One of the toughest jobs for any church is to find and select a new senior pastor. It’s an intricate and delicate balance of both natural and supernatural forces. God is sovereign, but people are fully human. This makes for what is often a challenging time. The more intentional you are, the better the results.

If you believe as I do, that “next to the favor of God, everything rises and falls on leadership,” then the choice of a senior pastor is of ultimate importance and consequence. This is not a process to be rushed, bullied, played politically, or treated lightly.  It is a process that must be entered into with much prayer and the utmost passion to find the pastor who is part of God’s plan for your church. 

The following thoughts will give you some helpful guidelines to follow. But first, let me offer a couple quick comments.

In the case of a planned succession in which the next pastor is already selected, that is a unique and separate process from what I’m writing about in this article.

If you are part of a denominational structure, follow the guidelines in your established governance. Loyalty matters, and I recommend that you look for your pastor within your denomination first. But on occasion, you may need to look outside your denominational affiliation in order to find the best pastor.

1. Select a competent search committee.

The process of a search starts with prayer and continues with prayer! Including prayer for the right members on the search committee. It’s not always the “obvious” people who should be on the team.                                                                                            

I recommend a search committee of five to seven people. Only two or three of the search committee should be from the existing church board. Include other sharp influencers in the church who have great people and interviewing skills. Involve leaders on the team who have spiritual gifts of wisdom and discernment. All personnel on the search committee should be faithful and committed to the church. This could look like:  involved in ministry, faithful in tithing, demonstrate maturity, and active in the church for at least one year.

2.  Review the guidelines that were set for your interim pastor.

In the last edition of The Pastor’s Coach, I outlined four options for a “temporary” pastor. They are: 

  • Interim Pastor
  • Transition Specialist
  • Pulpit Supply
  • Rotating Staff or Key Lay Leaders

It’s important to know how the Interim fits into the search / transition process.  For example, will the Interim have a voice in the choice of the new pastor? (I recommend not.)  If the former pastor is the founding pastor of a community church, with a long tenure, should he have a voice in the selection process?  How will you transition from the Interim to the new pastor?  Will there be a brief overlap?  Will you give a gift or bonus to the Interim?  If so, how will you decide what that should look like?  These kinds of questions are important to think through before you are deep into the process. This will help you avoid conflict and keep a clear mind to make a better decision.

3.  Develop a pastoral profile.

One of the key elements in the process is the design of a selection criteria for your new pastor. This deserves considerable time, thought, and prayer because once it is set, it’s important to never “lower the bar” and settle for anything less than what you want in your next senior pastor. It’s not about finding a perfect pastor, it’s about being unified in the search.  

Example:

  • Strong visionary and leader
  • Good communicator
  • Minimum of 7 years full time ministry experience
  • Senior pastor experience of no less than 3 years
  • Successful leadership (a growing healthy church) of no less than 300 in attendance
  • Bible college or seminary degree
  • Spiritual gifts of faith and leadership
  • Believes in Small Group ministry
  • Great sense of humor

4.  Gather a large number of names of potential candidates.

You can’t gather too many names at this point. Do exhaustive searches contacting everyone you can think of for leads. Don’t get stuck on things like, “He’s out of our league.” Or “He seems happy where he is.” Or “We couldn’t possibly afford him.”  Let God worry about those things. Collect many names. At this point in the process you may not know if the candidate meets all the criteria you have set, or is even interested, but as you gather names do your best to keep the criteria in mind. The phone is one of your greatest tools, use it for live conversations that result in productive networking.

5.  Narrow the list to the best candidates and gather resumes.

Once you have what seems like an exhaustive list, (and it won’t be), begin determining which of the names on your list are genuinely open to be considered for the position. Ask for their resumes. Once you have candidates and resumes, start comparing notes, studying resumes, making more phone calls, and of course keep praying. The goal is to narrow your list to about 5-7 candidates.

6.  Travel to the candidate’s current churches for initial impressions.

This is often not done, but the churches who do are always glad they did. Travel to the candidate’s churches in order to observe them on their own turf. Two of you to each church is good. Listen to them preach, watch how they interact with their congregation, observe things like energy level, sense of humor, or whatever key things are on your selection criteria. You don’t need to feel like you are secret agents or spies in a foreign land, but usually you are there simply as a visitor.  

7.  Set up interviews for your top candidate(s).

There are two approaches here. One is to interview two or three top candidates. The other is to interview one top candidate at a time. Both work. Choose the one that works best for you.

Ask dozens of questions and spend lots of time together. It’s important to understand the leadership experience and style, ministry background, personal bents and biases, ministry philosophy and values, staffing preferences, successes, failures, likes and dislikes, mentors, preaching style, worship preference, personal testimony, family story etc. The more you know the better. Multiple interviews over several weeks is usually a really good idea.

8.  Decision time.

You’ve come a long way by now. You may have started over a couple times if a promising candidate didn’t work out. But when you arrive at that critical decision-making time, you want to handle it correctly. For those of you who are part of a denomination, just follow your process.

For those without a system, determining how the decision is made well before it’s time to decide is very important. There are several possibilities, but this sample will get you started. Choose what works for you at your church.

First, the search committee must have a strong majority, and unanimous is better.  Second, the official church board must vote, achieving a clear majority, and unanimous is best. Third, the congregation votes, requiring a clear majority for the decision. 

Pay your pastor well, help them move and welcome him or her with open arms! Keep praying and ask God for His continued favor and blessing upon your church as you begin a new era with a new pastor.