Interim pastors have plenty of “crucial” tasks to accomplish when leading a church in transition. But if everything’s important then nothing’s important, right?

So let tell you my thought on the the interim pastor’s most important skill: training the pastor search team.

Businesswoman standing on a ladder looking through binoculars

Why is this the most important of all the other important tasks?

Because the pastor search team sets the direction of the church for the next ten years by their choice of candidates. The settled pastor will either succeed or fail.

Hard to see anything else being much important than that.

But that begs the question…

What is a “successful” search?

Success in the search process is ill-defined because search committees aren’t taught to ask, “How will we know when we’ve succeeded in our task of calling the right pastor for this chapter in this church’s life?”

  • When a denominational office has installed a pastor with our consent?
  • When we’ve put a candidate before the congregation for approval?
  • When our “dream date” say, “yes”?
  • When someone with a pulse and the ability to fog a mirror on a cold day accepts our call?

My guess is that if you asked a dozen search committees in a dozen different churches what defines a successful search they’d all answer in terms of getting a new pastor installed. But this is an unanswered question.

Because success isn’t defined, neither is failure. As a result, failure in the search process is measured in the eye of each stakeholder. Those who feel the search process was a failure vote with their feet and their seats; they’ll move to another congregation.

Success isn’t instantly obvious

It won’t be known for several years. There are several reasons why you won’t know if the pastor search process has been successful or not:

  1. The new system that is formed when a church calls a new pastor takes time to regain equilibrium.[1] This might be several years as everyone learns the new rules for managing disagreements, learning how to address challenges as a team, and clarifying all the unspoken and unknown expectations.
  2. It takes time for a congregation to learn whether they can trust the pastor or not. This is built as they see the pastor keeping promises, listening attentively, behaving creditibly (logical and consistent), dealing truthfully and displaying transparency (honesty about motives and personal failures).
  3. Since the purpose of the transition process was to prepare the church to achieve its God-given potential, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the success of the search process can’t be known until the church responds to the pastor’s leadership and begins to move toward the fulfillment of its ministry potential.

Short-term and Long-term definitions

It’s unrealistic to expect a pastor search committee – typically organized ad hoc to stay in session for years! The search process itself is laborious, draining and often discouraging.[2] (A good interim pastor will make sure the congregation upholds those on the search team in prayer; she will also insure that the search team members receive adequate soul care during this period)

Does that mean they are deprived of the satisfaction of knowing they’ve done a good job?

Hardly.

But this suggests that the success of the pastor search process is measured by a near horizon and a far horizon.

The near term success of the pastor search process is measured in terms an HR department or an Executive Search firm might use. The definition offered below needs refinement, but its a start. (Many of the terms in this definition are pregnant with meaning and presuppose a great deal of analysis, research and refinement by the search team)

The pastor search process is a near-term success when a candidate is called who fits the pastor profile; embraces the church’s biblical, doctrinal and cultural values; and exhibits leadership behaviors that move the congregation toward the fulfillment of its mission and vision.

The long term success of the pastor search process is measured in terms of corporate goals.

The pastor search process is a long-term success when the pastor called proves to be an excellent fit for the culture and “chemistry” of the congregation; gives leadership behaviors that move the church toward fulfillment of its mission and vision; and nurtures believers until they become self-guided, self-motivated disciples serving Christ in the world.

Question

Where have you seen the search process go awry? If you’ve worked with pastor search committees before, what have you seen that works well and what should be avoided? Click here to leave your comments below.


  1. Glen Ludwig, “Honeymoon vs. Trial: Surviving the First Critical Years”. http://www.pbs.org/thecongregation/indepth/honeymoon.html. Accessed 11/06/2013.  â†©
  2. Carolyn Reese and Russell Crabtree state that “In fact, about half of the members of the search committee (and sometimes all of them) leave the church within three years of the new pastor’s arrival.” Elephant in the Board Room: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions (Jossey-Bass, 2004), 33.  â†©