The process of searching for a new pastor is one of the most crucial and important seasons in the life of a church.  During this season, there is often grief over the resignation or retirement of the previous pastor, and there is both excitement and anxiety at the prospect of beginning the next chapter with a new minister.

Many terms are thrown around interchangeably.  For example, a church may refer to the temporary minister as an interim pastor, a supply pastor, or a transitional pastor.  And a church may refer to those designated to lead the search as a pulpit committee, a pastor search committee, or a pastor search team.  Then as the mission of this search group is discussed, some may say that their ultimate goal is to “call” a new pastor, while others may say their aim is to “hire” a new pastor.

Are the words that we use in a search process important? While some words may be interchangeable, I want to suggest that some of the words we choose to use to describe the process actually have prescriptive implications.

For example, when searching for a new pastor, I propose there is an implicit difference between a “call” and a “hire.”  Although the terms “call” and “hire” are often used loosely and interchangeably, each have different connotations.  These two words, consciously or subconsciously, imply differing expectations for the pastoral function. For example, when we “call” a pastor, we usually expect that pastor to lead us.  When we “hire” a pastor, we often have a notion that the pastor will work for us. 

And the methodology between a call and a hire are different. The process of calling is prayer-intensive and mission-centric. The process of hiring is preference-intensive and market-centric.  The approach a church uses and the language a church chooses may determine whether they become a congregation of ministers or an aggregation of spectators.

Vocational ministry is a unique calling. A church that wants to hire a pastor often resorts to advertising an opening, interviewing candidates, and hiring a candidate as soon as possible.  Many good churches have “hired” excellent pastors through this process across the years.  But many churches have also hired pastors who have a troubled past, whose gifts do not match the needs of the congregation, or who are expected by the church to work for the congregation rather than equipping the congregation to engage in the work of ministry.

A healthy pastor search process built on the goal of “calling” a new pastor can lead to a healthy long-term relationship between the pastor and congregation.  A healthy discernment process involving the search team and church members can lead to a more effective congregational ministry under the next pastor’s leadership.

What are the traits of a healthy call process?

  • Develop an honest church profile.  Explore your congregational DNA and evaluate where the most fertile soil is for your future ministry. Own your strengths and your weaknesses. Healthy ministry is contextual, and a good church profile describes the congregational and community context in which the next chapter of ministry will be written.
  • Build a realistic pastor profile.  Rather than focusing on demographic characteristics such as age, education, and years of experience (which are important but not the most important factors), focus instead on character.  Ask what kind of person do we need to serve as our pastor?  How does the candidate relate to all generations?  How can the candidate’s portfolio of experience help us to leverage our kingdom potential?
  • Proactively recruit candidates that match your profile.  Years ago search teams would advertise an “opening” and rely on respondents to populate their candidate list. However, many of the best candidates for your church are not looking to move and will not respond to an ad.  While it is possible that advertising will connect you with that one candidate who is “just right” for your church, advertising often leads to large quantity of candidates but not necessarily quality candidates.  To recruit the best candidates, request candidate recommendations from trusted pastors and church leaders who are acquainted with your congregation’s context and potentiality, and/or consider enlisting a veteran pastoral transition coach who can guide the recruiting process.  
  • Be transparent and authentic during the interview stage.  Ask honest questions and invite the candidate to do the same.  Highlight the positive aspects of your heritage, then move quickly to your vision for the future. It isn’t necessary to revisit all the skeletons in your church’s history closet but make it a point to be forthcoming about the major obstacles and opportunities awaiting the next minister. 
  • Communicate clearly with the congregation.  Clear and relevant communication is important throughout the search process, but it is critical during the final stages as the church is invited to affirm the call.  The pastor search team can review their journey leading up to the call and provide compelling reasons as to how they chose the candidate being presented in view of a call. The pastor search team may also want to underscore the reasons the candidate senses a call to their specific congregation as well. 

While I am confident that the Spirit guides search teams, congregations, and pastoral candidates during a search process, I am equally confident that the Spirit guides us by employing our best human faculties including insight, intelligence, and intuition to lead us to make the right “call.”

Don’t settle for hiring a pastor.  Seek the guidance of the Spirit and the best tools of congregational discernment as you prepare to call your next pastor.

Many churches find it helpful to retain a transitional coach or consultant, such as those available from groups like the Center for Healthy Churches.  A transitional coach or consultant can guide your congregation through a healthy discernment and search process, and network with you to connect your search team with viable and reliable candidates for your congregation.

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.