It was one of our first dates and we were at a bookstore and coffeehouse called Upstart Crow. I would ask her to marry me in this very place, but that question was still eighteen months off. Tonight, we were just having fun and starting to get to know each other. She was young and fun and romantic; I was a little older, more serious, and in love with love. And the only thing I remember about that evening was one book we looked at together: baby names.
Searching for a new lead pastor can bring about some of the same jitters as dating—for both the search team and the candidates. In both cases, two individuals want to get to know each other. What do they like? What are they like? What moves them? What scares them? How do they carry themselves in public and in private? Of course, these aren’t the questions we ask, they are the observations we try to make as we spend time together. But we need to ask questions, and the questions themselves can tell as much about us as the answers tell about the other person. Even the timing of certain questions can be revealing, just as looking at baby names on our first date revealed something about both my wife and me long before we were married.
One church I applied to asked every applicant to complete a ten-page questionnaire as the first step in the process. They asked for four separate philosophy statements, covering everything from leadership and administration to missions and evangelism. That felt like talking about not just baby names but parenting philosophies on a first date.
Another church I interviewed with handed me a list of thirty questions, from which they had selected six or eight to ask. Every one dealt with moral issues or specific scenarios—from “is gambling a sin?” to “what would you do if a homosexual couple walked into the church?” The questions on those pages told me everything I needed to know about my fit with that church.
There’s nothing wrong with a leadership team wanting to know about a candidate’s philosophy of leadership or how he would handle a moral issue, but I would suggest that they’re not the best first-date topics. So what questions, and types of questions, should we be asking, and when? I’ll suggest some specifics in a future post, but here are four areas to be considered:
- Vision and Values. Some churches are clear about their vision and values, and expect a new pastor to lead toward those. Others want the pastor to come with a vision and help the church implement that. I don’t think one is better than the other, but this should be fairly clear early in the process, and discussed throughout.
- Theology. Many churches ask applicants to indicate agreement with a doctrinal statement. Instead of looking for a yes or no, ask if there is anything in the statement that raises questions or concerns. The search committee, working with the church’s leadership team, should have an idea of what theological matters are critical—the die-for or divide-over issues—and where there is room for variation. The critical issues should be raised early on; the less-critical ones can be saved for later in the process, or maybe not even addressed at all.
- Leadership. This comes down to two basic issues: Who leads? and How do you lead? The first is partly a question of structure and governance: is the church led by staff (i.e., the pastor), elders, deacons, a board of trustees, or the congregation? The second goes to the leadership style of the pastor; is he hands-on or hands-off? A micromanager? The first question may need to be addressed early in the process, while the second may be able to wait.
- Personality. This can be at the same time both the easiest and the most difficult area to grasp…and is one of the most important. The easy ways to gain insight into a candidate’s personality involve a variety of assessments: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Clifton StrengthsFinder, and other profiling tools can give us common language. Yet there is so much variation within each personality type or strengths mix that only time and relationship can reveal whether a church and a candidate are a good fit.
My wife and I dated for a year and a half before I proposed. We were engaged another eighteen months before saying “I do.” What sustained us over those three years—and for the twenty-three that we’ve been married—was not our shared interest in children or what they would be named, but a mutual commitment to working through the daily challenges of merging two lives into one, and working together to toward a common goal, each growing and learning from each other. The relationship between a church and pastor is not altogether different.