In the last several years I’ve talked with several churches about characteristics to look for in calling a new pastor. I put some of my thoughts in my column to today’s Champaign-Urbana, IL, News-Gazette.
Don Follis January 17, 2016 column: “When choosing a pastor do your homework well and follow your instincts”
I have served as a reference for pastors many times. When I get a call checking references, the conversations usually are pretty straightforward. “How long have you known him?” “What are his strengths?” “What is his flat side?” “Do you have any hesitations we should know about?”
In a recent reference-check call the person said, “I understand that you consult with churches. Would you be willing to name the top 4 or 5 areas you think a church should consider when hiring a new pastor?” I’m thinking, “Pal, you are doing reference checks and you aren’t yet sure what are looking for?”
I threw the question back to him. “Well, you tell me.”
Turns out his nominating committee had thought about it. He said the new pastor needs to be a good shepherd of the flock, a strong leader and visionary, an engaging preacher, a person with high personal integrity and strong spiritual maturity.
The conversation reminded me of what Pastor Bill Hybels looks for when hiring pastors. The brilliant leader from the famous Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago always looks for character, competency and chemistry. He starts with character, feeling it is the most crucial element in hiring a person who will lead others. On occasion Hybels has hired a person with strong character who lacked some needed competencies, but only if he felt there was good chemistry and the person was teachable.
To define character Hybels asks, “Who are you when no one else is looking?” That question allows you to explore a person’s courage, discipline, vision, endurance, compassion and self-sacrifice.
The person who called me asked if I thought this candidate had a good reputation. I think he does, but a good reputation is not really the same as having good character. It may be semantics but character is not what we’ve done. It is who we are. Frankly, good character is hard to discern in an interview or even over a long weekend interview. That’s why it’s vital you do your due diligence in trying to discern if this person is known for truth telling, keeping a confidence, managing relationships well and quickly crediting others for their efforts.
Only after your candidate passes your character test do you move to competency. What skills does this pastoral candidate actually have? More important, what is it you want this person to be able to do? If you are, say, looking for a great administrator, then why wouldn’t you scour the world for an outstanding administrator? Someone once asked Bill Hybels how long their congregation should continue looking for the most competent person. Hybels responded, “How many lunches do you want to buy?” It’s a good point. Until you feel God tells you to stop asking, keep extending the invitation.
From competency you move to chemistry. When I was younger I thought that chemistry could surely be developed if everyone was humble and teachable. If a candidate had great character and the competencies the church wanted, surely a good fit would develop. I was badly mistaken. Good chemistry, I know believe, is a nonnegotiable.
But, then, how do you determine if there’s great chemistry? This is where elder boards and search committees really need to trust their gut instinct. If the first couple times you meet with the candidate you get negative vibes, do you really think you’ll enjoy working with that person day in and day out? Put simply, trust your gut and have the courage to be honest.
Church-planting and leadership expert Bob Logan says part of the chemistry test is determining if there’s a good cultural fit. You might have decent chemistry with a candidate but you realize the culture of your church is very different from what the candidate is used to. So I’d ask, “Will this person fit into the culture around here?”
That’s a tough one. But let’s be frank. Some churches hiring a pastor have a toxic culture. They can be selfish, prideful, rigid, bullying and stingy. Do you want the person you hire to fit into that kind of culture? I certainly hope not. That’s when you have pray for deep courage and wisdom, asking God to give you the mettle to bring in a person who can provide strong leadership to bring change to the culture, however painful. And I promise you, it will be.
In the end, don’t be lulled into thinking a good fit is not crucial. And don’t get confused, thinking that competencies can go before character, that surely character can be smoothed out over time. If you charge ahead without considering character, competency and chemistry, I fear you’ll end up having to clean up some royal messes.
Even if all the references say the person you are considering is the finest Christian person on planet earth, I’d be very careful. If some on the nominating committee have reservations about a candidate’s character, competency or chemistry, I’d listen.
To say with confidence, “I think this is God’s person to lead our church,” takes a lot of praying – on your knees! It is, after all, God’s church, however imperfect. And yes, God still calls people to specific places. That is all the more reason to be optimistic, doing your homework thoroughly, and following your God-given instincts.