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3 challenges to the traditional search committee

| by Brian Thorstad

Congregational churches have traditionally replaced their pastors with the help of “search” or “pulpit” committees, made up of a combination of board members and non-board representatives of the congregation. The non-board members of the group are, in some churches, chosen by the church’s leaders, but are more typically elected by the congregation.   

In the worst cases: (1) any member who wants to serve is allowed to be a part of this vitally important group, (2) members are chosen as representatives of church constituencies, ministries, or demographic groups, or, (3) members are nominated “from the floor” of congregational business meetings.  

To say that the process is fraught with peril would be an understatement. In the best version of the traditional model: (1) church board members nominate or appoint the most mature, emotionally healthy Christians in the church (regardless of age or gender), (2) the group receives training and ongoing support from an outside consultant or transitional pastor, (3) the process is saturated with prayer and Bible study and, (4) the result is a great match between the new pastor and the church.  

Traditionally, especially in smaller congregations, the departing pastor has no involvement in the process; his input is neither sought nor given.  He leaves a couple of notes and a pile of keys on his desk, then rides off into the sunset and prays that the church finds a worthy successor.  

But the times are changing. The high number of pastor/church mismatches is leading increasing numbers of evangelical leaders to re-think this process.   

Larger churches, for many years, have seen a higher handoff success rate by way of succession plans that involve planning and forethought on the part of the church board and the departing pastor. “There is no success without a successor” is a pretty good truism which surfaces repeatedly in thought-provoking books like NEXT: Pastoral Succession That Works, by Warren Bird and William Vanderbloemen and SET IT UP, Planning a Healthy Pastoral Transition, by Parnell M. Lovelace, Jr.  

Re-thinking pastoral succession in smaller, congregationally governed churches is not going to be easy. By no means do I feel that I have all the answers but I have identified the following three challenges to the traditional model: 

1. The failure of many search committee outcomes: In my role as a transitional pastor, I’ve coached five long-term pastor search teams. The results have been mixed. About a year after one serious mismatch, a wonderful brother who had served on the search committee told me that “we might as well have thrown a handful of resumes up in the air and chosen the one which landed on the table.” If we’re going to use traditional search teams, we had better do better than that. 

2. The success of some pastor-led succession plans: These don’t always work either of course and not every departing pastor is qualified (or desired) to be a part of the succession process. When, however, the pastor is highly regarded, it stands to reason that he’s going to have a pretty good idea of the kind of pastor needed to succeed him.  

3. Our own traditional, congregational polity: If we are going to change our ways, we’re going to have to change our by-laws (or constitutions) as well as our attitudes. Beyond the local church level, judicatories (association or denominational leaders) are going to have to change their perspectives and policies as well.  

I don’t pretend to know the last word on this subject, but I’m convinced that we have to study the Scriptures (which often model leadership succession, but never in the congregational style) and prayerfully consider alternative ways of replacing our senior pastors.   

Photo source: istock

Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.

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