search challenges

Getting in the flow

In the field of positive psychology, focus is placed not on diagnosis and treatment of maladies but on creating the conditions for human flourishing. A key aspect of thriving is engagement, when we are so into what we are doing that everything else fades into the background while we are doing it. The flow model developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says that for people to be deeply engaged in an activity, the skill level of those people must be in balance with the challenge of the task. If skill availability is high while difficulty of the task is low, people will get easily bored. If the challenge outweighs the talents of those involved, the anxiety in the room ratchets up.

There are a few applications of the flow model to search team work. First, make sure that all the skills and qualities needed for a good search are represented on the search team. Otherwise the team will either be discouraged quickly or overconfident without good cause. Second, pace the work of the search well. Trying to move the process along too quickly will tip the scales toward challenge no matter how much skill is in the room.

The flow model is also useful in assessing candidate fit. If the congregation has done its self-study homework, it will have determined what kind of challenge God is calling the church to in this new season of ministry. A great-fit pastor will have the needed skills to lean into this mission and will draw gifts out of congregation members so that this vision of ministry can be faithfully pursued. If that minister doesn’t have the qualities needed, the church will start to worry, leading to conflict or stuckness. If that clergyperson is over-qualified to encourage and equip others in that vision, however, that leader will start to look around for bigger challenges in new congregational contexts.

If your search is not in flow mode, stop to consider why rather than pushing ahead. Course-correcting is always an option, and it’s much preferable to burning out your team or calling a pastor who isn’t a great fit.

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Safety in hard conversations

Hard conversations are everywhere – or at least are needed everywhere – these days. Politics, faith, and the practicalities of everyday life are converging in ways that necessitate honest and vulnerable dialogue if we are to grow as disciples and tend to the well-being of our congregations, our neighbors, and ourselves. Before we can have helpful hard conversations, however, we must establish some degree of safety for people to share their deepest worries and highest hopes. Trust is the bedrock of this safety, and I’ve written elsewhere about what trust is and how to build it.

In this post, though, I’d like to focus on signs that trust-building isn’t complete. (In a sense it is never finished, because the work of mutual respect is ongoing.) If one or more parties is engaging in either silence or violence, that means said party does not feel safe enough to be fully seen, and more trust-building exercises are required to create the conditions for real dialogue.

As defined in the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, silence is a fear reaction that can manifest as sugar-coating one’s feelings, avoiding the real issue, or walking away altogether. Violence is also a fear response, and it consists of such tactics as defensiveness, blaming others, and using power over another in manipulative ways.

All of these approaches to difficult topics are common in congregational life, and they can pop up in search team interactions. I wonder how our perspectives and the conversation might change, though, if we were able to keep in mind that silence and violence are the result of feeling afraid. With a more generous read, how might our willingness to engage and our approach itself evolve? What might we be willing and able to do with that generosity to continue upping the trust factor?

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Combatting bias

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell examines the snap decisions we make without even realizing the reasons behind them, leading to instinctive movements and unconscious bias. We can develop the ability to make good choices, but it takes learning to “thin-slice,” or hone in quickly on the most critical information in the face of so many details.

What does this mean for a pastoral search? Like it or not, search team members form opinions of candidates at first impression. This allows candidates who are very charismatic or who fit the mental picture of a pastor to muscle other (potentially better-fit) candidates out of the search team’s focus.

Search teams, then, must do their homework. First, they must take the time to build trust with one another so that if one team member has a great inclination or aversion to a particular candidate, others feel free to share dissenting opinions. Second, search team members must be very clear on the congregation’s criteria for a great-fit minister. Those bullet points can test first impressions to make sure they align with needed competencies. Third, taking individual notes after each interview and then comparing only after that round of conversations is complete can prevent the collective thoughts about one candidate from affecting the team’s attitude or hospitality toward another candidate. And finally, asking one another, “What excites us about each candidate? What challenges us?” gives search team members the chance to think about specific reasons for reactions to candidates.

Because we are human, we can leap to conclusions. Taking the above steps creates more space for the Holy Spirit to move in the search process, making it more possible for searches to move forward based on God’s nudging instead of personal preference.

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The course of least regret

A few weeks ago my area was under a tornado warning. (Tornado season in Alabama is pretty much year-round.) I turned on the tv to watch the continuous weather coverage, which was led by a meteorologist known for his suspenders and his uncanny knowledge of local landmarks. He was telling viewers that rotation could spin up at any time, so we should follow the “course of least regret.”

That phrase has stuck in my head ever since. It is an encouragement to look at the big picture. Don’t try to run out for supplies in this weather. Don’t decide today is the day to fulfill your stormchaser dream. Get to a safe place and hunker down until the danger has passed. Otherwise, you might get the batteries or see a marvel of nature but lose your life in the process.

Often, though, we find ourselves traveling the path of least resistance instead of the course of least regret. This perspective is focused on our present comfort level. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make anyone mad. Keep your imagination in check. We might stay safe in the short term, but we’ll have a lot of clean-up to do when suppressed emotions and long-held disappointments spin up.

While I like the thought of the course of least regret, I might reframe it more positively, like maybe the course of greatest possibility. We’re acknowledging what is going on in the present – as well as the potential impact – and responding pro-actively so as to keep future options open.

Where is your search team following the path of least resistance, and how is it limiting you? How might you take the on-ramp to the course of greatest possibility, earning trust and creating more options in the process?

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Consider the co-pastor model

In recent months I’ve had the opportunity to coach several co-pastor teams, each a bit different in its composition. Some of the teams are comprised of married couples, others are not. A few of the co-pastors have solo or lead pastor experience in their backgrounds, but the majority are in the first chair for the first time.

In addition to coaching these co-pastor teams, I have received inquiries from search teams about whether they should consider calling co-pastors. These questions often come from congregations that started out looking for one person to fill the role of pastor, then candidates have asked whether the church would be willing to call two ministers to fill the position.

Since the co-pastor model seems to be growing in prevalence, I think it would be worth most (if not all) search teams’ time to have a discussion about what that paradigm of leadership could look like in and whether it could work for your context. For search teams that seriously explore this staffing possibility, here are some advantages I have noticed from the co-pastors’ perspective:

Each co-pastor has a built-in sounding board. This cuts down on isolation, allows budding ideas to be more thoroughly thought-through before they are acted upon, and lets the congregation know that at least two minds are always at work on problems that pop up.

Complementary gifts mean that each co-pastor can lean more fully into strengths. There are some combinations of skill sets that are extremely rare to find in one person, causing solo pastors to have to work at times out of areas that are very challenging for them. It is very possible, however, to find co-pastors who are each good at different things. Thus more ministry areas are covered with greater competence, with less pastoral energy expended on working out of a growing edge.

Co-pastors can be in two places at any one time. Ministers often feel like there is not enough of them to go around. With co-pastors, the hospital visit and the finance committee meeting can be  covered simultaneously.

There are challenges to the co-pastor model, of course. Married co-pastors will, naturally, want to be on vacation at the same time. (I would argue, though, that this presents no more issues than a sole lead pastor being away.) And married co-pastors need to be careful that their ministry doesn’t consume their home life in unhealthy ways. On the whole, though, it is definitely worth search teams’ time to mull calling co-pastors if great-fit candidates present themselves.

As with any candidate, search team members should ask themselves what excites them about co-pastor possibilities, what support the co-pastors would need to thrive, and what educational pieces would help the congregation embrace this new-to-it way of doing ministry. These questions are opportunities for the church to grow in imagination and faith with the potential to expand pastoral leadership capacity.

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Broadening perspective when you're stuck

[Note: a version of this piece originally on laurastephensreed.com last year. I have been reminded lately how important it is to have tools for breaking out of a rut in search team work, so I am now sharing this post here.]

My son loves school, but every morning it’s like we’re living 50 First Dates. He forgets how much he enjoys learning and playing with his friends until he actually enters the building. He yells at our Amazon Echo when it reminds him that it’s time to get dressed for school. He mopes while he picks out (at an excruciatingly slow speed) his mismatched clothes.

Recently I’ve been using a coaching technique that has helped everyone’s mood. I’ve been taking his complaint and using it to broaden his perspective. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1

Alexa reminds him to get dressed.

Him: Your reminders are terrible, Alexa!

Me: Are they really that bad? Let’s play a game. We’ll take turn naming things more terrible than Alexa’s reminders. I’ll go first: dropping my ice cream on the ground.

Him: [Thinks.] A monster destroying Ninjago city.

Me: Getting a cold and missing something really fun.

Him: A baby penguin dying. [Yikes.]

After a couple more rounds, he was laughing and we were declaring each other winners of the game. He then got ready without complaint.

Example 2

Child is refusing to put on his school clothes.

Him: I don’t want to go to school today. Today is Saturday. I want every day to be Saturday.

Me: Hmmm. I like Saturdays too. What would you do on your perfect Saturday?

Him: [Lets me dress him while he talks.] I would watch the Ninjago movie and play Legos.

Me: That sounds fun! What would you eat for breakfast on your perfect Saturday?

Him: Fish and krill. [He was a penguin that day.]

By then he was dressed, and he penguin-waddled across the hall to brush his teeth.

In both of these examples, it would have gotten us nowhere for me to keep askyelling for him to get ready. We would have both been grumpy and started our respective days in a terrible headspace. But by taking his lead and using it as prompt for us both to think creatively, he felt heard and reoriented his focus.

I use this approach in my coaching. If a coachee gets stuck in a thought spiral – often around the worry that she is not an effective pastor – I ask a question to help her widen the view: “What’s the best affirmation you’ve received lately?” (Often this is not an explicit “thank you” but a realization that she has been invited into a tender place by a parishioner.) She realizes that she is making a difference in tangible ways. Or, “what is one change you’ve seen in the congregation since your arrival?” One small change opens the door to thinking about several ways the coachee has led the church toward growth.

This can work for search teams in their work too. Consider the following:

Search team member #1: We aren’t getting anywhere in this search.

Search team member #2: I had hoped we’d be further along by this point too. I wonder if we can find a hint about how to move forward if we think back on everything we’ve learned to this point about ourselves, our church, and our candidates.

Brainstorm what you know now as a team that you didn’t know at the beginning of the search process. Celebrate this new awareness, even if it parts of it seem negative. For example, you might name that the candidate pool is smaller than you anticipated. This is knowledge you can work with. What are the reasons the pool is small? Are you looking in the right places for candidates? Is your advertised compensation range too low? Have you made your criteria too stringent? Is there a shift in clergy availability that means you’ll need to be more creative in structuring the position to make it attractive to candidates? Moving the conversation in this discernment direction is important in at least three ways: it acknowledges the frustration of the current situation while limiting its power; it gets the brains in the room thinking in more positive ways, thus opening up the neural pathways for bigger-picture thinking; and it focuses on digging deeper for the data needed to jumpstart the search.

Perspective shifts like these are invaluable when there is stuckness. Next time you feel mired down, try opening up the conversation with a question, brainstorming prompt, or game.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash.

Eight Cs for growing trust

The most important ingredient in any process isn’t expertise or charismatic personalities or financial resources. It’s relationships. When the bonds are strong among the people involved, there can be productive disagreement, a full exploration of possibilities, deep investment in the work, and mutual support and accountability, all leading to forward progress.

The foundation of relationships is trust. Not simply predictability - I know your passions and hot buttons and how you’ll react to each being tapped - but shared vulnerability and risk-taking. Many pastor search teams start with some sense of predictability by virtue of the members attending church together for a long time. But most (if not all teams) will need to dig in before the search begins to develop the second-level trust that will allow for the most thorough and faithful search process.

What does it look like to grow that deep trust? Here are eight Cs - from lowest to highest risk - to guide that essential work:

Clarity is getting straight within ourselves about our thoughts and commitments, then being honest with others about them.

Communication is putting our clarified knowledge and understanding out there, and in turn listening to others with open hearts and minds.

Curiosity is admitting we don’t have the whole picture and wondering about what we don’t know.

Compassion is showing care to and connecting at a heart level with others, believing the best about them as we do so.

Companionship is being present and authentic while still maintaining the boundaries that allow us to be clear and compassionate.

Consistency is showing up the same way every time and admitting when circumstances have thrown us off balance.

Conflict is being willing to disagree and to have our ideas improved upon.

Control release is relinquishing attachment to the outcome, trusting that the process will end up as it should so long as we bring our whole selves to it.

In pastor searches, these Cs and the resulting trust can strengthen relationships not just within the search team but between the search team and congregation and between the search team and candidates. The effects of deepened connections, in turn, extend beyond the search itself, cultivating beloved community with the Source of love at its center.

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Having trouble pinpointing your congregation's identity? Here's a way in.

I was recently coaching co-pastors who wanted to help their congregation name and claim its identity, but they weren’t sure how to help the church get its arms around such a big topic. During their tenure, they hadn’t yet picked up on a narrative that felt like it captured both the past and current character of the congregation.

The pastors mentioned that there had been some good conversation around All Saints’ Day, when church members were telling the stories of people who were key figures in the congregation’s history. In recounting the names, the pastors recognized that the departed were loved for the ways they welcomed others through the things they did and by their very presence. The theme of hospitality emerged - not mere friendliness, but a deep sense of embracing everyone who comes through the doors. The co-pastors realized that hospitality is still a lived value in their church today. This awareness created excitement around a through-line that not only resonated but could be built upon in a number of ways in the coming year.

During pastoral transitions it is important for congregations to learn to tell their stories in ways that are informative, accurate, and hopeful. A resonant identity gives newcomers a reason to return, members a way to assess which ministries to undertake, and - perhaps most importantly for the purposes of a pastoral search - the congregation a sense of what they need in a clergyperson. Just as in the case of my co-pastor coachees, however, it can be difficult to know where to begin in sussing out church identity. If everyone in the room is shrugging their shoulders and looking to others for answers, ask about the congregation’s saints. Who are they? What are some anecdotes about them? How are they part of the church’s DNA? What are the legacies that the congregation has built on? Look for the commonalities and try them on: is this who we are? If so, what does that mean for what we do going forward and whom we call as our pastor?

This kind of historical study promotes hindsight rather than an unhelpful nostalgia for days gone by. Done thoughtfully, these questions about individuals can prompt laughter and tears and bring to light clarifying and encouraging through-lines that the church has never considered.

Photo by Zoran Kokanovic on Unsplash

Go slow to go fast

When we gather a search team, often the tendency is to capitalize on initial enthusiasm to get as much done as quickly as possible. That's totally understandable. After all, novelty begets energy, and we don't want to waste it. But if we haven't taken the time to build our team and outline our process, even a small bump can drain that momentum and derail our collective work.

That's why it's important - even though it's counter-intuitive - to start slowly. Develop relationships among the search team members. Learn where each person is coming from, what their reasons were for agreeing to serve, what skills and experience and ideas they bring, what they need from others in order to make their best contributions, and how they deal (or don't) with conflict. When those involved in the search have this kind of context for their teammates, they will be able to engage one another more quickly and effectively when difficulties arise.

In addition to interpersonal processes, agreeing on procedures at the outset can make work go faster down the road. What is the future story we're striving for? How does everyone plan to participate in the work? What is our timeline? How will we come to agreement on major decisions? How will we ground our work in God? How will we hold one another accountable? What will we do if we come to an impasse? Intentionality at the front end can ease - if not prevent - many stresses that pop up as humans, with our anxieties and agendas, cooperate.

Note that slow movement at the start might prompt questions from the team and the congregation such as "why are we wasting time on this ‘soft’ work?" Be prepared to explain how deliberateness serves both the overall goal and the speed of the work that is to come.

In what ways do you need to pump the brakes in order to do some of this foundational work? Though it might seem tedious at times, your relationships and your efforts will greatly benefit. If you need help with going slow, this trust-building workshop is worth your consideration.

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash.

Follow your curiosity

In a recent TED interview, author Elizabeth Gilbert talked about creativity in terms of following our curiosity. We are often told to follow our passions, she said, but that is advice that can lead to unnecessary risk and discouragement. Attending to our curiosity, in contrast, is more gentle. It involves asking questions before making big leaps: what's going on in me/us? What is God nudging me/us toward? What would it mean for me/us to make a major change? What would I/we need in order to take that step? The ultimate outcome might be the same, but it would derive from discernment and come with a more settled spirit. (The point is not to abandon passion, after all, just to probe it a bit.) Or the queries might lead to a previously-unconsidered way of being faithful to God.

This curiosity is not just useful for individuals but also for groups such as search teams. Sometimes teams want to drive right in to their work, or they are drawn to a particular candidate from the first encounter. Asking questions can help flesh out the process, provide needed touchstones, situate the work in service to God-given vision, and allow us to explain why the candidate of choice is the best fit. These reflection points might also reveal that the team is not yet ready to get into the meat of a search or that a candidate - while charismatic - does not meet essential criteria, saving a lot of heartache down the road.

As you consider what is going on in and around you (as an individual and as part of a collective), where would a bit of curiosity help you listen deeply, plan faithfully, and move forward confidently?

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A spirituality of stewardship

[Note: a version of this post originally appeared on laurastephensreed.com.]

We're coming to the tail end of the traditional stewardship season, and it's highly possible that your church is sweating pledge numbers that currently fall short of its ministry dreams for 2019. (This is common across congregations - you are not alone! - and even moreso during pastoral transitions.) You might also have a treasurer, bookkeeper, or ministerial staff person anxiously reminding members how much people need to give between today and the New Year's ball drop to end 2018 without a deficit.

Here's the thing: we as individuals and churches will always struggle with money - and our feelings about it - as long as it is only a means to an end: "We've gotta make our budget so that..." It's not a sentiment that will make people whip out their checkbooks and credit cards and smartphones with money transfer apps. But you know what might? "God is calling us to do this exciting thing, and we don't want you to miss out on being part of it!"

This is what renowned minister and author Henri Nouwen called a spirituality of fundraising. He approached the ask not as an unfortunate necessity to be apologized for (a tack that makes so many stewardship sermons cringe-worthy) but as an invitation to others to join in the work to which God has called us. As such, fundraising is relational and community-building, not transactional. For Nouwen, fundraising was a “call to conversion,” an opportunity to re-orient our focus to the world beyond ourselves - to begin to see things as God sees them - as well as to transform our relationship to our own resources. In the process, we partner with God in bringing the reign of God here on earth. In taking this loftier view of fundraising, we are free to make the request out of our sense that we are ministering not just to the people we might serve with the money but also to the givers themselves. To me, that is a compelling message. It is inclusive. It is formational. And it recognizes that those with resources have needs that can be met by relationship, so all parties involved are both giving and receiving.

This is all well and good, but what do stewardship and a spirituality of fundraising have to do with pastoral searches? Often churches regard the time between settled ministers as an opportunity to save money by getting as little external help as possible (e.g., supply preachers or part-time interim clergy). The compilation of the new pastor’s compensation package can trigger debate about how much salary the congregation can afford and how much the incoming pastor actually needs. Both of these tendencies derive from an approach to money based on shrinking the vision to match what we already know about our assets, not from a freedom in God to dream and to invite others into that dream. And both prevent the church from moving toward its next chapter of ministry with enthusiasm and the most motivated leadership.

So as you come to the end of this year and the brink of the next, I encourage you to view stewardship and fundraising as opportunities to grow disciples of Christ and to attract the most qualified and energetic ministerial candidates as we all move together into the future God is compelling us.

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash.

Staff involvement with a senior pastor search

At a church with staff, there are often questions about whether and how staff should be involved in a senior pastor search. Here are some reflection questions to guide those decisions:

What does your polity say (officially and unofficially)? In some denominations there is a policy – or at least an expectation – that staff members serve at the pleasure of the senior pastor. This means that staff, ministerial and otherwise, typically have little to no input into a senior pastor/head of staff search. It’s important to know what your judicatory recommends or requires.

What do you need to know from the staff? Most laypeople don’t know much about the day-to-day operations of a church, much less the details of a pastor’s schedule and the weight of conflicting expectations. Staff could provide essential information that helps shape search criteria and interview questions.

Beyond “need to know” information, how might the wisdom of the staff positively inform the search? Pastoral staff in particular can speak to congregational needs and dynamics that could greatly impact ministerial fit.

How might the staff’s attachment to the search outcome potentially hinder healthy involvement? Staff at a church without a settled senior pastor are stretched thin (having picked up extra duties) and highly anxious (worrying about compatibility with the next senior pastor). And on occasion – if polity allows – a minister on staff might want to be considered for the senior pastor position. As a result, staff involvement might (unconsciously) be shaped largely by self-interest rather than investment in the congregation.

Use your responses to these questions to create clear expectations about what staff involvement with the search will look like: no involvement, information provider, ex-officio/non-voting role, or full member of the search team. No matter what you decide, remember to communicate frequently with staff to let them know how the search is progressing, and thank them often for their ministry during this challenging season.

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Helpful principles for getting the word out about your open position

Is your search team unsure where to begin with getting the word out about the ministerial opportunity at your church? Or has the search team started advertising, only to be disappointed by the number or caliber of profiles and resumes received? Perhaps journalist Malcolm Gladwell can help. In his 2000 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Gladwell explores what it takes for an illness, a trend, or a message to go viral. Here are the implications for a ministerial search:

First, notice of your congregation's search needs to reach what Gladwell calls connectors, mavens, and salespeople. Connectors know and keep up with a wide swath of friends and acquaintances, simply because they enjoy the interactions. Mavens seek and share information, eager to improve the lives of those around them through the distribution of what they've learned. And salespeople persuade not just through their words, but also through their way of being in the world. Identify these three types of people in your search team/congregation's circles of influence - and there might be overlap - and leverage their natural amplification tendencies.

Second, ensure the notice about your open position that you give to your connectors, mavens, and salespeople is "sticky." Make it memorable by staying away from generic descriptors about your church ("welcoming," "loving," etc., even though these words hopefully apply to your congregation!) and hooking potential candidates with a compelling story or information about a ministry that is unique to your church.

Third, find the contexts in which candidates who might be good matches for your church are looking for position postings. Use official denominational channels. Buy space or airtime for your search announcement in print/online publications or on podcasts that your kind of pastor might be reading or listening to. Have your connectors, mavens, and salespeople work their contacts at the seminaries whose theologies align well with your congregation's and the conferences that potential candidates might attend. Use all of these outlets to push your sticky search message.

While your open position will not be a great fit for everyone who finds out about it, leaning on connectors, mavens, and salespeople, creating a sticky message, and seeking out the right contexts for identifying candidates whose skills and beliefs line up well with your church's needs will give you an ample stack of potential matches to consider.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash.

Common approaches to soliciting candidates

In some denominations, most or all resumes or profiles come through a national or regional office. For congregations that receive this candidate information directly, however, there are several schools of thought about which applicants to consider:

Everyone. The search team will look at all resumes, whether they were sent directly by the candidate or by someone else on the candidate’s behalf.

Pro: you might find stellar candidates who weren’t on any influencer’s radar.

Con: you might have a tall stack to sort through, with resumes that need a closer read than those who were referred.

Consider: what difference does it make to your search team - if any - when a minister self-refers?  

Only candidates who are not looking. Some congregations don't like to advertise at all. Instead, they look for ministers who are doing good work where they happily serving.

Pro: this minister is likely competent, already being at a church.

Con: there are many great candidates out there who are looking for reasons other than because they are un-callable. (Maybe their positions were downsized, or they were victims of sexual harassment, or they have just not yet found the right fit.)

Consider: would you would want another congregation to lure your (content) minister away?

Only candidates who are referred by trusted sources. It's becoming a more common practice to solicit names from seminary faculty, consultants, and ministers who are friends of the congregation.

Pros: these candidates have built-in references and are well-networked.

Cons: you might get roughly the same list from every source, who in turn might be giving that list to other churches.

Consider: what questions you might ask your sources to uncover less obvious – and therefore a better range of – candidates?

Whatever approach your search team chooses for gathering candidate profiles, consider ministers who would stretch your congregation and remember to be hospitable in all your interactions. Communicate with everyone whose resume or profile you receive, and affirm candidates’ gifts even as you tell them you will not be continuing conversations.

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Strengths versus skills

When searching for a new minister, it is vitally important to discern what each candidate’s strengths are and how they align with your position description. Strengths are God-given talents. They are central to a person’s identity. They are manifestations of passion and purpose.

Skills are a bit different. We pick up skills through education and experience. They are add-ons. They’re important too, but some skills are better indicators of fit than others. If the skill is built on top of one of my strengths, then it enhances my ability to live fully into my call. If the skill is something I’ve learned out of necessity – not because it aligns with my purpose – then it can actually be a distraction, even if it’s a really useful ability. For example, I have taken several pastoral care classes and spent many hours making hospital and home visits. I’m pretty decent at it. Pastoral care, however, is not my natural gift. It takes substantial time for me to rev up for and recover from this work. If your church needed someone who would spend 10+ hours per week checking on folks, then I would not be your ideal candidate. My energy is increased, though, by coaching people toward action, writing sermons, and attending to details, and I’ve developed a range of skills that build on these strengths. I would thrive in a context that wanted me to preach once a month, plan ministries, proofread newsletters, and coach ministry leaders.

Most candidate resumes and profiles will include strengths, skills that relate to these strengths, and skills that don’t. It is important for your search team to develop questions that distinguish among these three categories. When are you most engaged in ministry? What pieces of ministry drain you? How would you state your purpose in ministry in one sentence?

A great-fit candidate will be one whose strengths, associated skills, and sources of energy match your congregation’s priorities. That minister will be able to give maximum effort and be set up to thrive.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

The why behind all the paperwork at the end of a search

You might be wondering why Searching for the Called emphasizes trust-building with candidates (and other affected parties) throughout the process, then pushes for extensive discussion and clarity around the nuts and bolts of the agreement in the covenanting phase. If congregation and clergy trust each other, shouldn’t that be enough? Why do we need to name and put expectations of one another and the terms of call in writing?

Leadership changes. The chair of your search team or governing board might know all the details that went into covenanting and compensation conversations, but what happens when that person is no longer in that position, leaves the church, or dies?

Memory fails us. We often give our recall ability more credit than it deserves. It’s easy to forget or mis-remember, and often the people in the room will later recount the same conversation in divergent ways.

Documents provide touchstones. How is the pastor-parish relationship going? You can compare its current state to the promises you put on paper, then course-correct as needed.

Assumptions breed problems. Unvoiced ideas lead to clashes in expectations, which can quickly escalate.

Transparency breeds even greater trust. Nothing undergirds a healthy relationship more effectively than meticulousness and forthrightness.

Get the details in writing. Your church will save itself a lot of conflict and heartache – which distract from the work of ministry - down the road.

Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash.

Why don't I offer vetting services?

I have received a few contacts from congregations asking if I vet candidates for pastoral searches. Here’s the short answer: no. I’ll explain why I believe vetting is work that belongs to the search team:

You are the expert on your congregation. I know about processes, powerful questions, church size and life stage dynamics, the duties of a pastor, and other such things. But no two churches are exactly alike, and no one knows your congregation like you do.

A search rooted in hospitality requires the willingness to interact with all candidates, at least on paper. Imagine a party at which a gatekeeper turns away certain people at the door – before you as host have even had a chance to greet these folks. What if those who are turned away are really interesting and would have added a lot to the gathering? And what could this rejection do to the hearts and minds of partygoers who were excited about the event but weren’t even allowed into the foyer?

The resume reading and interview processes are opportunities for spiritual growth. God moves in powerful and surprising ways through interaction with candidates. And your increased dependence on God to point you toward a great-fit candidate will lead to a deepened trust in God.

You will be more invested in your new pastor if you have walked with that candidate through each stage of the search. Letting someone beyond your church cull your candidates sows the seeds of discontent. When your new minister disappoints you – which is inevitable – you might jump to the conclusion that your vetters made a mistake. If there is solid trust between the search team that did the work and the congregation, though, the new minister will have more margin for error and there will be re-doubled effort to make the pastor-parish relationship work.

You can do this. It’s true, maybe you’ve never done it before. But I’ve given you good tools, and God will be as involved in the process as you let God be.

Ministerial searches are hard work, and the bulk of that work comes from listening deeply to candidates’ stories and imagining the various futures your church could enjoy under each minister’s leadership. The benefits of this wrestling, however, are not just in the outcome (a new minister) but also in the process itself.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash.

#MeToo, #ChurchToo, and pastoral searches

Over the past several months, revelations of sexual harassment and assault have stunned many and brought to light the pervasiveness of abuse and silencing. The church has not escaped scrutiny, nor has it been acquitted of wrongdoing. In fact, abuse perpetrated by spiritual leaders against other staff or congregants has proven to be widespread. These realities have implications for pastoral searches:

Recognize there might be resume gaps that a candidate cannot fully explain. Sometimes survivors of sexual assault or harassment are compelled to sign a non-disclosure agreement to receive severance or settlement payments. (Some clergy depend on this money to make ends meet until finding a new call.) That means they cannot talk about their reasons for departing their previous position. On the flip side, ministers who have perpetrated abuse might leave their churches suddenly - and not have a compelling explanation - when allegations surface.

Do your due diligence. These days it is imperative to do an extensive background check on your candidate of choice. This search should – at minimum – include state and national criminal records. (Many congregations will also look for red flags in driving and financial records.)

Make no assumptions. If something your search team picks up on causes a question or hesitation, pursue it. You don’t want to weed out a great candidate if your gut reaction turns out to be nothing, and you don’t want to call a minister who has a history of abuse in the hopes that things will be different at your church. (Spoiler alert: abusers rarely change their ways of their own volition.)

Set up strong support for the new pastor from the outset. Help your minister meet other clergy and community leaders. Establish a pastoral support team. Encourage your minister to retain the services of a coach and to join or start a peer learning group. Pastoral isolation is a setup for boundary violations (whether as initiator or target) that alter the lives of everyone involved as well as the witness of the church.

Now that the truth of so much hurt is emerging, the church has a responsibility to acknowledge it and an opportunity to accompany the recipients of it through their healing.

Photo by jessica kille on Unsplash.

Social media and the pastoral search

During a recent webinar, a judicatory leader asked how I advise search teams with regards to reading through candidates’ social media profiles. It was a great question. Search teams should absolutely do their due diligence with internet searches, background checks, and conversations with references. However, there are some potential pitfalls when it comes to perusing candidates’ posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Here are some things you need to know when checking candidates out on social media:

Timing is everything. Consider – and agree upon as a search team – the best stage of the search for scrolling through candidates’ social media. If your team members do this too early, you’ll have a lot of information with very little context, plus you’ve made extra work for yourselves.

Litmus tests don’t tell you what you really need to know. What I believe personally about a political issue might not directly correlate with how I would respond as a minister in a situation related to that issue. Your search team might needlessly weed out some great-fit candidates by making the leap from the title of an article a candidate shares and that candidate’s pastoral approach.

Many pastors don’t maintain separate professional and personal profiles. If all of your candidates’ worlds collide on social media, then that candidate’s parishioner, mom, middle-school nemesis, and softball teammate are commenting on the same posts. Keep in mind that without careful monitoring and a touch of censorship, it is hard for the candidate to control everything these people from various venues and eras write – including about the candidate.

We live in politically-charged times. Many ministers have waded into previously untouched waters on social media because they feel strongly about current issues they believe are life-or-death. This takes courage and shows leadership.

Some ministers use their social media outlets as discussion boards. Pastors might deliberately post something provocative to get a robust conversation going – and their sermons and teaching will likely be more well-rounded for having sought out different points of view.

Everyone has done things they regret. And the younger the candidate, the more likely that moment was caught on camera and shared widely. Consider whether the incident inspired repentance and was a teachable moment, both for the candidate and for the people the candidate has led since.

Bottom line: if your search team reads through a candidate’s social media posts and finds something that raises a question, then ask that question – to the candidate. You will build communication, trust, and understanding instead of cutting a candidate loose based on an assumption.

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash.