Eight Things You Need to Know about Pastor Search Committees


Not all churches use pastor search committees to call a pastor. Some congregations belong to a denomination that uses an appointment process. Other churches depend on elders to find the next pastor. But a large number of churches today still use the pastor search committee process to find their next pastor.

Even though this process is in use in as many as 200,000 congregations in the U.S., there still seems to be a mystery about its work and decision-making processes. To be certain, pastor search committees are not identical from congregation to congregation. Those differences explain some of the mystery and confusion. There are often great inconsistencies from one committee to another.

Perhaps the primary reason for the apparent mystery of search committees is their own evolution. Not too long ago, their task was to cull through a pile of paper resumes; find three or four prospective pastors to hear preach in the respective pastors own church; and then present the finalist to the church.

Much is changing in the pastor search committee process. Some of it is due to the availability of information in the digital age. The waning of denominational influence also is a key reason this process has changed.

While I could write pages on the history, current reality, and future of pastor search committees, I narrowed the major points to just a few highlights. Here are eight key things you need to know:

  1. The process of finding a pastor is taking much longer. There are two key reasons for this development. First, the process itself is no longer as simple as I noted above in the third paragraph. Second, the challenge of shorter pastoral tenure leads committees to be more diligent to secure a longer-term pastor.
  2. More search committees work through formal and informal recommendations and referrals. A church is more likely to find a pastor through both formal and informal recommendations than unsolicited resumes.
  3. Search committees are utilizing the services of outside experts more often. They seek help from both denominational services and independent search organizations. Those organizations are typically well worth the expense to help a search committee find good candidates. That is their area of ministry expertise.
  4. Four out of five search committees receive no training. My number is based on informal surveys rather than scientific polling, but it is nevertheless indicative. Many search committees start their processes with no experience and no training.
  5. The multi-site movement will cause a decrease in the number of search committees. Church acquisitions are common today. Churches that are acquired are not likely to have their own autonomous search committee to find a pastor. Leadership in the mother church will choose their pastors.
  6. The first place most pastor search committees will evaluate a prospective pastor is podcasts. Instead of visiting and possibly disrupting the pastor’s current church, the committee is more likely to listen to sermons on the church’s website.
  7. The second place most pastor search committees will evaluate a prospective pastor is the church’s website. For many search committee members, the website is a reflection of the pastor and the pastor’s leadership.
  8. The third place most pastor search committees will evaluate a prospective pastor is social media. Before a prospective pastor is ever contacted, many search committees will research thoroughly that pastor’s blog and other social media. There are a number of outside firms that offer this service at a reasonable price. Some pastors and other church staff are not getting a second look because of their negative presence on social media.

I wrote this article in response to many of you asking questions about pastor search committees. Feel free to interact with these eight issues, or to ask questions about areas that need more discussion.

Posted on January 14, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • After over 20 years in ministry and now pastor of my own alternative ministry, I have found it extremely interesting and somewhat telling that no church at which I have interviewed over the years have I been asked how I intended to grow the church spiritually, only how I was going to grow it in membership and prosperity. Search committees tend, I think, to focus on church finances and attendance rather than on spiritual growth, quite possibly to the detriment of the congregation.

  • When you try to hire for life, this is often what happens. Academia has the same problem. The long, drug-out process is supposed to produce the candidate who has every opinion, idea, friend, thought, and characteristic correct. I know there is turnover in a congregation over a decade (Dr. Rainer knows the number). Why try to hire for life? Why not learn from a pastor for a while, let him/her learn from you, and if he/she moves on then be happy for the person and not mad over it.

    • You could also be constantly raising up leadership within the body, so that if one person feels called elsewhere there is someone to step in. If you do end up with someone who stays long term, you can also be a body who multiplies.

  • Perhaps this is why so many employers–incl churches–look at social media accounts now when hiring. So many people feel free to be their true selves on social media, for better or worse, and a lot can be learned there. Otherwise, unless a committee specifically asks prior employers or character references about a pastoral candidate’s character or family flaw issues, they’ll be hard to determine in advance of hiring. And can prior employers be fully honest these days, without being accused of slander or some such? Search committees need to be well-read and educated in pastoral and church issues, as well as prayerful and highly discerning people, in this culture.

  • As a new Director of Missions, this article was of interest to me and I have been waiting to see what you listed…all of which I do see as trends as well. There are two areas that I feel could be problematic and would like Dr. Thom’s input.
    1. Referrals, outside agencies, denominational help and liability – I have seen too many times now where candidates fail to disclose personal failures (some criminal) to committees, committees that did not do their due diligence in research, and pastors and DOM’s that continue to recommend “buddies” who really should not continue in the ministry. With this in mind, what will the liabilities be on outside entities that help a church fill a position? It is my understanding that a DOM and the state convention in Florida were recently named in a case where a pastor was found guilty of a crime involving his position and church and both the convention and DOM had recommended him thus facing some culpability. I feel at times I have a better view of what a church needs and who is available and would be a good fit, but I am a little afraid of the potential liability (and without going into details, I have some personal experience to back this concern).

    2. In vague reference to #6, 7, & 8, I am seeing a correlation between those pastors that are dynamic in the pulpit but horrible “pastor shepherds.” It seems that almost all of the problems I have seen between pastors and churches had less to do with their preaching and more to do with how they handled themselves out of the pulpit. I know you are only reporting a trend and not suggesting a path to follow, but don’t our committees put their membership at some risk by putting a greater emphasis on preaching and not the other many things a senior pastor must do in order for a church to thrive. Just about every preacher out there has their “go-to” sermon that can wow a congregation. Is there a way or process by which the full nature of a prospective pastor can be determined and shown to a congregation beyond the search committee? As I think of all the pastor search processes I have seen, the predominant pre-requisite or visible characteristic was their ability to preach. In fact for some, it was the only introduction to a candidate many members had…that one sermon, then a vote.

    I guess this is why I am beginning to lean towards a less open process of choosing a pastor, where leaders are developed from within or they are known by reputation already in advance. Thank you for your blog for always causing your readers to stop and think a little.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That is very helpful input, Bob. Thank you.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement there. If at all possible we should be identifying and training up leadership from within our congregations. We have all of these “out of work” pastors out there that are applying for these positions. It makes me wonder where they came from. Someone surely recognized a gifting within them at some point. Did that recognition stop at the suggestion for them to go to seminary, and then find a job as a pastor somewhere?

      I would wonder if it wouldn’t look a little more like, “We have recognized that you are gifted in your handling of the scriptures, and that we often find you investing yourself in the lives of your brothers and sisters in this congregation. We would like to support you in developing that gift to its full potential.”

      Whether that involves helping subsidize seminary education, or whether it is in house teaching and mentoring, it would seem more natural to cultivate these people either for a place within the local body, or with some sort of vision for sending them out into ministry. Not so much, “you should be a pastor, go find a job”.

  • >The first place most pastor search committees will evaluate a prospective pastor is podcasts.

    Search committees don’t limit themselves to what they find on your current church’s website, Youtube, or SermonAudio.com. They will find them on other media streaming sites.

    You, the pastor being reviewed, might not even know that your podcasts are on the site that the committee watched/listened to them on. If they were found on a “questionable” site, you might have some explaining to do, if the committee decides that your other virtues make up for where the podcasts were found. More likely, the search committee will move onto the next candidate, and not inform you of where the audio or video sermons were found.

  • I’ve been on both ends of this equation. I served on a Senior Pastor Search Committee at my current church, and we made many crucial mistakes (even as a committee from a very large church, filled with highly capable believers).

    First, we neglected to inform candidates from whom we received information that we had actually received such materials. I’m ashamed that we left candidates “hanging” without acknowledging receipt of their materials.

    Second, as we advanced into the later stages of our search, we narrowed our search to a few “choice” candidates and asked each of them to complete a (ridiculously lengthy) essay questionnaire. I imagine that it took many, many hours to complete. And, yet again, we failed to apprise the candidates of their status as we continued to move through the process.

    Gloriously, God sent us His chosen man (rather than, perhaps, the man we deserved). Even better, God called me to full-time ministry out of the practice of law during that search process.

    Unfortunately, I am now on the other side of the fence as I am seeking to find God’s place of service as a Senior/Lead Pastor. Now I know that the type of behavior in which our committee engaged is, despairingly, normative, rather than the exception.

    If I could provide one (non-spiritual) piece of advice to pastor search committees, it would be to keep candidates informed of the process and to acknowledge receipt of submitted materials.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Great counsel. Thanks, Scott.

    • Anonymus says on

      I totally agree with your advise! Been on both sides. As a team member – It is hard to get everyone on the search team rowing in the same direction! Which then makes it hard to communicate back to the candidates, But we owe that to our candidates. I would also go a step further and add that Search Teams should not just say: we have your materials; they should be more specific about their time frames, and where the candidate is falling in their process (if they have eliminated you, you’re on the short list, or still on a long list, do you need more information). I have received acknowledgements of resume and then never heard from the committee again – even to say they found God’s man! I have been contacted by a committee chair (that I never applied to), “I came across your resume and want to share it with my search team,” spent took two weeks to pray about and come to agreement with God and my wife, and then after I said “YES” have never heard from them again – This church still doesn’t have a pastor so I have no idea if they eliminated me or if I can expect to get a new communication any day.

  • How costly are the hiring services? Hundreds? Thousands? And how does a church budget for such an animal, especially if their pastor is youngish and not necessarily intending to go anywhere for awhile?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Louise –

      The cost is usually a small percentage of the first year’s salary, but you would need to contact a firm directly for more specifics.

  • Great article. I have served on several search committees over the years and all of these are very good points. I would like to address point number one. There are a few reasons I see that the process takes longer these days then in the past. One is finding a man who is called to pastor. We have seen an influx of people who served as Sunday school teachers and deacons for years who lose their jobs and decide to try their hand at preaching to pay the bills. Our former Director of Missions said it best when he said there are many out there who are qualified but very few of them are called. Check their job history and look for these red flags. Another reason is the differences in generational theology. Where I’m from many years ago if the word Calvin came out of a pastors mouth they would have quickly been asked to leave the church. It came from a lack of understanding and I see that changing. We still have those who reject the thoughts of Calvin and will fight a committee who brings a pastor before the congregation who believes this way. These are just a couple of the things I see happening.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That’s good input. Thanks, JR.

    • Good thoughts. I also think part of the reason the process takes longer is because we’ve living in a more suspicious and cynical age. There was a time when churches never would have considered doing a criminal background check on a prospective pastor, but now such checks are routine in the search process. Many churches have also been burned by dishonest and unethical pastors, so (I hope) they’re investigating candidates more carefully. While it does make the process longer, I think it’s good for a search committee to do those things.

    • Anti-Calvinism still runs deep in many southern churches even though many don’t really know what Calvinism is. All they know is what the demonizers have told them. I have seen many questionnaires that ask about the big C. In my experience this question is only asked if the church has a problem with it. Recently I had a phone interview with a committee and they asked my thoughts on Calvinism. I replied that I do not consider myself to be a Calvinist because what I believe about how and why we are saved has nothing to do with what Calvin taught but is based on my own study of God’s Word. However, the more I study the Bible the more convinced I become that we are not the choosers, we are the chosen. The committee called me back for an in person interview, thus affirming my suspicion that they really didn’t know what Calvinism was all about.

      • ACD,

        This question isn’t meant as a criticism, but rather an authentic question:

        If you knew the church didn’t want a Calvinist and you knew that theologically you would fall into that category, then why would you want to keep it on the down low and go ahead and interview? Seems like it could cause problems for you in the future.

  • I am curious about #7. As a pastor, I really have nothing to do with, nor do I have time to tinker with our church website. It really is information overload on our homepage. I have asked our part-time media guy to revitalize it but to no avail. Any suggestions on how to do this? I obviously think a streamlined version is better. Tom, have you ever done a study on church websites examining their usability, functionality, and effectiveness?

    As to the search firms that serve churches, most of these are doing the search for +1,000 member churches. I say that because if you look at their websites, there are no small churches represented. There is no form of personal evaluation by the search firms, at least that I have used in the past. They do not know my personality or leadership style. I would like to see search committees, and search firms do leadership surveys, personality surveys, and then provide the candidate a congregational survey, perhaps like the Transformational Church model or something like that so the candidate receives an honest evaluation of the church.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Chris. Because of the inquiries we have received on church websites, Jonathan Howe on my team is putting together a helpful guide on the process.

      • Good! Will you publish that information on your blog or your church revitalization website? I’m sure that will be helpful to many of us.

    • >As a pastor, I really have nothing to do with, nor do I have time to tinker with our church website.

      Looking at a church building, the visitor notices that there is some galvanized iron partially covering a hole in the roof. There are a couple of missing tiles in another section, alongside a few scraps of corrogated iron.
      The church walls are bedecked in a variety of coloours, shades, tints, and hues.
      Bare earth surrounds the building, except for where there are planks from the gravel parking lot to the front door.

      Please explain why the visitor would consider asking the pastor of that church to become the pastor of the church the visitor currently attends.

    • The web is the first place for the overwhelming majority of people to go for info and to form opinions about us.

      Our web presence, in today’s society, isn’t viewed as an optional “add-on” but rather as an extension of who we actually are. My sites are not all up and going at 100%. It is definitely a struggle. But we do work on it weekly and daily.

      Our online presence may tell guests more about us than our building does. If my site is unkept and smacks of delayed maintenance, a prospective church can assume with a strong degree of certainty a number of things about me:

      1) In my current leadership role, I have either not cared to or have not been able to influence the cleaning and updating of our virtual real estate.

      2) I may not be able to reach people under 40 who turn to the web for answers… and that is a huge % of those under 40.

      3) I may not be able to lead a church to reach unchurched… they are most likely to check us out online first.

      4) I likely won’t be able to reach people who newly move in to the area and don’t have friends to invite them.

      In my business dealings, I’ve dropped people off my list of candidates because when I walked them to their car, trash dropped out of the driver’s side door as it opened. Why? Because if their car is filthy, likely they’d keep the desk that way too. Maybe not, but it’s not work the risk to me.

      I struggled bivocationally for a really long time and pastored a church with a lack-luster virtual presence.

      What should one do if he/she is unable to take the time to keep up the website and social media presence? Here’s what I’d do if I could go back to the days where I just let the weeds grow –

      * If a website can’t be kept up, delete it altogether until it can be kept up well. No presence, in my opinion is better than one that is out of date.

      * Get a volunteer to at least keep an active social media presence. Give some basic guidelines. Keep it updated. Many in your church are active on social media already… use one of them to do it.

  • Celebrity Pastor says on

    The problem with referrals and recommendations is every member of a pastor search committee knows, the “prospective pastor” asked the person to refer them.

    You can’t form an honest opinion based on references, recommendations, or referrals. “If you help me get a job, I’ll help you when you’re ready to change churches.”

    Online sermons are the best way a committee can evaluate a candidate.

    Also, the secret to having a long-tenure pastor is to pay them well. If you want your pastor/staff member to leave, never give him a raise or cut his pay.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, CP.

    • Referrals and recommendations are still a good way to go, though I agree that the search committee should use careful discernment. The committee should seek referrals from people they trust, and who have the church’s best interest at heart. Some people have a real knack for matching pastors to churches, and blessed is the church who knows someone with that skill.

      Besides, even when someone makes a referral or a recommendation as a personal favor, that doesn’t automatically mean the candidate is bad. It all comes down to how carefully the committee examines the candidate. I believe this is an area where many churches drop the proverbial ball.

    • “Online sermons are the best way a committee can evaluate a candidate.”

      Only if preaching the only thing that matters. You can’t know what kind of person a pastor really is from an online sermon. You can’t know if they have integrity or honesty or humility from an online sermon. References and referrals are essential to know what your’e getting beyond the worship service.

  • Great article Thom! We have seen a continued surge in all of these trends, particularly how pastoral candidates are evaluated. It’s an honor to prayerfully help search committees as they stand at a holy crossroads, and we believe it will become a “new normal” in the days to come. Thanks for shining a light on this!

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