Ten Reasons Pastor Search Committees Are Struggling More Than Ever

The pandemic is not the reason pastor search committees are struggling, but it did expose and exacerbate the problems. In fact, we at Church Answers see more pastor search committees struggling to find a pastor than at any time we can recall.

We understand that many of you may search for pastors by other means than a search committee. You could have an appointment process, or you could have another group, such as elders, seeking a pastor. These ten reasons are often present regardless of the polity or the process.

1. The search committee does its search like it’s 1980. They gather resumes from several sources. If the church is part of a denomination, it seeks resumes from that body. The members of the search committee painstakingly go through every single resume even though few of them represent candidates who would be a fit. If they contact a candidate, they usually don’t follow up. They keep the candidate hanging and wondering. It is a process headed for failure.

2. They take too long to find a pastor. They usually meet weekly or even less frequently. They assign search committee members a certain number of resumes. They deal with multiple candidates at one time which adds confusion and delays. The process to find a leading candidate can take six months or more. If that candidate does not work out, the process starts over. It’s painstaking. It’s slow. It’s frustrating.

3. The church is unwilling to use a search firm. They are many misperceptions about search firms. No, they do not select the pastor for you. They give you several names for the church to choose from. They understand this world; search committees do not. And please don’t use the modest cost of a search firm to deter you. It becomes much costlier if you don’t find the right candidate.

4. Many search committees are looking for pastors with the same profiles. If you are a pastor looking to move to a church, you are in a good place if you are between the ages of 35 and 49, you have at least 15 years of experience, and you have a perfect family. Other candidates need not apply.

5. Some search committees seek to over-correct the perceived problems of the previous pastor. If the previous pastor was “too evangelistic” and did not meet perceived pastoral care needs, the committee might seek a new pastor who spends 99 percent of the time meeting pastoral needs of the members. Of course, the church will decline since it has no external outreach leadership.

6. Some search committees seek a clone of the previous pastor. This path is less common than it used to be. It might take place if the previous pastor had long tenure, is the founding pastor, or if the pastor died. By the way, if a prospective pastor tries to denigrate the previous pastor, whether that pastor is perceived to be a hero or a mistake, move on to another candidate quickly. The prospective pastor has demonstrated unhealthy insecurity.

7. The church thinks the next pastor will be a silver bullet. The most common perceived expectation of a new pastor is that the church will become younger (one of the reasons every church wants a pastor between the ages of 35 and 49). The silver bullet pastor is hard to find. No, the silver bullet pastor is impossible to find.

8. The church has unreasonable expectations for the new pastor. In addition to the silver bullet syndrome, some search committees have expectations for a pastor that are somewhere between sainthood and sinless. I have collected search committee profiles of prospective pastors over the years. That is a topic for another article on another day.

9. The year 2019 has become nostalgic for churches in general and for pastor search committees in particular. It really has not been that long since 2019. But many churches look at the last pre-pandemic year with longing and nostalgia. Most churches don’t have a realistic perspective of how 2019 really was, but they long to return to that year. Search committees thus seek a pastor who can restore the attendance, programming, and the number of guests back to pre-pandemic levels.

10. Many churches don’t realize that they cannot afford a full-time pastor. I recently met with a pastor search committee that had not been able to move forward for over a year. I asked about the compensation package for the pastor. The amount they gave me was below the poverty line for a family of four. Additionally, they offered no benefits. When I responded that the amount was absurdly low, one search committee member said they were counting on his wife working. Churches must be realistic about this issue. It might be time to look for a bi-vocational or co-vocational pastor.

Though we don’t have quantitative data, we anecdotally see churches taking much longer to find a pastor. These ten reasons at least partially explain the conundrum.

Posted on October 17, 2022

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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  • Lee M. Sanders says on

    I read the book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church a few years ago and can agree with the comments that we seem to be in a tailspin when it comes to reaching the unchurched and new members. As a Christian educator, I have met resistance when attempting to implement structure and organizational training as well as when evaluating our church health. It’s sad when we attempt to move the church forward but it’s stuck in the past.

  • Dr nobody says on

    Number four rings so true for me atleast. Im 34, earned my M.div while in the military and then my D.Min when I got out. I have years unpaid ministry experience but I can barely get maybe 1 responce out of hundreds of resumes. I have actually been told that my experience does not count because it was not a paid position. I have been trying to enter the pastorate for 15 years and no luck. The way I have been treated by churches has left such a sour taste in my mouth that I gave up on pursuing it anymore. Why would I want to go through the enotional abuse anymore. I love God and will serve him faithfully away from the pulpit.

  • Don Maiden says on

    Do you have any ideas about searching for pastoral staff, such as a worship pastor. Are the “10 Reasons” Search teams struggle finding other staff searches compatible with the search for lead pastor?
    Also, what are Co-vocational pastors? And if it’s what I think it is, wouldn’t the salaries and benefits for two part-time pastors be about equal or more than what the salary and benefits of one full-time pastor would be.?

    • What is a worship pastor?

      • I would imagine a worship pastor is a worship leader – musician, preacher, or something like that. But I’m only guessing.

      • Don Maiden says on

        A worship pastor in our church is an associate pastor to the Lead Pastor who is called by the Lead Pastor along with an appointed Staff Search Team to represent our church in seeking out God’s man to lead our worship ministry under the direction of the Lead Pastor. Since shepherding, overseeing, coordinating, and administrating an overall ministry of servant leadership recruitment and equipping to several teams of lay-staff–such as instrumental teams, praise and worship teams, tech teams, live streaming coordinators, special evangelistic event coordinators, funerals, personal hospital and care visitation to the general church (all are pastoral functions), and as one who expresses a true calling to the gospel ministry, we call our pastoral-staff men, pastors. Thanks for the questions.

    • Co-vocational pastors is a type of bi-vocational pastor. He’s not talking about two bi-vocational pastors. Co-vocational pastors might have more than one job.

      I would imagine searching for a “worship pastor” would be better located by describing what pastor is responsible for. Music, leading worship (which I would call an assistant pastor), etc.

  • William A. Secrest says on

    No. 10 is one that I have experienced many times. I have pastored for 20 years and have served two churches. Still pastoring in my second church and I am blessed to be full-time. I don’t know how many times I have been contacted by churches looking for a pastor and the first thing they wanted me to do was send them a copy of my current church’s budget. We all know why. They are immediately going to look and see how much I am paid. It is almost an understood expectation of search committees that the pastor’s spouse is going to be employed. My wife has worked all but two years that I have been in ministry. My current church takes care of me and I have no complaints. My first church paid me less money than a starting teacher in our local school system. It was not until later that I realized that my family could have qualified for food stamps. That should never happen but I have heard plenty of stories from pastors for whom that has happened.

  • Stephanie J. says on

    No. 10 saddens me. Mostly because it displays that it just doesn’t occur to the search committees to look at the search process from a “how would I like to be treated?” mentality. If they did, such a plan would never occur to them. Because never in a million years would it be acceptible for them to go to a job interview and be asked, “What does your spouse do? How much does she/he make?” Then again, many of these numbered items exhibit a less-than “do unto others” mentality.

  • Number 4 and number 7 hit the nail on the head. Been searching for over 6 years. Started when I was 58. Can’t even remember how many times I was told “we want someone younger who will bring in young people or “you probably won’t be around long.” One even said “you don’t talk like an old person.” Another church had their interim pastor (who was 3 years older than me and had turned down their offer) call me to let me know I’m too old. Too many churches have forgotten the value of “the veteran in the locker room.”

    • Ironically, older Pastors are probably more likely to stay longer in a position. There can be exceptions (health of aging parents for instance) but a lot of my seminary classmates who were in their 20s and 30s have had multiple calls. Most of my classmates who were in their late-40s and older have had 1 or possibly 2 calls. I will celebrate my 12th anniversary in my parish 7 days after I turn 60.

      Likewise, the “magic” of a younger pastor and the belief they will bring younger members misplaces the evangelism to the clergy and away from the real ones who can effectively build a church – the lay people. As I tell my members, if I invite someone to join our church they will likely say “that’s his job – trying to boost his position and salary.” But if one of the people in the pews invites someone to join them in church that really means something. The lay person inviting someone sends the signal, “my life and experience in this church is meaningful enough that I am willing to devote my time, talent, and treasure to it. It is important enough to not do other things that I might be able to do.”

  • A supporting illustration for point 1: Recently, our denomination had a transition meeting which used to be a place where clergy profiles could be presented and those profiles compared with open positions. In previous years there would be ~150 parishes presented and some reasonable number (typically around 100) candidates who were seeking a new call. The most recent had 156 churches with openings and 26 candidates presented.

    One problem, at least in a Denominational setting, there are requirements for membership in the Denomination (or a Denomination which is in Communion with the Denomination) to serve as a Pastor. While that is parochial and could be considered a hinderance to finding a Pastor, that is the way things work.

    There is a lot to be said about Parishes looking for the clergy of “1940” – someone who will work for cheap and be full-time. As you point out, the reality is most churches would be better served finding a Pastor but focusing on finding a person who can foster lay ministry and lay opportunities. Even in a denomination, there are few things that specifically REQUIRE being a clergy to do them.

    I don’t have any insights on how to solve the issue but it rests heavily on me.

  • David B Gray says on

    WOW…Dr Thom you have hit the nail on the head and CORRECT!!!
    Sending resumes for 3 years, caught front of pandemic!!! End of 2019- todate!!! THANKS for the TRUTH!!!

  • This was loaded with fantastic and helpful insights for selection committees (btw, that phrase has to be thrown out too!)…

    Truly praying this ‘not-top-10’ list will be utilized as a filter for those who are prayerfully seeking…

    Thank you for taking the time to craft this…

  • John Babu Chappidi says on

    Greetings to you from John Babu,
    I am pastor John Babu Chappidi from Guntur, state of Andhra Pradesh in India,we are working in remote areas,There are no churches to worship God in those villages where we are evangelizing, and the servants who are ministering there are facing many problems, pray for them, for the development of our ministry,
    Thank you very much