Brace Yourself for a Pastoral Search


The following comments are from leaders of different congregations sharing about the same topic:

  • “We were shocked.”
  • “I was surprised.”
  • “We just didn’t expect it.”
  • “We were unprepared.”

The leaders were all members of churches searching for a pastor. To illustrate why the leaders were so surprised, I’ve created a fictitious church called St. Barnabas.

St. Barnabas

The past 15 years, St. Barnabas was faithfully served by one pastor. The pastor recently retired at age 67. St. Barnabas averages right at 90 in worship attendance each weekend. There is some debt left on the last building expansion, an educational wing now named after the retired pastor. St. Barnabas formed a call committee to find a new pastor. After eight long months of work, the call committee has just completed interviewing the finalists from the first call list.

The Long Road

The members of St. Barnabas are like the rest of us. The past 15 years, they have grown accustomed to quick and easy access to what they want.

  • Some members deposit checks through direct deposit and smart phones. They haven’t gone to a bank to deposit a check in years.
  • Other members buy movie tickets online, then download the tickets to the phone. They don’t remember the last time they stood in line for a ticket at a theater.
  • One of the members purchased a home in the past few years. He completed the entire process without attending a single meeting at a mortgage company.

Because seemingly everything else in life is streamlined, they expected a streamlined call process. Instead, they found a process that works much more like 1987 than 2017. In the first meeting, the denominational advisor warned it will likely take 18 months to complete the call process. At this point, it looks like the advisor could be prophetic.

Sticker Shock

St. Barnabas’ last pastor was an “empty nester” the last ten years of ministry. Attendance and giving were stagnant or declining the last five years, so the pastor refused raises those years.

The congregation has only interviewed pastors with young families. The treasurer dutifully calculated what a younger pastor with two children would cost the church. The call committee experienced sticker shock. One member blurted out, “How can a pastor, who is twenty years younger than our last pastor, cost twenty percent more?”

Here’s how. The new pastor will have twice as many dependents. The costs of benefits have risen sharply the past decade. The pastor will expect to be paid at District scale, not at the discounted rate provided by the last pastor. It cost $5,000 to move the last pastor; it will cost $18,000 to move the new pastor.

Informed Candidates

St. Barnabas’ call committee ended up with seven pastors on the initial call list. The call committee chair called all seven candidates, leaving voicemail messages asking whether they were open to serving at St. Barnabas.

When the pastors called back, they had questions.

  • “St. Barnabas has gone from 170 to 100 in worship attendance the pastor 10 years. What has caused the decline?”
  • “The president of the congregation resigned a couple of years ago. Is St. Barnabas conflicted?”
  • “Your last pastor retired. Will he remain in the congregation?”

When the chair reported his experience to the call committee, the committee was stunned. The last time St. Barnabas called a pastor, the church knew more about the candidates than the candidates knew about the church. What changed?

Pastors today are adept at searching websites, including social media. They also notice when a church has a poor web presence. The younger the pastor, more likely the pastor is highly networked. Pastors will text or call other pastors who are familiar with the calling church before agreeing to interview.

Authenticity and Transparency

The call committee has six Baby Boomer Generation members and two Builder Generation members. They were wholly unprepared to interview Generation X and Millennial pastors.

A couple of the pastors asked specific questions about finances and work hours, topics considered inappropriate by most the call committee. A couple other pastors were very direct about how they do ministry, stating they would expect changes before accepting a call.

Post Script

St. Barnabas issued a call to a pastor three weeks later. After another month, the pastor declined the call. Advent was approaching, so the call committee didn’t meet for six weeks. By the time a new list of candidates was formed, the church had invested twelve months searching for a pastor.

St. Barnabas is truly fictitious, not loosely based on a specific church. However, the above reflects real conversations with real leaders from real congregations. The point of this post is to prepare leaders for today’s reality so they can adjust accordingly.

What lessons has your church learned about calling a pastor? Share your thoughts in the comments or shoot me a message.

4 thoughts on “Brace Yourself for a Pastoral Search

  1. Hi Kevin, Since retirement in 2009 I have served parishes in Texas and Ohio and most recently, in Minnesota. I may soon become involved with a church as an, “Intentional Interim.” They are hoping to call a pastor after an extended ministry of many years led by the same pastor. I am curious about more than a few of the issues you have raised. This posting will come in handy.

    Blessings on your work.


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