On the one hand the recent spectacle of the choice of Benedict XVI as pope bears little resemblance to the work of a Baptist pulpit committee’s search for a new pastor. The dress is different, the pool of potential candidates is larger and your pulpit committee is far more likely to use e-mail than smoke signals and bells.
Yet the two have a great deal in common. In each the group is searching for God’s particular person for a particular service to the kingdom at a particular moment in time. Through the years Baptists have developed a more-or-less typical procedure by which such a thing is done.
A committee of five, seven or nine is chosen, often representative of various interest groups or populations within the church. It’s almost always an odd number so that there can be no tie vote, but committees often elect to require a unanimous vote for their final recommendation.
The announcement of a vacancy is made public. Recommendations and applications are solicited. These days in Baptist life that process in itself can be a political statement. Moderates tend to advertise their vacancies in moderate circles. Conservatives choose traditional media. The politically naÃ¯ve still assume sincerity and pastoral skill are all that matters.
When the resumes come in the committee begins a process of winnowing, matching the stated qualifications of the candidates with their own previously-prepared wish list. Often they undertake preliminary telephone interviews with a short list of five to 15 prospects. They may gauge the prospects responses to a set list of questions. They may ask for videotapes of sermons or attempt to hear the prospects preach in person.
At this point, however, committees will often take a further step of limiting their list to a top three candidates for a final level of scrutiny. They will seek an extended interview with each candidate. They will ask for and contact references. And then they will do one of two things.
Either they will seek to bring all three candidates and their spouses to their city to see the church and undergo extended interview with the committee before attempting a final choice, or they will choose their top candidate and invite that person and his or her spouse for a site visit to seek the Lord’s will together.
Having been through that process myself in both its variations, I want to argue for the latter as the more ethical way to proceed.
First, up to this point in the process there is no real commitment on either side. Asking a candidate and their spouse to come for a visit, however, is asking those people to make at least a potential commitment to your church. Such a journey is always spiritually and emotionally taxing for a pastoral couple. They deserve the same level of commitment from you that you are asking from them.
Second, bringing in two or more candidates at this final stage inevitably creates the potential for division within your committee. Large committees are especially at risk for dividing into factions supporting one candidate or another. By far the less divisive approach is to meet with your top candidate and seek the Lord’s leadership together as to whether this is God’s person for your church.
Third, this approach of seeking the Lord’s will together with one candidate takes the choice out of the realm of competition and puts it where it should be. You are not a business seeking a CEO. You are a church seeking a pastor. If you believe the Lord is in the process, you should be willing to believe that the Lord can make it clear whether a given person is the right person for your church or not.
Finally, if the person you bring in turns out not to be the right choice, you can always go to the second person on the list. If you’re honest with them, serious candidates won’t mind waiting while you seek God’s will with someone else. (I’ve been second on the list myself a couple of times and been quite happy with the results!) And they will very much appreciate not getting their family involved in some kind of horse race.
The ultimate discernment, of course, remains with the church. As a committee, you can only recommend. But if you’re honest with one another and with the potential candidates, and if you treat carefully the process of selection, both your congregation and your new pastoral family will rise up and call you blessed.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.