I mentioned in my last post that I chaired our church’s pastoral search committee. We just recently completed our work, with our pastor starting three weeks ago. We met one final time to discuss what we learned, what went well, and how we could have done better.
All evidence indicates that the new pastor is the right man for our church at this time – we got that part right. One thing that we didn’t do as well as we could have is work with an internal candidate, a man in our congregation – I’ll call him Rusty – who applied for the job of solo pastor. It probably goes without saying that this kind of situation can be awkward at best and perhaps painful at worst.
We all knew Rusty and the family; he was in leadership at the church, and we had many opportunities to hear him preach.
Since he knew the church and the congregation so well, he would seem like a logical choice. And in many ways he would have been a good choice. But there were certain qualities that we were looking for in our next pastor that Rusty didn’t possess. As a result, we didn’t recommend him to be our next pastor. And yes, it was a painful experience – not just for the committee, but for many in the congregation who hoped he would get the job. As a result, part of our final “debrief” centered on how we could have handled Rusty’s situation better.
Normally, the search committee did its work without involving the elders, but this wasn’t a normal circumstance. Looking back, we should have worked closely with the elders and had them more directly involved in this unusual situation. Here are three suggestions we came up with.
1. Elders should request – no, strongly recommend – that the internal candidate not discuss his candidacy with congregation members AT ALL. In an ideal situation, no one besides the search committee and the elders should even know he applied. Instead, he should be encouraged to seek prayer and guidance from outside friends and family.
This may seem harsh – shouldn’t the candidate’s own church family pray for and encourage him in his candidacy? A few reasons come to mind for keeping it quiet.
a. This silence helps protect the congregation so they don’t get emotionally involved due to their friendship with the candidate.
b. Related, some congregation members are so close to the candidate that they may not be objective. Their prayers may be for Rusty to get the job, rather than for God to bring the right man to lead the congregation.
c. It protects against division within the congregation (“team Rusty” vs. “team not-Rusty”)
d. It helps protect the candidate against possible embarrassment if he is not chosen for the job.
e. If the candidate or his family members ask for prayer during the search process, it can be awkward if members of the search committee are in the room. A prayer request can be code for “Tell me what’s going on.” Or perhaps it’s a veiled complaint: “I wish the committee would hurry up and make a decision.”
2. Designate one elder to serve as a “coach” to meet regularly (perhaps once a month) with the internal candidate to pray about and discuss his candidacy. What should they talk about?
a. The elder-coach can provide general encouragement and prayer through this difficult waiting period. Anyone who has applied for a job knows the agony of waiting to hear if they got the job. Churches are notorious for moving slowly. Decisions made by committee usually take too long. And decisions made by church committees? Saying their pace is glacial is being kind.
b. What is the candidate’s plan if he isn’t chosen? Will he stay in the church or choose to leave?
c. If he is not chosen and decides to leave your congregation as a result, what is an appropriate way to leave that will demonstrate grace to all parties involved?
3. If the internal candidate is not chosen, the elders should meet with him as soon as possible. This meeting should discuss two questions:
a. What is the candidate’s perception of why he was not chosen for the job? This is not the time to present the search committee’s side of the story. You don’t want this meeting to turn into a session of “he said-she said.” There will be plenty of time later for the committee to give their report to the elders.
b. What is the candidate’s plan to go forward?
- If he plans to stay in your congregation, discuss appropriate ways the candidate is to talk – and not talk – about the situation with other members.
- If he chooses to leave, discuss appropriate way to leave to insure the least confusion and turmoil among the congregation.
These are our suggestions for working with an internal candidate, which we unfortunately came to after the fact. As a result, we haven’t tested these theories in the real world. There may be more – or far better – ideas out there.
What else did we get wrong? That’s my next post, so stay tuned.
Has your pastoral search committee had the opportunity to work with an internal candidate? I’d love to hear what else you might suggest. Add your thoughts in the comments section.
This is part 1 of a 2-part post. You can read part 2 here.