Q: Our congregation is searching for a new pastor. Out of the pool of available applicants, how do we identify and call the right leadership? We want the best fit possible. 

A: The work of the calling committee (or pastoral search committee) is crucial in avoiding later conflict. In fact, an informal analysis has shown that 70 percent of conflicts between a pastor and members of the church or governing board can be traced back to inadequacies in the search process. This conflict can begin innocently as a series of misunderstandings about what the committee says the church expects and what the applicant (priest, rector, minister) believes the committee wants. For instance, one church I worked with said they wanted “strong leadership” because the last pastor was too passive. The applicant who was hired said he would provide this, but a year later he was fired for being a dictatorial micro-manager. The nuances of “strong leadership” had never been discussed. Another church’s calling committee said they needed someone with strong pastoral skills, having in mind an ability to counsel individuals and couples in transition, pain, or crisis. The applicant who was hired said he had strong pastoral skills, but he meant that he was good at visiting homes and hospitals. Later, when he was fired, he said he had no skill or interest in pastoral counseling.

The goal of obtaining the right leadership for a congregation actually involves three lesser objectives: (1) determine what kind of leadership is appropriate; (2) make that clear to the applicant; and (3) choose the right applicant out of all who apply. Completing the following three tasks will help the calling committee to achieve those objectives:

1. Conduct a parish self-study. This self-study is designed to determine what kind of church you are. This is where expectations and tasks need to be explicitly defined: What do we mean by “strong leadership” or “good pastoral care”? Questions include:

  • What are the most important values by which we live and minister?
  • What are our major challenges?
  • What are our goals and visions for the future?
  • What would have to happen to make this a “wow” place to worship?

2. Assess applicants in terms of the church’s needs. Select five to 10 people who meet the established criteria and who would get an enthusiastic response from the congregation. This is where an applicant’s track record needs to be explored. It is a truism of the business world that past performance is one of the best predictors of future behavior. So the calling committee needs to ask “how” questions—for example, how has the person run stewardship programs, or youth programs, and what have been the results? Another dimension of selecting pastoral leadership relates to church size—a factor often overlooked in the selection process. Based on its average worship attendance, a church may be categorized as family, pastoral, program, or corporation. With an attendance of fewer than 150 people, the first two types require an emphasis on interpersonal skills such as warmth and friendliness. Larger churches need leaders who are able to build consensus, set visions, and recruit and empower volunteers.

3. Select one applicant through a process of discernment. In the discernment phase, discussion centers on who on the short list of applicants is the best fit for the church’s pastoral leadership. Discernment means carefully listening to one another and to the Holy Spirit. This is a time of prayer, quiet, Bible study, and a focus on the positive qualities of the applicants. Questions here may be more subjective: “Can I talk about very sensitive or personal issues with this person?” “Would I want this pastor with me at my death bed?”

A successful search process might, then, be described as one that achieves balance: Finding a pastor who understands a congregation’s values and who will be called on to help congregants confront life’s challenges means finding a pastor with the right mix of both leadership and interpersonal skills.

Rev. Luther Kramer has been a field consultant with the Alban Institute since 1981. He developed the calling process for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. One of his specialties is training both calling committees and local consultants in how to work with calling committees.