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Six Steps To Welcoming A New Church Pastor

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Choosing a new pastor is a tough job for a search committee. The wrong decision can be disastrous for pastor and church. Religion researchers offer tips to get your faith community on the right track when recruiting a new pastor.

We've all heard the stories of congregations disintegrating or pastors leaving ministry forever because of a toxic pastor-congregation match. It happens more often than we like to think. That’s why it’s vital for church communities to plan today for a pastor vacancy tomorrow, says Cynthia Woolever, a religion researcher and co-author of Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor For What Kind of Congregation

Woolever and co-author Deborah Bruce have studied the basic building blocks of vital congregations — surveying millions of worshippers for the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, a multiyear poll used to learn more about the worship experience and to identify things that work in successful congregations.

But until recently, there was little research about the effects of pastor’s well-being and personality on a congregation. It was Bruce who led the charge to find the connection, Woolever says. (Sadly, Bruce passed away a short time before their book was published by Chalice Press in 2012.)

It’s clear, Woolever says, that making a good match is key to a church community’s vitality. Leadership That Fits Your Church offers tips and advice about how committees should prepare to welcome a new pastor:

1. Be clear about what your church wants: Make a list of qualities you want in a pastor rather than assuming a new pastor will have particular qualities or will do things a certain way. “That’s something that sometimes people are hesitant to do,” says Woolever, offering an example:

“Let’s say in the back of their mind the committee wants a married pastor who is 42 years old with children, and a wife who doesn’t work. If that’s what they want, it needs to be out there so they can exclude anyone who doesn’t fit that profile, and so they can understand why they think these characteristics” will result in a good match.

Everyone has a preference but oftentimes those preferences aren’t stated and the result is confusion about what committee members and the congregation want, she says. “It’s important to get these things out on the table.”

To help initiate that conversation, a free, downloadable group leader guide for Leadership That Fits Your Church is available and includes exercises that help walk a community through discovering its strengths and goals.

2. Be sure the pastor is clear, too: “A really good pastoral candidate will be one who wants to know about the community,” she says. “One who asks a lot of questions and listens to the responses. That means that this is a pastor who’s trying to figure out, ‘What’s this place all about?’ and ‘Is this the kind of place I could fit in?’”

3. Think about where you’ve been: “What made previous pastors a good fit?” Woolever says. “What was it about the pastor that made them effective? What was their style? That would inform what kind of person fits in.”

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research administers several different congregational surveys to churches interested in learning more about their own demographic and congregational dynamics. The paid service provides online questionnaires and the community’s survey results.

4. And think about where you’re headed: “Say you have an urban congregation that does a lot of community ministry in the neighborhood,” she says. “Well, if you call a country pastor who doesn’t want to work in [the city], that’s going to be a problem.”

“What Do Lay People Want In Pastors?,” a study by researcher Adair T. Lummis of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, found that lay leaders want a pastor with an authentic religious life, whose lifestyle is spiritually inspiring to others — and preferably a pastor with a sense of humor. Download the full report to learn more about what studies show lay people want in a pastor.

5. Consider an interim: Woolever says churches may consider following the Presbyterian model. When a pastor leaves a Presbyterian church, an interim pastor is employed to lead the congregation through a “resting time,” Woolever says, or “a time of mourning the departure of their pastor and getting ready to greet a new one.” The interim minister acts as a bridge, she says, between the old and the new.

“Oftentimes,” she says, “a new pastor ends up being an unintentional interim pastor,” struggling to connect with a congregation that hasn’t yet found closure with the loss of their previous one. “They end up being disappointed and leave or are fired because the congregation is unhappy with them.”

6. Get to know each other: Even if there’s only a short period of time between the departure of the former pastor and the introduction of new one, or if the denomination simply appoints a new pastor with little or no input from the congregation, there are things a church community and its pastor can do to ease the transition.

“If I were a new pastor, I would lead the congregation through a process of discernment so that they — and I — could learn what they are all about, what their strengths are and what kind of pastor they want,” says Woolever. “What do they think is important? What are the hopes and dreams of that congregation? Hopefully at the end of that process I would discover that I was the right fit.”

Further reading

• Learn more about church leadership, and Woolever and Bruce’s Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor For What Kind of Congregation, at www.uscongregations.org.

• What makes pastors and congregations click? Take the quiz and find out!

The Leader Guide for Leadership That Fits Your Church by J. Brent Bill will help your congregation unpack the wealth of learning contained in Woolever’s book and determine how to best use that information to enhance your effectiveness as a church.

• Find additional leadership resources on Insights Into Religion.

• Learn more about ”What Do Lay People Want In A Pastor?,” a study by researcher Adair T. Lummis of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

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