Advice To All Pulpit Search Committees: How to Choose Your Next Pastor

A sermon is not a theological treatise. It’s food for the people of God. As C.S. Lewis said, the command is “Feed my sheep,” not “Teach my performing dogs new tricks” or “Try experiments on my rats.”

I had an email conversation awhile back with a fellow from a church in the southeastern U.S. His church is in the search process (again) and I mentioned in passing that I lament the careerism that has infected many of my fellow ministers. He asked me to expound on that theme, so I did.

If I were on a pulpit nominating committee and I was looking for my next pastor, the one who would shepherd my soul and the souls of my children, I think this is how I would recommend going about it. I begin with a brief explanation of what causes careerism and then move to particulars.

As for careerism, I can only speak about the twistedness of my own heart. I have very few windows into the hearts of others, but I think it’s fair to assume that there are more out there like me.

You asked if I thought the seminaries were the source or our problems in this area. I will blame our seminaries for a lot, but not for this. However, I do not think they are doing anything whatsoever to hinder it.

I think it starts in our hearts (the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the boastful pride of life) and from there works its way out via our evangelical subculture. We pastors and pastors-to-be and pastor wannabes go to too many conferences at large churches and listen to too many guys on the radio.

We think, “I could do that! As a matter of fact, I could probably do it better!” A good friend of mine who is a Calvinistic Baptist pastor said, “We all secretly believe that one day our descendants will open their history books and read about us.”

Of course, if a man believes that about himself, spending his whole life shepherding a small flock in a small town for poor pay is not going to be acceptable for very long. A man may give himself permission to start there (nothing wrong with that, right? We can’t all be Spurgeons!) but considers it a small beginning before he moves on to great things. Double the unacceptability quotient and halve the maximum amount of time you’re willing to spend ministering there if you’ve got a cantankerous elder or two.

And, of course, one ought to have something dramatic to show for one’s time spent in the “small beginning.” Doubling the attendance at the worship service, totally changing the music, enacting a program of social justice, starting a really cool youth ministry or a drama team, having everyone reading “Purpose Driven Life” in small groups, etc, etc, etc is a great way to puff yourself up. So you proceed to unnecessarily irritate half of the congregation by instituting a bunch of programs to “make the church grow” so you can collect your merit badge and punch out of there as quickly as possible.

At this point I will blame our seminaries, because it seems that many of them are not clearly teaching the Reformed understanding of the means of grace, or the nature of pastoral ministry. The Word of God preached is God’s main chosen method of reviving the church, rebuking sin, setting it on its feet in evangelism, and causing progress in sanctification.

Instead we’ve substituted a bunch of man-made programs of dubious theological heritage. Or, if the guy is a “T.R.” he might fancy himself a scholar in the pulpit and produce 45 minute sermons that nobody can follow. The 45 minute part is not necessarily bad. I preach for 30-45 minutes sometimes myself, though my usual length is around 25. It’s the “nobody can follow” part that’s bad.

A sermon is not a theological treatise. It’s food for the people of God. As C.S. Lewis said, the command is “Feed my sheep,” not “Teach my performing dogs new tricks” or “Try experiments on my rats.”

Often a man cast in this particular mold refuses to make more than perfunctory or emergency visits among his flock. Interpersonal relations are not his forte. So he neglects them “to study.” I suspect that often he does not pray for them, either. Or when he does pray, it’s in imprecatory tones.

Given all those hazards, my advice to pulpit nominating committees is as follows:
Ask a guy what the last ten (non seminary assigned) books he’s read are. If he can’t list ten books, or if none of them were written before 1900, flush him.

If none of them are about the task of pastoral ministry (not leadership, not church growth), or are biographies of pastors whose ministries have stood the test of time, flush him.

Ask him to evaluate the following statement: “The Church is just not reaching this next generation. We’re not answering their questions or meeting them where they’re at, like Jesus did. We need to do something different.” If he agrees with that statement, flush him.

Ask him about his personal evangelism practices. If he doesn’t do it (or claims that all he should be doing is evangelizing from the pulpit) flush him.

Ask him when the last time was that he gave a verbal presentation of faith in Christ to another person. If it’s been a year or more, flush him.

Ask him if he knows his own neighbors and what his relationship with them is like. If your church is in a small town, ask him how he likes small towns and why or why not. Ask him how he likes to watch high school sports. Ask him what he thinks the downside and the upside of living in a small town are.

Ask him about his prayer life. Ask him about his family life, especially family worship and the instruction of his children in the ways of godliness. If he won’t fulfill his first task (being the spiritual head of his home) chances are he’s not going to do very well at fulfilling his second task (shepherding the flock of God) either.

Ask him about his work habits. Ask him how much time per week he spends watching TV or on the internet. Those are huge black holes of wasted time for most guys, and they don’t even realize it. I know pastors who think their primary ministry is blogging. It’s not.

If he doesn’t want to be involved in the community, or take on Bible study leadership opportunities, or lead Sunday School classes because he’s got to have enough time to study and prepare for his sermon, flush him.

Calvin managed to preach four or five times a week, study, make pastoral visits, counsel, and marry, bury, baptize, and write. Pastor Cheezedeeder doesn’t need 40 hours a week to prepare one 20 minute sermon, regardless of what he’s been taught in seminary. 16 hours are sufficient for a well-equipped man. A novice might require an extra 4 or 5 hours in the beginning. Anything more than that on a regular basis indicates either incompetence in the preaching task or an over-fondness for scholarship, and thus a misunderstanding of the preaching task.

Ask him to list his favorite hymns, and see if he remembers the whole first stanza of each one he lists. Ask him about the place of hymnody in the life of the church. I am ever-growing in my appreciation of and love of the great hymns. The problem with modern songs was summed up for me when two other pastors and myself were searching through the hymnal for a hymn to sing to close our weekly meeting. The topic of discussion for that week was self denial. One of the guys quipped, “Let’s sing a modern song about self denial.” ‘Nuff said.

Ask him about the place of the Confession and the Catechisms in the life of the church. If he doesn’t value the Standards and know his Confessional Standards well, flush him. If it never occurs to him to teach them to the children in the church, flush him.

Next, offer mild criticism of something he has said or done. How does he take to being contradicted or criticized? Is he impatient? Is he quick tempered? Can he admit he was wrong with a smile and a laugh? If not, he thinks too much of himself. Flush him.

Then, if he comes to candidate, give him a day or so to look around and then ask him what he’d change. If he immediately offers a bunch of suggestions or a program that he’s learned about from “X,” flush him. If he says that he couldn’t begin to make such suggestions until he got to know the congregation and the community, call him quickly. He’ll be a great pastor who will only leave when God calls him away.

What it comes down to is that a man has got to love God, love the Bible, love people (both saved and lost) and have the competence to do the basics of pastoral ministry well most of the time.

Brian Carpenter is a Teaching Elder (Minister) in the Presbyterian Church in America. He has been serving as the pastor of Foothills Community Church in Sturgis, South Dakota (population 5,981) since 2004. When one leaves the city limits, the demographic of the rest of the county is officially categorized ‘Frontier’. (Ask Brian how the church found him!