How would your church and its board react if your pastor announced today that he or she had accepted a call and would be leaving in two months? Could you manage the journey with the capable effort it deserves?
When your pastor announces that he or she is leaving, whether by retiring or by accepting a call to another church, your congregation embarks on a journey with many way stations. The period of ministry with your church is ending, and another ministry will begin. Closure is necessary. Church boards should acknowledge this change in pastoral leadership with special worship services, a potluck, an open house, or other celebration or recognition. Board members will focus on the termination with the current pastor. They might help determine a ministry ending date, decide whether a parting gift will be given, plan the events to say good-bye, reassure the congregation that the board is in control, and of course support the pastor as he or she prepares to leave.
And now the road winds towards uncertainty. The period of vacancy and search will be trying to many. Some will leave your church; others will experience crisis and ask why God has taken away the pastor they had grown to love. Many will step up to make sure your church’s ministry continues at its present level of excellence.
The church board must determine whether your denomination has policies about the formation of a search committee. This is the first station on the journey. The second is the board’s formation of the search committee, which now comes alongside the board and becomes active. The board focuses on caring for the congregation while the search committee makes sure that the church knows what is happening during the pastoral vacancy. Many boards wisely find an interim pastor to help lead the congregation as well as fill the pulpit.
The third station on the journey is the point at which the committee takes steps to develop an accurate church profile. Through self-study, surveys, and discussions, committee members identify the congregation’s strengths and weaknesses, its focus and direction, and the kind of leadership it needs in a pastor. They take this information and package it in ways that will capture the attention of interested pastors. This way station on the road is the key to getting the critical information that potential candidates will want to learn about your church. This important task cannot be rushed.
The fourth section of the road is the search itself. This is usually the longest part. The word of your vacancy and search will spread. Buzz about the potential of your church will help influence those who see your website and hear about it through social-media sites and other channels. Names will be collected, letters and e-mails sent, phone calls made, references checked, and, at each step, impressions will be made. The field will ultimately narrow as some pastors drop out, while others are added. Interviews will follow, and a select few will be invited to pay a visit to your church.
Now comes the fifth stage of the journey—the decision and call. Depending on your polity, this part may involve one or several pastors. It starts with the visits by the pastor or pastors selected at this point. They present their best side, and so does the congregation. The board, search committee, staff, and members all form opinions. The visiting pastors form opinions too. Meetings are held, votes are tallied, and a decision is reached. A letter of call is issued.
The sixth station on the search journey is a fork in the road. If the call is accepted, the road goes to planning for the installation of your new pastor. This task entails working out the details of the call’s acceptance, making transition plans with the interim pastor and the new pastor, and working with the new pastor on planning for his or her arrival. If, however, the call is declined, the road turns back and returns the search committee at least to the previous stage and perhaps further. The search resumes. So in the words of Yogi Berra, “When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.”
Some may think the sixth station is the end of the journey, but there is a final destination. The seventh stage is to manage a good start-up for the new pastor and the congregation. When the call is accepted and announced to the congregation, the search committee members will phase themselves out of the picture. They have completed their assignment. Now the board needs to take charge and manage the transition. The board, pastor, and staff work together to plan the church’s ministry. This is an exciting time. God has directed the search efforts, and the hard work of the committee has paid off. Everyone’s hope is that this stage will last for years and that the church will grow under the leadership of your new pastor.
Anyone who has served on a search committee can tell you it requires a deep commitment. Much time and energy will be required before the task is completed. The process will likely take a minimum of six months and perhaps as long as two years. How the search journey is managed can make a difference in securing a good pastoral match, in minimizing the length of the search effort, and in reducing the stress on all parties. Whether your church is in a metropolitan area or in the countryside, whether yours is the only church of a particular denomination in a large area, a congregation in an area with multiple churches of the same denomination, or an independent congregation, your search must be managed with high standards of excellence. We are not allowed the luxury of sitting back, placing a few ads, sending out a handful of letters, and then waiting for pastors to beat down our church door asking to serve as our pastor. We need to conduct a deliberate, well-thought-out search that treats both pastors and the process with respect.
Adapted from The Pastoral Search Journey: A Guide to Finding Your Next Pastor by John Vonhof, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
It’s not a common occurrence to seek out a new pastor, so pastoral search committees can sometimes feel as though they are inventing the process from scratch. In The Pastoral Search Journey, John Vonhof provides detailed guidance for search committees to ensure a good match between pastor and congregation.
A Change of Pastors… And How it Affects Change in the Congregation
by Loren B. Mead
Beginning Ministry Together: The Alban Handbook for Clergy Transitions
by Roy M. Oswald, James W. Heath, and Ann W. Heath
Oswald and colleagues Jim and Ann Heath describe how clergy and congregations can better end and begin pastorates. They help congregations determine what they expect of their clergy and then accurately present their expectations to candidates. Likewise, clergy will learn how to share what gifts they offer and their expectations of a congregation. In this way, clergy and lay leaders can reach common and workable expectations of one another and begin a life-giving ministry together.
So You’re on the Search Committee
by Bunty Ketcham and Celia Allison Hahn
The pastoral search process presents both search committee members and the congregation with limitless opportunities for growth and faith development. Ketcham and Hahn offer reflections on the deeper issues of congregational identity and transformation that search committees will find themselves wrestling with and raise warnings about some of the obstacles committee members can expect to encounter.
When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition
by Craig A. Satterlee
Homiletics professor and parish pastor Craig Satterlee reflects on how to integrate significant transitions in a congregation’s life into the preaching ministry of the church. Issues considered include: (1) the benefits and risks of using preaching to address transition, (2) how to incorporate transition into the form, content, and delivery of the sermon, and (3) how transition affects the preacher’s ability to proclaim and the congregation’s ability to receive the message.
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