Troubleshooting

While ministerial transitions present opportunities, they can also take their toll. Here are some thoughts around issues that commonly come up in interim periods. See below for suggestions regarding the following issues:

  • The church is in conflict about who it is/is becoming.
  • There is secrecy around the reason for the last minister’s departure.
  • The judicatory is not offering the church and/or search team the help it needs.
  • Some search team and/or church members think the search team is wasting time with “soft” work (e.g., trust-building and discernment).
  • The pool of candidates is too small.
  • The pool of candidates is too big.
  • The church cannot offer compensation commensurate with the skill and experience level it wants in a minister.
  • The search team is exhausted.
  • There is conflict within the search team.
  • The congregation is pushing the search team to go faster than it’s able to go.
  • The search team can imagine a future with more than one of the candidates.
  • The search team is worried that the candidate of choice will stretch the congregation too much.
  • A red flag came up in the reference or background checks of the candidate of choice.
  • The candidate of choice declined our offer.
  • The congregation/governing board/judicatory didn’t approve the candidate the search team put forth.
  • The called minister can’t start as soon as the congregation would like.
  • The called minister is getting off to a rough start.

The church is in conflict about who it is/is becoming. This is a signal to slow down. Any settled minister called during a period of active conflict will likely end up becoming an unintentional interim minister. If your congregation is trying to manage the transition without outside help, now is the time to call in the eyes and ears of someone who is not emotionally invested. Contact your judicatory or denomination for help, covenant with an intentional interim minister, or seek out a coach or consultant. The cost in time and dollars in the short run will be far less than the financial, emotional, and spiritual expense of a short tenure and resulting search.

There is secrecy around the reason for the last minister’s departure. This is a really tricky situation, especially if people involved in the secret remain in the congregation. Seek guidance from your judicatory or denomination about how to proceed. An invaluable resource for lay leaders about the differences between secrecy and confidentiality is Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock.

The judicatory is not offering the church and/or search team the help it needs. Contact other current or former search team chairs in your judicatory and pool your knowledge and resources. Ask clergy in your judicatory who have a particularly good relationship with their congregations about what their search team did well. Conduct an internet search for resources. Contact a coach or consultant about their services.

Some search team and/or church members think the search team is wasting time with “soft” work (e.g., trust-building and discernment). Trust – the kind that creates space for honesty and vulnerability, not just the kind that allows us to predict the behaviors of others – is the foundation for collaboration. Trust allows team members to feel comfortable putting all ideas and concerns on the table, even when there is disagreement. Trust seeds a shared vision and encourages team members to hold one another accountable for working toward that vision. Without trust, the search “team” is actually a collection of individuals, not an entity that has fully put egos and agendas aside for the good of the search. While trust is the glue among humans, faith is the bond between people and God. In establishing disciplines that allow the team to listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit, the team is saying that it trusts God wants good for their congregation. Without this intentionality around discernment, the search process will likely end in a purely intellectual decision rather than a faithful response to God’s guidance.

The pool of candidates is too small. Here there are a few ways to proceed:

  • Expand and re-cast your search net. Timing is important; people who weren’t searching when you originally put the word out might be looking now. Work your contacts, because word-of-mouth advertising is as important as utilizing official denominational channels.
  • Re-consider the criteria for a good fit as well as the compensation range. Staying true to the direction the congregation has discerned is crucial, but sometimes the stated skills and experience and the unspoken qualifications sought in a minister are out of sync with the actual needs of the church. Similarly, the proposed pay range can be out of step with the level of responsibility sought in the new minister.
  • Ponder your congregation’s reputation. Clergy talk with one another about which congregations are good to partner with and which ones are not. If your church has a high rate of ministerial turnover, do some intensive self-examination around why that is and work toward changes as needed. Then communicate the courageous, vulnerable work you’ve done regarding these changes far and wide.

The pool of candidates is too big. If all of your candidates meet your baseline criteria for a good-fit minister, consider increasing the requisite qualifications. In addition or alternatively, create a means for quickly identifying the heart of a ministerial profile or resume. For example, ask candidates to write or record a story about a time when the candidate has most fully lived into God’s call.

The church cannot offer compensation commensurate with the skill and experience level it wants in a minister. Mull the following:

  • See point # 2 under “The pool of candidates is too small” above as well as the section on hacks for small churches.
  • Consider what contribution your congregation could make to the wider Church by serving as a training ground for new ministers. Seminary students and recent graduates need spiritually mature, nurturing congregations to try out their new knowledge and skills and to develop their pastoral identities. Without the guidance, accountability, and love of these congregations, ministers struggle to live fully into their calling.

The search team is exhausted. Ministerial searches are not for the faint of heart! They are long, sometimes difficult processes. Be sure to celebrate what the team has learned and accomplished to this point. Take time to breathe and to pray, sharing honestly with and listening for a response from God. Assess where the team is in the process. Is the home stretch in sight, or is the team having to go back to the drawing board? If it’s the former, discuss what could re-energize the team. If it’s the latter, consider whether the current search team members have the time and the will to keep serving. Remember that it is better to take the necessary time – which sometimes means a complete search reboot – than to make a hasty (which often translates to costly) decision.

There is conflict within the search team. Conflict itself is value-neutral; it is simply a difference of opinion. If the team has laid a solid foundation of trust, then lean into established spiritual disciplines and check out the “questions to break open stuckness or tension.” If the team is experiencing the kind of conflict that results in team members either going into “my way or the highway” mode or emotionally withdrawing from the team, it’s time to loop back around to trust-building exercises. If the discussion points and exercises don’t help everyone get on the same page, bring in some outside assistance such as a judicatory leader or coach.

The congregation is pushing the search team to go faster than it’s able to go. Transparency goes a long way in reducing anxiety. Share 1) as much (appropriate) information about the search 2) as often as possible and 3) by as many different channels (written, oral, digital) as are available. Be clear as well about how the congregation can participate in the process, such as by praying or by sharing ideas and concerns with the search team leader. And continue to emphasize all the reasons that it’s better to make the right choice instead of the fast choice.

The search team can imagine a future with more than one of the candidates. Good news: your search team did a great job! Bad news: your search team will break one candidate’s heart, and your hearts might break a little, too. It’s important at this point for the search team to lean heavily on discernment practices. Rather than discussing which candidate is “better,” mull which one is the best fit for your church in this season. And affirm the gifts of the candidate who is not called to your congregation, possibly even passing that candidate’s name on to other churches that are searching.

The search team is worried that the candidate of choice will stretch the congregation too much. Take some extra time to listen for confirmation that you’ve heard God clearly. Think through how to present the candidate of choice to the congregation and/or its leaders and how to prompt others to imagine the candidate as the church’s minister. Consider what additional supports this candidate might need if called. Be honest with the called minister about potential challenges from within and from outside the congregation. Be prepared to serve as an advocate for the new minister.

A red flag came up in the reference or background checks of the candidate of choice. Get more information before making any assumptions. Ask for additional references and/or for an explanation directly from the candidate. Carefully consider what this expanded information means for your search. How long ago did the red flag take place? Has there been a proven attempt to make amends and/or behavioral changes? How could the red flag affect the candidate’s ministry at your church? What impact, if any, would this red flag have on your congregation’s liability in the event of a similar incident? Talk with your church’s insurance agent and/or attorney, if applicable.

The candidate of choice declined our offer. Denominations differ about how to proceed in the event of a “no.” Some allow the search team to approach another finalist. Others require search teams to jettison all candidates and start with an entirely new batch. If the latter, consult troubleshooting topic “the search team is exhausted” above for guidance. If the former, consider why that person was not the original candidate of choice. What has changed? If there isn’t excitement around this person, it could be time to reopen the search. If there is good energy, take plenty of time to pray before proceeding.

The congregation/governing board/judicatory didn’t approve the candidate the search team put forth. This can be crushing to a search team, but keep in mind that it is better for a candidate to be denied than for a settled minister to be removed. (Approval without widespread support is an unhealthy conflict waiting to happen.) Take a little break from the search. Do some digging about why the recommended candidate was not approved. Discuss the implications of what you discover within the search team. Then check out “the search team is exhausted.”

The called minister can’t start as soon as the congregation would like. Remember that the new minister is fully uprooting to come to your church. The minister wants to finish the current call well. The minister has to make arrangements for housing (if there’s no church-provided housing) and for moving as well as possibly for spouse’s employment and children’s schooling/care. The minister wants to feel somewhat settled after moving but before starting work to enable focus on the ministry at hand. All of these things take time. Work with your minister on the timeline; you will be building trust, and the minister’s ability to be fully present will be worth the wait.

The called minister is getting off to a rough start. Sometimes, even after a well-conducted search, things are rocky in the beginning. Do as much preventative work as possible by ensuring the new minister has an enthusiastic welcome and necessary contacts and information. Educate the church about the minister’s responsibilities, especially if the position description has changed since the previous minister. Advocate for the formation of a pastoral support team to be a sounding board for the minister. (Often a search team agrees to serve in this capacity for the minister’s first year since the team members have already established a relationship with the minister.) Ask the congregation to pray for the new minister. Once the minister is in place, be the minister’s cheerleader and advocate. Search teams understand better than anyone why this person was called to this church.