified candidates for your unicorn so that your team can focus on ministry and serving the Kingdom.