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When It Is Time to Call a New Pastor

Jonathan T. Looney

At the start of the session meeting one month, your long-serving pastor (and close friend), Bob, asks if you would save five minutes at the end of the meeting for him to discuss something. The rest of the meeting proceeds normally and you are getting ready to close the meeting when you remember that Bob wanted to discuss something. Bob then announces that he has decided to retire. In a moment, your world is turned upside down: it feels like you are suddenly losing both your long-time pastor and also a long-time friend. Myriad emotions swirl through your mind. And, your thoughts may go in many different directions. (What do we tell the congregation? When do we tell them? How will this affect the congregation? What will this mean for our radio ministry?)

While processing your own emotions and thoughts, the one thing that you may not clearly realize at first is that this is the start of what is, realistically, eighteen to twenty-four months of very intense work. It is very much like the pastor has just shot off the starting gun of a long marathon. Have you ever watched the Olympic marathon and seen how the runners collapse just after the finish line? That may very well be you in eighteen to twenty-four months.

Admittedly, I am somewhat exaggerating. Pastoral searches are emotionally tiring, rather than physically tiring. But we must not discount the importance or reality of emotional stress. And, furthermore, not all pastoral searches are equal. I’ve heard of long and exhausting pastoral searches. On the other hand, my church’s recent pastoral search was on the easier side (And, I am happy to report that no one collapsed). But it is important that you have the right mindset at the start. It is better to overestimate the amount of work involved than to underestimate it and set unrealistic expectations for yourself and your church.

We had a conversation like the one I relayed above in one of our session meetings in late 2015. I didn’t realize how much work was involved. I didn’t even fully understand the process. What I soon discovered was that almost no one claims to be an expert at pastoral searches, simply because each of us do them so infrequently. (And, praise God for that!) I also found that there is no “standard” search process. Thankfully, we did one thing “right” through most of our search process: we sought advice from others. In the end, our search was successful, and a new pastor began his ministry in May 2017, about eighteen months after our previous pastor had announced his intention to retire.

Having had a successful search, other churches soon asked us for advice. Knowing how important advice was for us, I was happy to oblige. We did some things well that I think are critically important. We made some big mistakes that I would love to help other churches avoid. Hopefully, you will benefit from some of the things we learned.[1]

Caring for the Flock

As an elder, your primary job is to shepherd and care for the flock of Christ. Even the process of picking a new pastor is an element of shepherding the flock; however, I will cover that later. The first thing you must do is make sure you care for the flock’s immediate needs.

One of the paradoxes of a pastoral transition is that this is a time when the congregation may (probably will) need more care than usual; but it is also a time when you are missing a full-time minister who would help provide that care. This means that the workload of the session can increase quite a bit. In addition to their normal needs, the congregation will be struggling to work through the loss of their pastor. This may be even more difficult if the loss was sudden (such as an unexpected death, or a quick transition to allow the pastor to pursue ministry elsewhere), or if the pastor left in the midst of conflict. The session will need to help the congregation work through this. In some cases, this may require lots of contact and much prayer, sweat, and tears. Regardless of the circumstances, it is important that the elders are in regular contact with the congregation and that they work through any problems that arise.

As a side note, the time to lay the groundwork for this is before your pastor leaves. You should have a good rapport with the congregation before the pastor leaves; otherwise, you may find that they are not receptive to your counsel once he is gone. Pastoral transitions bring the importance of ruling elders to the fore. Ruling elders are the stable figures who outlast pastors. And, they have a crucial role in shepherding the flock anytime, but particularly when there is no minister to lead the work.

You must also ensure that the congregation is fed spiritually. At a minimum, this means ensuring that the Word is faithfully preached every Sunday. If the pastor taught a Sunday School class, it may also be necessary to find someone to teach that. And, there may be other ministries that need to be maintained. But, we should be absolutely clear on one thing: the session’s job is to ensure the flock is shepherded and fed. Merely filling preaching and teaching slots does not fulfill this mandate.

As Reformed Christians, we believe in the centrality of the preached Word in the life of the church. It is from God’s Word that we receive instruction for the Christian life. It is from God’s Word that we receive comfort in time of trouble. It is from God’s Word that we learn how we are to interact with each other, what a church is supposed to do, and what we are supposed to think about the events of life. In the hands of the Spirit, God’s Word is the sword which pierces our soul, convicts us of our wrongdoing, and directs us to the right path. And, it is God’s Word that teaches us about Jesus, the head of the church, its cornerstone, and the figure who unites us all. Your congregation needs this spiritual food all the time, but it especially needs it during pastoral transitions. And, again, the paradox of pastoral transitions is present: at the very time your congregation needs to hear God’s Word preached skillfully, faithfully, and consistently, the man who provided that is no longer present to do so.

Some churches seek to fill this void through piecemeal efforts. This can certainly serve to communicate biblical truth to the congregation. But, does this inconsistency really serve to feed the people in the best possible way? I even visited one church recently that seemed to be filling the pulpit week by week. The minister who filled the pulpit had been asked to do so approximately eighteen hours earlier. His message certainly was biblical, but was this the spiritual meal the congregation needed? Without the minister learning more about the congregation, he might be hard-pressed to know the needs of the congregation. And, with only a single week to preach, he won’t have the opportunity to present a series of biblical truths (or, even, a single complex truth) in an orderly way.

For these reasons (among others), I think it is very valuable (perhaps, even critical) to have the exposition of the Word conducted by one or more regular, consistent, competent ministers. This should be “consistent” in the sense that the same minister (or a small group of ministers) should do the bulk of the preaching. These ministers should be “competent” in handling God’s word and understanding how to apply it to the lives of your flock. And, they should be “ministers”: ideally, ordained ministers (retired ministers can do really well in these roles) with a track record of biblical preaching.[2]

Interim pastors (or “stated supply”) can help greatly with caring for the flock. An excellent interim pastor will quickly be able to help with some of the shepherding needs (hospital visits, crises, and, perhaps, even some counseling) while also providing consistent spiritual food for the flock each Sunday (and that spiritual food will itself be informed more and more by his understanding of the needs of the congregation). An interim pastor can also be a great blessing to the ruling elders, since he can free up the ruling elders’ time to focus on other responsibilities within the church. In coordination with the ministerial advisor,[3] an interim pastor can also assist with advice regarding the pastoral search.

During our recent pastoral transition, our church was blessed to go straight from our retiring pastor to an interim pastor, and then on to our new pastor, all without any gap. That meant that the people were being fed each week by a competent minister. It also meant there was great consistency in the preaching. I think it is not a coincidence that we had essentially no attrition during the transition. By contrast, I heard of another church that did have a gap between ministers and did suffer attrition.

I would suggest that you try to secure the services of a competent interim pastor as early as possible. If you need help finding one, ask for help. You can ask other ministers, your presbytery, or even the denomination. They should soon be able to provide the names of several competent interim pastors. If you do choose to get an interim pastor, make sure you keep your presbytery informed. They may not need to take action, but they need to know what is happening in the pulpits of their churches.

Finally, you need to pray for your congregation. You need to pray for the church as a whole, as well as the individuals within the church. As anyone who has been an elder for long knows, we are utterly incapable of impacting hearts or minds; rather, we are completely dependent on God to do that. So, where your church needs comfort, healing, strengthening, unifying, maturing, rebuking, growing, or anything else, you are dependent upon God to provide it. Take advantage of his invitation to lift your church before his throne of grace and rely on him to provide mercy and grace to help.

Finding the Right Man

During our search process, our ministerial advisor (Rev. Tom Trouwborst) compared calling a pastor to finding a wife.[4] Although he only used the metaphor in a limited sense, I’ve come to realize it is useful more generally. Finding a pastor is a lot like the process for finding a wife.

One facet of dating is that there is no one standard way to do it. Likewise, there is no standard way to look for a new pastor. The exact process is informed by various considerations, such as tradition, congregational makeup and location, and the rules governing the process (found in the denomination’s standards, the church’s bylaws, and any relevant state laws). However, this acknowledgement of variety is not to say that all choices are equally good. I do think we can agree that there are some things that are better and some that are worse. But, at minimum, because there is no standard way to look for a new pastor, sessions (and the search committees they oversee) will need to do a good job at defining the process among themselves first, and then with candidates whom they contact. Because finding a pastor is primarily a spiritual matter (rather than merely a matter of earthly employment), the session is ultimately responsible for the process. Many find it wise to use a search committee (in fact, some church’s bylaws require this); however, the session is ultimately responsible for the process. Throughout the process, the session should care for its flock, its former pastor, and the candidates with which it interacts, as appropriate for each. Let’s briefly consider some of the facets of pastoral “dating” that the session and search committee will need to consider.

One of the first things the session should consider is the matter of leaving and cleaving. By the end of this process, the congregation should have “left” the previous pastor and been able to fully embrace the new pastor. I start with this simply because this may be a process that takes many months and runs in parallel with the rest of the search process.

Wayne Mack helpfully highlights several things that “leaving” means in the context of marriage. Let me paraphrase a few of his points and reformulate them to apply to the pastoral relationship:

  • You establish a new relationship with the former pastor. (It is possible to maintain a relationship.) It can even involve you asking for, and receiving, advice. But it has a new character.
  • You must be more concerned about your new pastor’s ideas, opinions, and practices than those of your former pastor. This probably goes without saying, but the new pastor will not be the same as the old pastor. The church shouldn’t needlessly discard the good ideas of the previous pastor, but they should care about the new pastor’s ideas and judge them on their own merit, rather than by comparison to the previous pastor’s ideas. This also has relevance in the search process, as the church should not be looking to replace the previous pastor with an exact copy, which does not exist.
  • You must eliminate any bad attitudes toward your former pastor, or you will be tied emotionally to them. Bad attitudes toward a former pastor can impact a congregation. If you harbor seriously bad attitudes, mere time and space will not heal the wounds, or, at least, not quickly heal them. The session must do its best to make sure the people and the pastor are reconciled prior to (or roughly concurrent with) his leaving, or they may find that these bad feelings continue to haunt the church for years to come—possibly, even interfering with the ability of the people to bond with their new pastor.
  • You make the new pastor (together with the session) the primary source of pastoral counsel in your life.[5]

It is quite possible for a pastor to remain in constant contact with his former church, even worshiping with it every week; and for the congregation to “leave” him effectively. Likewise, it is possible for a pastor to move to the other side of the country and for the church to fail to “leave” him. However, just as Dr. Mack suggests that it “may make it more difficult to leave” your parents if you start your marriage living in too close of a physical proximity to them,[6] it is likewise the generally accepted wisdom of the church that it is a good idea for pastors to be physically apart from their former congregation until the congregation has bonded to their new pastor. The session should discuss this with the departing pastor and develop a plan acceptable to all involved, with the goal of furthering the spiritual interests of all involved (including the departing pastor).

In addition to determining what work may be necessary to allow the congregation to leave its former pastor, it is also necessary for the search committee to determine a “dating profile,” which highlights any specific considerations that may impact the pastor you call. You could perhaps think of this like a personal ad: “Small, faithful church in upstate New York seeks a gifted preacher who . . .” You don’t necessarily need to use the ad; however, you should still use the information to focus your search and to think about what you will tell candidates.

It goes without saying that you will want a man skilled in handling the Word of God and able to preach. But, are there specific things that may impact the man you choose or that would impact whether a candidate might want to pastor your church? For example, if you are in a rural area, you will want a pastor who will enjoy living in a rural area. Or, perhaps, you live in an area which is generally distrustful of outsiders. Your candidates should, at least, be aware of that, as it may impact their ministry.

In developing your profile, you also need to consider whether there are any matters on which your congregation may require adherence to a doctrine narrower than that allowed by the OPC. It strikes me that in the recent past, homeschooling and views of creation have been the predominant issues on which congregations have developed strong views that may impact the choice of pastor.

Next, once you know the kind of candidate you are seeking, you will need to find candidates. Just as there are many ways of finding people to date, there are many ways of finding pastoral candidates. Personally, I think a good way of finding pastoral candidates is to seek recommendations from trusted advisors based on your profiles of your church and ideal candidate. These trusted advisors may come from various places: seminary professors with a good view of recent graduates; ministers who are well-connected to other ministers who may be looking to make a change; and, the denomination. The OPC’s Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension keeps a list of both ministers and seminary graduates who are looking for calls within the denomination. In fact, part of their mission is to help congregations find pastors. Take advantage of their help. We asked for their advice. They provided several names of promising candidates, and they were all right on the mark.

Once you have the names of candidates, you can begin to “date” them. You should probably first contact the candidates to let them know that you may be interested, to confirm their availability, and to request sample sermons. In addition to the sermons they provide, I would suggest finding their most recent sermons online and listening to one or more of those. I would suggest that an evaluation of the candidate’s preaching play an outsize role in evaluation of candidates at this early stage.

The search committee, with the guidance of the session, should then interview the most promising candidates. Thanks to modern technology, it should be easy to have a “face-to-face” interview through a free video conferencing tool. If you decide to proceed further with a candidate, you should probably later supplement this with true in-person interviews; however, technology can help make early interviews possible at a lower cost. At this point, the committee should also check references. Ideally, you should have substantive conversations with their references, and they should be people who know the person well. At this point, the committee should rank its candidates into preference order.

Then, once you have determined your most preferred candidate, it is time to for the candidate to “meet the parents. My brother recently brought a girl home for dinner to meet our parents. We all knew what that meant: this relationship was serious. Knowing my brother, I’m sure he was careful not to bring the girl home prematurely, and he wouldn’t later bring home another girl without first explaining why he was no longer dating the first girl. Likewise, I would suggest that you be very careful about bringing candidates to preach at your church. Once you bring a candidate to preach, I would suggest that you only proceed with that one candidate until you’ve made a decision. If you bring multiple candidates before the congregation at the same time, you risk dividing the congregation into factions united behind different candidates, rather than uniting them in evaluating whether a single candidate is called to serve in your congregation.[7] You can also combine in-person interviews with these preaching visits.

Next, your congregation comes to the all-important decision of whether they want to “propose to” (call) this candidate. It is important to handle this with care. The congregation should unite behind this candidate, but that may require some teaching on the right standards for choosing a pastor or on biblical unity. At the same time, the search committee must ensure the candidate himself has come to the place where he will be receptive to a call. This may require some additional work (additional visits, more phone calls, etc.).

At this point, you must also work out the terms of the call. I would suggest contacting the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension for their call guidelines. I would also suggest contacting the Committee on Ministerial Care to determine whether they have any relevant input. (As this relatively new committee serves, they may begin to develop material relevant to calling pastors.) You may also want to consult what other denominations have to say.[8]

Once you have done this, all that is left is to ask the presbytery to install (and, if necessary, ordain) the candidate. You should prepare your congregation for this process, including appropriate statements about the helpfulness and importance of the presbytery’s oversight.

Concluding Thoughts

When describing all that had to occur for a baby to be conceived, a doctor once said, “It’s a miracle anyone gets pregnant.” When I think about all that must go right for a church to survive a pastoral transition and get the right man, I think it is also a miracle that any church survives this and also chooses the right person. But, isn’t that the point? We are utterly dependent upon God’s grace to find the right person. We are utterly dependent upon God’s grace to maintain unity in the church. And, we are utterly dependent upon Christ to shepherd his church. So, while we should work hard in this process, let’s remember to pray and trust God that he will do what he knows is best. He knows who should pastor the church, and he will provide the right man at the right time.

Endnotes

[1] I ended up organizing my thoughts into an unpublished pamphlet. Some of the material in this article comes from that, and I will provide a copy upon request. Like that pamphlet, this article is aimed primarily at the process of calling a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; however, much of the information can be easily adapted to other denominations.

[2] Yes, ruling elders ruling elders can sometimes do a great job “preaching” or “exhorting,” depending on your view of the offices. But, my view is that during a time of pastoral transition, you should entrust your congregation to a man who has been trained to preach full time and has a track record of handling God’s Word well. Besides, your church’s ruling elders will be busy enough with other matters. Another possibility is to use a licentiate to fill the pulpit. I think that comes with some special considerations that a session should evaluate prior to employing a licentiate as stated supply.

[3] A ministerial advisor is normally appointed by the presbytery at the request of the session of congregations without a pastor to provide guidance until a pastor is called (Form of Government 16.6, 17.2).

[4] Indeed, this is probably not something that originated with Pastor Trouwborst. In fact, Chris Brauns also uses this metaphor in his book, When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles and Practices to Guide Your Search (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2011). It is a helpful metaphor for some of the process, even if it fails to describe other parts of the process well.

[5] Adapted from Wayne A. Mack, Strengthening Your Marriage (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1999), 2–3. The paraphrasing and adaptation to the pastoral context are my own.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] See also “Guidelines for Congregations to Follow in Discovering, Evaluating and Calling a Pastor,” Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, n.d., accessed December 1, 2018, https://chmce.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Pastor-Search-Guidelines.pdf.

[8] I have found the information provided by the Presbyterian Church in America’s Retirements & Benefits to be quite helpful. In particular, the latest version of their call guidelines is found here: https://pcarbi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Web_RBI_CallPkg.pdf (accessed December 1, 2018). Previous versions of this document have also contained a large amount of good advice (both biblical and practical).

Jonathan T. Looney serves as a ruling elder at Hope Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Syracuse, New York. Ordained Servant Online, January 2019.

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