When I was a senior in high school, I was elected as the youth representative to the Pastor Search Committee at my home church.  I had already shared with my church family my sense of call to ministry, so it was an informative and inspiring experience to see firsthand how a Baptist call process works. 

The church elected eight of us to the Search Committee. In the first meeting, I remember feeling a little intimated by the wealth of experience around the table. But as members began expressing their hopes and their ideal traits of our next pastor, I remember thinking, “This crew will never come to agreement on a pastoral candidate.” 

Back in those days, prior to video sermons and internet sermon links, search committees would collect names and recommendations from church members and neighboring pastors, then get in the car Sunday after Sunday to go hear a different preacher.  And most of the candidates we considered were just across town. According to my recollection, the farthest distance we traveled to hear a candidate was about an hour.

Over a period of weeks, this diverse search team began to gel.  As we prayed for wisdom and discernment, and as we dialogued about what God might have in store for our rural congregation, our hearts and minds synchronized.  Then one Sunday, we visited a church to hear a candidate, and at the lunch table following the service, we all sensed the Spirit leading us to explore this candidate more deeply. And a couple of weeks later, we all agreed that we believed God was leading us to recommend this candidate to our church as our next pastor. It was a rewarding experience.

A lot of factors have changed since that first search process I participated in over 40 years ago. Here are just a few of the variables that have influenced the ways churches look for a new pastor:

  • The internet has made candidates around the country more accessible.
  • Churches are less likely to look for candidates in their own local communities.
  • Video conferencing tools such as Skype have made it possible to conduct preliminary interviews without traveling to the candidate’s location.
  • Confidentiality is exponentially more challenging due to the proliferation of communication devices.
  • Committees tend to focus more on a candidate’s disposition toward the whole portfolio of pastoral responsibilities, and just the central task of preaching.
  • Criminal and financial background checks are more readily available and unfortunately, more necessary.
  • References are usually easier to contact by cell phone and video chat.
  • There is a greater realization of the need to call a pastor whose strengths are compatible with the potential and personality of your specific congregation.
  • Many state conventions have minimized or eliminated minister relations staff members who once assisted in orienting and guiding churches in the pastor search process.
  • Search teams tend to place more emphasis on the character, spiritual depth, and emotional intelligence (EQ) of the candidate than on demographic parameters such as age, experience, and education. 

Calling a new pastor is one of the most important decisions a church will ever make. Among all the variables that have shifted across the years there is at least one thing that hasn’t changed: A healthy process of due diligence and spiritual discernment is imperative to making a wise decision in calling your next minister.

There really is more than one way to discover, vet, and call your next pastor. Here are 5 models or paradigms that a church might consider for their pastor search process:

  1. Traditional search model: In a traditional search, much like the search committee that I served on in high school, the church elects a search team that solicits resumes, conducts interviews, and nominates a candidate to the congregation. However, the search team will prayerfully utilize the best resources of communication and technology to research candidates, develop a short list, and then make site visits only to top two or three candidates during the final stages of their process.
  2. Pastor-in-waiting model: In this model, a church will engage in a strategic plan to call a co-pastor or associate pastor who is pre-designated to be the next senior pastor upon the retirement or departure of the current senior pastor. This model provides continuity and provides the incoming pastor an opportunity to become more familiar with the day to day operations and the unique personality of the church before assuming the senior pastor role. A church may choose to use a traditional model, a search firm, or an advanced search process to call the pastor-in-waiting.
  3. Pastor succession model: Some churches choose to adopt a direct succession model. In this paradigm, once the current pastor gives notice to the church of his or her pending retirement or transition, the search for the next pastor begins while the current pastor continues serving. The aim of this model is that the new pastor will immediately succeed the outgoing pastor without an interim season between. This model tends to only be effective in a healthy congregation where visioning and appreciative inquiry have been implemented effectively under the outgoing pastor’s leadership.
  4. Employing a pastor search firm: Pastor search firms, which operate much like a religious “headhunting” service, are gaining popularity among some churches. In this approach, the church contracts with a pastor search firm such as Slingshot Group, Vanderbloemen Group, or Shepherd’s Staff to work with the church to establish search criteria, and then to bring the Pastor Search Committee a candidate or small group of candidates matching those criteria for consideration. While reviews are sometimes mixed regarding the effectiveness of search firms, when I speak with churches who have experienced a successful search with a search firm, they are quick to highlight the importance of the firm providing a competent representative to oversee the search, and the intentionality of the Pastor Search Committee in exercising spiritual discernment when evaluating candidates brought by the search firm. 
  5. Advanced candidate search: The Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) now offers an “advanced candidate search process.” This model, which is a hybrid of the best of search practices, merges the positive attributes of a traditional candidate search with the wisdom of a veteran pastoral network. Using the tools of your congregational storyline, appreciative inquiry, and a strategic visioning process, a CHC coach will guide your church to create a representative church profile and a focused candidate profile. Then CHC will compile a short list of top tier candidates who match the candidate profile and have convictional congruence with the church profile. This list, along with accompanying biographical data and preaching links, will be presented to the Pastor Search Team who will be able to begin deeper exploration into more serious candidates more quickly than in a traditional search model. In other words, in an advanced search process, rather than beginning with a stack of 100 resumes, the search committee begins with approximately 10 prime candidates who have been selected not necessarily because they are looking to move, but because they have a remarkably high level of compatibility with the mission and profile of the congregation.

The transitional season between pastoral tenures can be a time of growth and maturity for your congregation.  If your church is beginning a search for a new pastor, never underestimate the leadership of the Spirit. Likewise, be assured that the Spirit uses multiple tools to empower the Pastor Search Committee and the congregation as they navigate the opportunities and obstacles on the road to calling a new pastor.

At the Center for Healthy Churches, we believe that “A healthy church is a community of Jesus followers with shared vision, thriving ministry, and trusted leadership.” Our team of coaches and consultants stand ready to assist your congregation as you affirm your vision for the future, as your congregation adopts the best practices of ministry, and when your congregation enters a season of pastoral transition. 

Barry Howard
Dr. Barry Howard retired in 2017 after spending 39 years in pastoral ministry. He served the last 12 years as the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church Pensacola. He completed his coach training at the Pastoral Institute in Columbus, Georgia and he has a natural talent for fostering healthy practices among clergy and congregations. He is a coach for CHC.