Who Should Select Church Staff? Pastor? Search Committee? Personnel Committee? Congregational Vote? Judicatory Authority?

It is both a question and a frustration.

The question is often stated as the title of this post: Who should select the church staff?

The frustration takes place when different parties feel left out of the process. Sometimes it’s the pastor who is frustrated. Sometimes it’s a committee. Sometimes it’s the entire congregation.

After working with churches for over thirty years, I have seen these issues become points of unity, and I have seen these become points of divisiveness. As a consequence, I have developed the following guidelines. In some cases, polity determines the selection and hiring of staff, so there will obviously be exceptions.

  1. If the pastor has no say in the selection of staff, the church is asking for problems. Particularly with direct reports, the pastor will be working with these people day by day. If pastors feel they are left out of the process, tensions could naturally be the consequence. There are very few organizations anywhere other than some churches that hire direct reports for a supervisor without the supervisor’s input. It’s just not wise.
  2. If pastors do have unilateral authority, they still should seek input from others. I have been in situations where I had complete freedom to hire someone without consulting others. One of my most difficult hires took place when I did not seek counsel. I learned a painful lesson. Even if pastors can hire without the approval of others, it is good for these leaders to listen to others.
  3. Congregational votes for staff can be problematic. Pastors should do a thorough work to prepare for that vote. No, I am not a fan of congregational votes for staff members other than the pastor. Most of the members do not have nearly the knowledge of the prospective staff member as those making the recommendation, whether it’s a pastor or a committee. Sometimes the process can become a popularity contest. Sometimes members in the church are mad because their cousin was not chosen. If a congregational vote is mandated by polity or bylaws, the pastor should be fully prepared to answer any or all questions about the candidate before the vote takes place.
  4. Search firms can be helpful to the process. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the role of search firms more and more. Most of them go through the process exceedingly well. There are two common objections to retaining search firms. The first is that it’s the church’s role to hire staff. I totally agree! Search firms do not choose the staff person. They provide candidates for the church or pastor to decide. The second objection is that search firms cost too much. If the search firm helps the church find the right candidate, it is a bargain. If the church gets the wrong staff person without a search firm, the cost is much greater to replace him or her.

These are some of the thoughts I provide churches looking for staff members, especially those who will work directly with the pastor. I would love to hear your perspective on this issue. What does your church do? Does it work well?

Posted on September 16, 2019

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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  • Should a paid staff member serve on other committee in the church?

  • Dr. Rainer:
    Would you have any stats whether or not elder-ruled churches are better for pastoral tenure than congregational-ruled churches? And what percentage of SBC churches are elder-ruled?


  • Gavin White says on

    I first read your post last month when it first appeared. I disagreed with it because churches, by their origin and nature, are not businesses and do not need any outside search business to do their work for them. Nor do they need lists of dos and don’ts for it’s corporate life in Christ. And so I moved on.

    Not surprisingly the Wartburg Watch picked up on the post and to their credit hey circulated to a much wider audience. Since then, a number of people have used it as an opportunity to ridicule it and the wider evangelical church. So I thought I should at least offer reasons for my opinion.

    The first is that many churches are congregational in their polity. They are independent and are responsible for all their own affairs. It is entirely right that they alone should appoint their office bearers. With Christ as their Head, the Holy Spirit as their indwelling guide to the sacred and infallible Scriptures, they do not need the world to tell them what to do. Of course, like anything else, the church is a community of fallen (but redeemed) people from every nation on earth and favouritism and cliques sometimes hold unhealthy sway in the decision making process. But that is no reason to throw the baby(Jesus) out with the bath water.

    Many of you constituents are in the SBC, and some of their largest churches have tolerated the most egregious sins without so much as a “tut tut!”. It is usually at this point that the SBC say “Ah, we are a convention and don’t force our views on anyone”. However, in expressing such a low view of the ordinary member, you and the SBC leave yourselves open to the charge that you care mainly about other things, like the bottom line.

    Finally, the methods you propose in no way reflect anything in the Five Solas, TULIP, or in even the earliest practices of the Reformation or, for that matter, of the early church.

    The business mentality of modern American Neo Calvinism is doing irreparable harm to the cause of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    I say this with no axe to grind – although as a descendant of the Covenanters I should qualify my remarks – all is for Christ’s Crown and Covenant. Also as an aside, the opening pages of a marvellous book called “Reformation Worship” sum up the purpose of the Church as “Worship and Witness”.

    With sincere regards

  • An old saying is “Sheep breed sheep and shepherds raise shepherds.” Not the best way to put it, but it has validity. The average church member has no clue how to call a pastor let alone other staff. Some of the things I have experienced or heard from colleagues over the years is scary. I may write a book about that some day.

    I have been too young and now too old. I have been too bold, not bold enough. Too separated, not separated enough. Too educated or not enough or not the right school. Too fat for a church that wanted me to come if I went on a diet. Oddly, the pastor liked to tell me that Baptists are too legalistic as he was a Bible church lad. Yet, he took me to Burger King instead of a salad bar to tell me this. His version reads, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and weight 150 pounds and thou shalt be saved and able to serve.” No legalism there.

    I have had congregation members practically beg me to come back, but I was too shallow for that committee. I had tried to lighten up because I had been told I was too deep. If I was too deep with just a BRE what would the ThD they wanted be like? He would be preaching to the Chinese.

    I could tell a teacher made up one questionnaire because it was all Yes or No with no room to answer fully. I could see the old time holed test correction thing where they laid it over and checked off the “right” answer and if you did not get a 90% or above you were done.

    They often were abusive or condescending to my wife because she is an introvert who works in the background but they wanted her to almost be after to step over my body if I died in the pulpit and finish the message.

    Most have highly outdated doctrinal statements and other documents. When you arrive you find out what they really believe. One had read prayers like an Episcopal church, women on one side and men on the other like Mennonites, and other idiosyncrasies. They came out of a Methodist church and called a Baptist to preach in view of call. I told them they had to figure out who they were as all of those things were set up by previous preachers and they really had no idea what they were at the core. They had Sunday School after the AM service so a Methodist lad could come teach Arminianism when I had just preached a securest message.

    While there are dangers of a pastoral succession method it really is better than a congregational method. Maybe a good idea would be for a group of pastors of like faith to interview the men and make their recommendation to the congregation of three men to choose from. I was once 3 of 7. I answered the questions correctly according to the deacon I stayed with that afternoon. I found out I came in second to a man who answered all the questions opposite of what they wanted. He was number 7 so they remembered him most. I was glad that being that far back they remembered me at all. Oh, the young married class was in their 50s and the rest were 70 and up so the memory issue is understandable.

    They asked one lad if he wore glasses because they did not want a pastor with glasses. He did not wear glasses, but he declined their invitation. One church picked a friend of mine because they were afraid my German ancestry might make me dictatorial.

    There was seldom any discussion related to 1 Tim 3 and very little doctrinal discussion. I got a call from a church in upstate NY who had just fired a pastor after a month because he was preaching Baptist Bride sermons. I knew the guy. They said they had never heard of such a thing. I told them it was mostly a Southern thing and not near as widespread as it once was. They would not have been able to ask him the question since they had no clue. Baptist Church of Christ would have confused them as well. We have those in TX.

    A pastor raising up someone, ideally from the congregation, would be the ideal. Paul ordained men to ordain men in the churches. Compared to the chaos I have seen it really is the best method. If they have this much issue with a pastor how could they possibly do well with other staff members?

  • If the senior pastor does not have hire/fire power, he can’t keep the staff working. They can lazy beyond description and get their way.

    It is a hopeless situation.

    All a music director has to do to “get his way” is have his wife complain to some old women in the choir who, in turn, run to their deacon husbands. The pastor then has no way to give direction to the work load or the music ministry of the church.

    Been there; seen it all.

    The Elder rule thing doesn’t work either.

  • I go through this blood-letting, super-depressing process every time a staff member leaves for another call. The process the church adopted years ago was just to copy the pastor search process and change the position name for music, youth and children leader positions. The search committee is selected by popular vote, whether they are spirit-led people or even regular attendees or not. Often the same people are chosen on subsequent committees, who then say they were selected to ‘find’ the new hire. Pastor gets the honor of angering the committee if he doesn’t believe their choice is the right candidate and pastor is asked if ‘he’ can work with the candidate.
    Dr Rainer I was really hoping for more objectivity, a presentable gameplay for the church, and some sense of a clear direction based on the article title that you supplied. Disappointed in the article, it turned into a venting post for people with bad experiences ‘like me’, it presented all approaches and viewpoints as equal and failed to provide usable, objective answers.

    • Sorry to disappoint, Keith.

    • George RIchardson says on

      Keith –

      Your comment is unfair to Thom and seems to reflect your own frustrations and lack of objectivity. Thom is clearly against any church hiring a direct report to the pastor without the pastor having a say. He does address the issues of polity and tradition, but he is very clear on the path that needs to be taken

  • I have been at a few churches with paid staff. A couple of times I went through a few as they would work for a few months and then leave for a better paid position. My wife ended up filling in and doing the job for pay. Never complained about the pay.
    The next church with paid staff I came in with a paid secretary. She had worked to get some pay adjustments so that she earned almost 50% of what the pastor was paid. She did that while they were vacant and no one considered what the impact would be when they got a paid pastor. It was very difficult as she was manipulative and would tell stories that were not always believable. Finances got tight and she had to retire and started a sabotage campaign against me as she felt she was more important to the church than I was. She was in her third job when I finally took a call elsewhere. Still bad mouthing me. (I ran into other ministers who knew her.)
    My current call I came into an office with a paid secretary. We got along famously. She had had issues with the previous pastor and when I dug into it, it had to do with pay. Still had no issues with just had to supervise a little closer. Unfortunately she had to leave on disability as she came down with cancer, and the next year passed away. The board of elders (similar to a board of deacons) hired my wife as a replacement and asked me before hiring her if I could work with her. Thankfully I can and she has worked out well, but they did the interviewing and hiring. The congregation is also happy with her work. So it is a win all the way around, but I am glad they did ask for my input.

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