Engaging Pastors – A Modest Proposal

Engaging Pastors A Modest Proposal

About a week ago, I made a post on social media requesting some thoughts, reflections, and suggestions around the topic of engaging pastors for positions in churches (ie: the issue of hiring pastors). I’ve intentionally avoided the language of ‘hiring’ because I think it is both unbiblical and unhelpful. It assumes the pastor to be an employee rather than a shepherd-leader, and its a concept foreign to Holy Scripture. Consequently, I’ve opted for the language of engaging because it is more relational and captures a much healthier dynamic which I will expand upon below.

My interest in this topic is primarily grounded in my love for the local church, especially independent churches (ie: non-denominational churches) and perhaps even more specifically, ethnic churches (like Chinese churches which I’ve spent a lot of time in – one was kind enough to give me my first ministry job about 10 years ago!). That is no longer the context that I’m in right now, and one could easily ask: ‘why do you care? It doesn’t concern you!’ I might just be a busybody, and I’d be happy to be called that. But I hope my musings and proposal below can be helpful to at least some – even if it is purely for comedic purposes!

So what usually happens in contexts like the ones I’ve listed above is that there is usually a vacancy, and a pastoral search committee is formed (typically a team consisting of office-bearers of the church such as deacons and/or elders along with lay members). This committee then drafts up an advertisement and disseminates it far and wide through a variety of channels. Theological colleges are common places where these ads are sent, the Sydney Anglicans jobs page is a common one, there is a Christian Jobs website where one finds these posts, and I believe Eternity Magazine has one of these as well. Notice an assumption behind this approach: that the candidate would have the sufficient motivation to scan through these ads however frequently they come in order to apply for these opportunities. If and when candidates apply, they’ll have to first qualify by way of experience (with some churches expecting, in my opinion, unrealistic experience for the particular role), education, personal statement, sample sermons, and of course interviews. None of these are bad per se – in fact, I think they are absolutely necessary. So what happens then is that after the interview, the pastoral search committee will decide (or with the help of the broader church) whether the said candidate is suitable. To my knowledge, this process usually takes a few months. If all is well, the pairing works out and the pastor is installed (though increasingly, usually under a 1-3 year contract). If that goes well too, then the pastor remains for a more extended period of time. In a bad situation, things don’t work out and the candidate has to apply for another position and the church is back to square one. And in a terrible situation, the candidate gets through but it turns out to be a bad arrangement, so within a few years (or sometimes months) of employment, the church and the pastor gets hurt, and everyone is left with a sour taste in their mouths.

The above is obviously a very simplified overview of what happens, and I’m sure you can think of exceptions to that process. However, I also suspect that many will read and say ‘I know what you mean’. In my opinion, this sort of ‘hiring’ or ‘engagement’ process is far too haphazard, and we need to perhaps reconsider all this for the sake of future pastors and the church. Therefore, below are my 3 modest proposals with some justifications. I won’t be able to fully explain myself, but hopefully I’ll give enough information to get us thinking and asking more context specific questions. Broadly, my 3 proposals are: i) Raising your Own, ii) Reaching Out, iii) Researching with External Help.

Option 1 – Raising your Own

When it comes to engaging pastors, I think most would agree that there is something special, beautiful, and unique about raising your own. There is something about watching a young person grow through various life stages (think kids church, youth group, young adults, workers, etc) and maturing in the faith, tapping them on the shoulder and saying: ‘you’d be a great pastor and leader’, training them within the local church, sending them to a theological college/seminary for academic training, and then laying hands on them and entrusting the office of shepherd/elder/pastor to them.

There are just so many unknowns. This obviously doesn’t disqualify them. But comparing that to someone the whole church has nurtured, loved, raised, discipled, and perhaps even disciplined – there really is just no comparison.

It is absolutely beautiful. And there are a variety of strengths to this approach. But for the sake of brevity, let me highlight the most compelling reason: you know the person. This is often overlooked and sometimes neglected. The challenge of the haphazard approach described above is that most applicants are strangers. If we’re lucky, someone we know might apply for the position. But most of the time, they are people we don’t know. And even if we do know them, how long have we known them? How many in the search committee know them? There are just so many unknowns. This obviously doesn’t disqualify them. But comparing that to someone the whole church has nurtured, loved, raised, discipled, and perhaps even disciplined – there really is just no comparison. The reverse is also true. The candidate won’t be going into the church blind. There won’t be any sort of false hopes, skewed views, or rose-coloured lenses. They know what they’re getting into. And that’s so healthy, especially given that miscommunication (which is often due to not knowing each other well enough) is a common reason for pastoral fall-out.

So even if you had someone in your church right now whom you’d say ‘we want to make this person our next lead pastor’, you’re looking at a 10 year journey. If you’re reading this the time the blog is posted, you’d be looking to install that person in 2030.

So churches, allow me to humbly suggest raising your own leaders now, even if you don’t think you need pastors right now. Why? Because you’ll probably know that nurturing a pastor-leader takes a lot of time. Let’s just say that they go through what I’d call the typical training pathway. This would be a 2 year ministry apprenticeship, followed by 4 years of theological training (at least). This is already, bare minimum, 6 years. But of course, that’s the formal training. How about the informal training that goes on even before we consider someone to be an apprentice? The best apprentices are not those who come on board with no skill or training. I reckon the best apprentices are those who are excelling in ministry already, and are invited to the apprenticeship to sharpen and deepen their skills. So let’s say we spend time investing in someone to serve as a lay person – shall we give that at least 2 years (a conservative measure) before we ask them to be a Bible study leader? We’re up to 8 years in total now. Some churches would say they don’t want fresh theological graduates to be their senior pastor, and most want 2-5 years of ministry experience as an assistant pastor. Let’s go with the conservative figure and say 2 years as an assistant – we’re up to 10 years now. So even if you had someone in your church right now whom you’d say ‘we want to make this person our next lead pastor’, you’re looking at a 10 year journey. If you’re reading this the time the blog is posted, you’d be looking to install that person in 2030.

Whatever that looks like, we’re looking into the future. And looking into the future should start now.

To be sure, some will say ‘this all assumes that the 2 year apprenticeship and 4 year theological training track is what everyone should do’. Fair enough – I don’t think everyone should go through this. There will be some who are exceptionally gifted, remarkably sharp, and incredibly skilled. Therefore, they could easily go without formal theological training or undergo that training as they serve as the pastor of the church. That’s fine. However, given the challenges of ministry and the weightiness of the task of handling Holy Scripture, I believe most will need some form of well-structured training. Therefore, even if is not what I’ve described specifically, there should at least be a season of intense training. Whatever that looks like, we’re looking into the future. And looking into the future should start now.

I pray that churches will rediscover the biblical reality that training pastors is not the role of theological colleges or para-church ministries like university campus groups. Instead, it is the high calling of the church.

Let’s pray that we won’t be churches who, in the time of needing pastors, look around and say ‘what next?’ Wouldn’t it be great if in times of need, we can say ‘here are some people we’ve trained, let’s see who is the most suitable one’. I pray that churches will rediscover the biblical reality that training pastors is not the role of theological colleges or para-church ministries like university campus groups. Instead, it is the high calling of the church. Let’s aim to be faithful to that.

Option 2 – Reaching Out

However, I recognise that this sort of investment and training is not possible for many churches. For example, I know of many (in fact, I think this is whats normal in Australia right now) churches where the average attendance is about 30 people, and just doing ministry in general is hard enough. Let’s not even talk about investing in training pastors! I totally get that, and I don’t want to place additional burden on churches and existing pastors than they can manage.

Instead of throwing an ad out there and seeing what we’ll get, I suspect we would bear much more fruit if the church did a bit of homework to work out what their next best step is and then having particular names in mind based on networks, suggestions, or active research.

This is why, my modest proposal number 2 is for pastoral search committees to work hard at 1) getting some clarity about the church’s vision, mission and future and then 2) actively engage or reach out to specific individuals whom they think would fit the church’s ethos. This is a bit like ‘headhunting’ and some may recoil at this sort of proposal. But I don’t think it is all that bad. Instead of throwing an ad out there and seeing what we’ll get, I suspect we would bear much more fruit if the church did a bit of homework to work out what their next best step is and then having particular names in mind based on networks, suggestions, or active research.

As a result of these Gospel opportunities, the church can then ask ‘alright, who are some people in our networks whom we think would be really cut out to take advantage of these opportunities?’

An example could be this. Church A recently lost their pastor because their family moved away from Sydney. So rather than saying: ‘alright, let’s throw an ad out there’, the pastoral search committee or even the whole church spends lots of time in prayer, asking the Lord for clarity with regards to what their next steps are. During that process, they may work out ‘hey, we actually live in quite a multi-cultural area’ and ‘hey, we actually have a lot of well-educated people because migrant parents are working hard at sending their kids to university’ and ‘hey, there are actually quite a lot of young working couples without kids’. As a result of these Gospel opportunities, the church can then ask ‘alright, who are some people in our networks whom we think would be really cut out to take advantage of these opportunities?’ This is arguably the most tricky part. But I’d encourage churches to talk to seminary/college lecturers, for example. Or speak to other pastors in their networks or affiliations. To say ‘hey look, our church is looking for a pastor right now and here are some of the opportunities available. Who would you recommend?’ After collecting a list of names, the team could do some more homework like jumping on the website of the church where the pastor currently serves in and listen to their sermons, drop them an email and invite them for a cup of coffee – no strings attached, and maybe even getting some of the search committee to visit the pastor in action where they serve. It’s hard work, but it is actually really stimulating work. At this point, the church already knows what they want and so they can just slowly identify who they think would be suitable.

The pastor knows that they are valued and they know why they’ve been contacted. The church is intentional because they know what they’re after. And I think this could be a really healthy process.

Therefore, when sufficient work is done, they can then approach the pastor and say ‘we would like you to become our pastor and here are the clear reasons why. We’ve done our homework and here is why we think you’d be an excellent addition!’ Of course, there would be an interview process involved, but the path is so much clearer. There is no ambiguity. The pastor knows that they are valued and they know why they’ve been contacted. The church is intentional because they know what they’re after. And I think this could be a really healthy process.

Now I know there are concerns about how much work this will take, whether it is ethical to ‘steal’ a pastor away from another church, and whether this would even work. But here’s the thing – if the pastor-leader of the church has, humanly speaking, a massive influence on the health of the church, wouldn’t time spent doing background work be wise? If the pastor belongs ultimately the Christ (and not to one specific church), then shouldn’t we be okay with at least inviting someone to consider serving at our local church? And if our current approach is barely yielding fruit, then wouldn’t we be willing to try something new?

For what it’s worth, I think this option is the most viable and the quickest fix out of all 3 options. My prayer is that churches who are searching for pastors right now will seriously consider this. Work out i) who are we as a church, ii) where do we want to go, iii) who do we think would be suitable to lead us there, and then iv) let’s go find and approach them! As a side note, this is actually the approach we used to engage our most recent pastor at GracePoint, and we’ve been really encouraged by how helpful and smooth this whole process was.

Option 3 – Researching with External Help

The last option is perhaps the most unfamiliar to us in Australia, but it’s actually been going on for decades in places like the United States. In countries like that, specific consulting firms like Vanderbloemen are set up to help churches find the right pastor.

This consulting process is actually really helpful because church consultants can help to identify some strengths, opportunities, and weaknesses of the church in a much more objective way, and they can then work to find a pastor who can complement or supplement each of these areas.

This is what I mean by researching with external help. What these firms usually do is they do the hard work of consulting with the church to work out i) who they are and ii) where they should go, and then they go out and do the hard work of finding and vetting potential candidates. This consulting process is actually really helpful because church consultants can help to identify some strengths, opportunities, and weaknesses of the church in a much more objective way, and they can then work to find a pastor who can complement or supplement each of these areas. These firms then go out and do the hard work of listening to sermons, watching the pastor in action, perhaps even interviewing people who know the pastor, and they then place a short list before the church so that the church conducts some interviews with sufficient information about the candidates. A lot of the guess work is taken out, which is far more helpful than just trying to shoot in the dark.

Of course, this is usually an expensive process and we don’t have many structures like these in Australia set up yet. But assuming they are set up, I think they would be a great service to local churches here. Why? Because as mentioned, option 2 is labour-intensive. And sometimes, lay members will self-profess to be in a bit of a blind in terms of how churches should run. The advantage of church consultants is that they have a variety of experience, they have the expertise, and they have the time. Again, it is not fool proof – none of these options are! But I think it is worth it.

Concluding Remarks

I haven’t tried to be exhaustive in my explanations above because I don’t want to over-assume your interest. But if you’d like to ask questions of clarification, I’d be more than happy to discuss them further.

What I’ve tried to do is just question the existing approach and ask: could there be better ways? The 3 options I’ve listed above have been tried and tested, and I think they are far more helpful than what we typically default to. It means harder work on the church’s end and far more investment. However, I believe the fruits will prove to outweigh the labour and frustrations that go into doing all this prep work.


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