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Nurturing Openness and Avoiding Exhaustion

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, February 6, 2009

Part 4 of series: Advice for Pastor Search Committees
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

So far in this series I’ve served two morsels of advice for pastor search committees:

1. Seek first the kingdom of God.
2. Pray without ceasing.

Today I’ll add two more morsels to the list.

3. Be open to God’s surprises

Most search committee members begin the process of seeking a pastor with an image of the kind of person they’re seeking. Often this image is colored by their perceptions of the previous pastor (if there was one). If they liked that pastor, they’ll tend to envision someone quite similar. If they didn’t like that pastor, they’ll imagine someone quite different, often an idealized version of some former pastor. Sometimes committee members start with somebody like the former pastor in mind, only without that pastor’s perceived weaknesses. Perfect pastor here we come!

I don’t think it’s wrong for search committee members to begin with a picture in mind of their next pastor. But if you’re serving on a search committee, don’t let this image keep you from being open to something or someone unexpected. In many cases, committees end up being led by the Spirit to someone who is not at all what they at first anticipated.

Take, for example, the committee that brought me to Irvine Presbyterian Church. Not surprisingly, they began by looking for someone quite a bit like my predecessor, Ben Patterson. They wanted a strong preacher and leader, a person committed to Christ and to prayer. They also envisioned someone who, like Ben at his time of departure, had senior pastor and parental experience. (Ben had four children and had been Irvine’s senior pastor for fourteen years.) The committee that eventually nominated me was not expecting to call someone who was only 33 years old, who had been an associate pastor for just three years, and who didn’t have children. Yet, because the committee was open to God’s surprises, they came to believe that I was the surprise. And, looking back at my sixteen years of ministry at Irvine Pres., I would say that the committee rightly discerned God’s will, both for the church and for me. (Photo: Ben Patterson, Lloyd Ogilvie, and me at my installation as pastor of Irvine Pres.)

4. Exercise endurance and beware of exhaustion.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), the process of searching for a new pastor usually takes at least a year. It can take twice as long if the search committee is also responsible for doing a large-scale mission study as the first part of the discernment process. Furthermore, unlike ordinary church committees, pastor search committees meet often, perhaps even weekly. During certain seasons of committee work, members are also busy on weekends, visiting the churches of potential candidates or hearing them preach in “neutral” pulpits. (“Neutral” means “not the candidate’s home church and not the committee’s home church.”) Of course most committee members have a life outside of committee work. When you put all of this together, you have a formula for exhaustion, and exhaustion can lead to unhappy results.

I have seen this sort of thing happen several times in churches, and I experienced it once myself. Years ago, I was part of a search committee for an associate pastor. We worked long and hard for many, many months. As we neared what we had hoped would be the end of our labors, we had two decent candidates. But neither one really seemed quite right. Nevertheless, after so much effort, we just couldn’t face the possibility of starting from scratch. Se we ended up deciding upon a particular candidate, even though we all had some reservations. The result was a dismal one both for this individual and for our church. As I look back on our search committee process, I’m convinced that our exhaustion led us to make an unwise decision. In fact, I think physical, mental, and emotional tiredness weakened our ability to think clearly.

So what can a search committee do to avoid letting exhaustion negatively influence both the committee process and the result? First, if all members of the committee are aware that the road ahead will be a long and tortuous one, then they’ll be better prepared to keep on going when there’s no end in sight.

Second, the committee should help itself avoid exhaustion. Too many long and late meetings can add up. Sometimes a committee needs to take a break. Members should be especially attentive to exhaustion in themselves or in others.

Finally, I think it’s better for a committee to call nobody rather than to call the wrong person as a pastor. The pain and damage that come both to church and pastor when there’s a bad match should be avoided at all costs. If a committee comes up empty, it should take an extended break before beginning again. In some cases, a committee might even need to disband, and a new committee be formed. I know this sounds terrible. The good news is that, in most cases, search committees will come to a positive conclusion.

Topics: Pastor Search Committees |

6 Responses to “Nurturing Openness and Avoiding Exhaustion”

  1. Bill Goff Says:
    February 6th, 2009 at 11:47 am

    I have another admonition to pastor nominating committees based on my experience. It is this: Be candid about the particular congregation to which you are calling a new pastor.
    When I interviewed with a committee in Colorado, they shared their aspirations to move the church forward, to develop the youth program including bringing on a youth pastor, and generally to reinvirorate the church. They were excited about the prospects of the church and positive about me. They saw me as someone who could bring the changes they wanted and they called me to be the pastor of the church.
    I began my ministry there trying to impliment the wishes of the PNC only to discover that there was was great opposition from the old guard of the church which had not been represented on the PNC. I also discovered that there was significant opposition to me from some members of the rather small Presbytery who had hoped to be called to this position. They were in contact with some members of the old guard and intentionally stirred up trouble for me. I left that church after less than two years as pastor. I think that if the PNC had been more candid with me about the deep divisions in the church, I may not have accepted their call or I may have approached my service there quite differently. Several years after I left the church, I had occasion to speak by telephone to the new pastor. I asked him how things were going. He said, “I’m going through hell.” About that time I received a booklet regarding the 100th anniversary of the church. As I read this history, it became apparent that from the beginning this church had consistantly given pastors a very hard time. This was an historic toxic church. I wish I had been warned.

  2. Ray Says:
    February 6th, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    This is starting to get interesting. Both Mark and Bill described situations in which the PNC, candidate, or both, made wrong decisions. I had a similar experience in which I felt that the PNC I chaired made a mistake. We led our congregation to call a pastor who was not a good match for the congregation, and a whole lot of conflict ensued.

    However, after the passage of time I can look back and see how God used that experience to shape both the pastor and our congregation. The pastor moved on to an interim position and then to a full time call where God has used him to accomplish some great things. He would have been ill prepared for his current call had he not been through the wringer with us. Similarly, our congregation has become less self-focused, more spiritually mature, and more mission oriented. So, in the end we’re all better disciples.

    If you ask me if we erred in that call, I would have to say yes if I’m being honest. But how do I know that God didn’t intend all along to drag all of us through that experience for a reason - and we actually DID discern God’s will? I know that a couple of strongly opinionated people on the PNC were looking for the polar opposite of the former pastor (and were quite successful in that pursuit). And that was a wrong-headed approach as Mark noted. But if God is sovereign, and if God was at work through our PNC to accomplish his will…how, then, did we make a mistake? Are we powerful enough to screw up God’s plan? Or does Romans 8:28 mean that God comes along behind us and cleans up our messes?

    Serving on a PNC was a richly rewarding experience, but it also placed me in the crossfire of a heated church battle. To this day I don’t know if we messed up, or if God got exactly what he wanted. I don’t waste time worrying about it, though. I just trust that God is leading us forward into his mission.

    On a happier note, I’m now working on the other end of the spectrum. I just began a term on our Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for the Ministry, and I think it’s gonna be a blast working with Inquirers and Candidates to help discern God’s call to them.

  3. Jim S. Says:
    February 6th, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Before I was ordained, I was part of a APNC in SoCal. The committee narrowed it down to two candidates: one had a long term relationship with the choir, and the other was a complete unknown to the congregation. The church had a long history of hiring and calling people who it knew, including many former interns.

    As the APNC took a vacation break in the summer, we promised to pray for the candidates, the church, and one another. A straw poll indicated a 5-1 split in favor of the choir person. I was the one.

    Upon returning from vacation, and much prayer, we gathered and shared our experiences. Then we spent a good amount of time in prayer. We then wrote the name of the candidate we felt God leading us towards on a slip of paper.

    When the votes were tallied, it was 6-0 in favor of the complete unknown. It was an Exodus 3 moment, we were on holy ground. I was in awe, not because I had initially gotten it “right”, but that God had brought enthusiastic unanimity out of a strongly held diversity of opinion.

    The woman we called had a tremendous impact on the church for many years.

    Thanks for your help here, Mark. These stories can and do build up the body of Christ. Thanks for your service.

  4. Mariam Says:
    February 7th, 2009 at 6:40 am

    Thanks, everybody, for being so candid and taking the time to tell these stories!

  5. Represent Your Church Accurately | Says:
    February 9th, 2009 at 12:03 am

    […] I want to address an issue that I was going to cover later in the series. But one of the comments on last Friday’s post encouraged me to address this subject now. In that comment, Bill Goff told a story about an […]

  6. Nancy Norris Says:
    February 14th, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Amen to this posting. since our committee is committed to meeting each week, we offer grace to any member to be absent. Since we feel this is more a “long haul”, we need to be free to take a night off or attend to our families, our profession, or the unexpected. It helps us be patient and realize that this is God’ timetable, not ours. Our work is done during the week before we meet. We often read PIFS, make calls, listen to multiple sermons and pray. This is a job, a calling, a serious commitment and we have no business in causing wounds or exhaustion to those on our committee.
    Thanks for the comments and for the helpful stories. I am committed to this experience and process. The good and the bad needs to be considered. Thanks gentlemen.


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