In a recent training event for congregational conflict interventionists, one of our CHC team members heard Richard Blackburn, a Lombard Peace Center trainer, say this: “When I look into the history of churches I go into for a conflict intervention, I almost always find they had a bad pastoral transition in the past.”

Wow. Double Wow.

The call process for free churches is a unique and nuanced blend of divine intervention, spiritual discernment, naivety, blended intelligence from the HR world, wishful thinking, unrealistic expectations, and occasional luck and/or providence.

Over the last five years, I have had a ringside seat at the table as process coach with nearly two-dozen Pastor Search Committees. For some, the work has been something akin to spiritual renewal, while others have wondered what they did to make God so angry with them. Working alongside these committees has been entertaining, sad, humbling, inspiring, frustrating, hilarious, and deeply troubling…sometimes all in the same evening!

Here at CHC, we have developed, through trial and error, a much healthier and more robust process than most congregations expect or initially appreciate. We are finding that doing the rigorous work of thoughtful spiritual discernment, combined with appropriate congregational self-study, making use of best practices from multiple vocations, and blended with a humble spirit of proactive invitation produces a much higher likelihood of a successful and mutually satisfying call to a new pastor.

One truth that is rapidly emerging is the critical importance of two specific windows during the call process. Both have to do with beginnings.

The first is the initial formation period for the committee.
The second is the first 100 days of a new pastor’s tenure.

In both cases, a series of healthy, spiritually sensitive, and thoughtful practices can make a world of difference in the outcome of the search and call process.

Critical Beginning #1: The Committee’s Formation
The beginning of any search process actually starts with an ending of the previous minister’s tenure. Ending well is a key predictor for the success of your next pastor. Even when circumstances are difficult, there is a right and gracious way for a congregation to manage closure.

There are often mixed emotions at a time of departure, but our experience is that congregations that are generous and magnanimous in spirit reap a huge return on that investment. Conversely, congregations that pout, are petty, or willfully ignore deeper truths often plant the seeds of dissent within the congregational system for the next pastor to harvest.

As much as possible, we encourage congregations to celebrate a minister’s tenure and err on the side of gratitude and confidence in the providential leadership of God’s Spirit.

The initial formation of the committee begins with the method a congregation uses in selecting the transition and/or search committee. A potential committee that is carefully nominated to the church body by a small group is most likely to meet the criteria listed below. Wise churches invite nominations from the congregation but are not bound by the frequency of those nominations.

The make-up of the search committee is an essential and controllable factor in the search process. Thus, a church can construct a matrix of variables for committee members that are managed by a thoughtful nomination process. Representation must consider factors like gender, tenure, theological diversity, age, worship preference, denominational loyalty, ethnicity, internal/external focus, personality types, etc.

Some of the most unfortunate call experiences we have observed begin when a committee is simply elected by popular vote in a congregation. Such a process invites imbalance and is prone to manipulation, even if unintentional. I heard of one pastor search committee elected by popular vote whose members were nearly all in or related to the adult choir. A similar story recently came our way about a large Sunday School class being over-represented. Such block voting by small groups in the church, even if unintentional, has the potential to skew the committee’s makeup and impact the effectiveness of the search.

Once a committee is nominated and elected, the temptation is to jump in quickly and begin the active search process as soon as possible. Two hard-learned suggestions:

  1. Invite some objective external voice to coach your search committee process and begin with an intensive orientation to the new realities of pastoral search. It really isn’t the same as hiring at the plant, or in the school system or at the hospital or when you last called a pastor.
  2. Take the time to do a thorough congregational self-study that explores deeply how your congregation came to be, where you are today, and where you sense God is leading you. If you use an interim pastor or a congregational coach, they can probably be of help with this. Many resources for this work exist; use them!

These simple suggestions can get the process off to a healthy start and dramatically increase the likelihood of a healthy call.

Critical Beginning #2: The Pastor’s First 100 Days
The first 100 days of your new pastor’s tenure is a one-time-only opportunity to start well and establish healthy patterns that will last many years. Rather than leave a good beginning to chance, many churches are realizing how vital it is to plan those days well.

We have begun offering coaching to pastors as they enter a new congregational system for those vital first 14 weeks of ministry. Using insights from many sources and a wide array of experiences, we invite the pastor and congregation to break those first 100 days into ten 10-day blocks of time. They then use those time units wisely to address critical opportunities and issues that merit immediate attention. Those who have tried this proactive and thoughtful approach report a remarkable return on the investment in terms of early momentum, a strong sense of clear purpose and met expectations.

These two windows of beginning only last a few days, but have a disproportionate amount of influence upon the long-term impact of a minister. Pay attention and reap the benefit of a healthy beginning.

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.