In my previous position with the American Baptist Churches, about half my time was devoted to match-making. Finding pastors for churches and churches for pastors is both art and science with plenty of room for human idiosyncrasies. Though each situation is unique, there are some common characteristics generally found in Baptist church-searches. In this series of three blog posts, I’ll share some tips for placement especially relevant for women candidates.
Let’s look first at the search committee. Ideally the committee is a balanced group of open-minded, Spirit-led individuals with a well-organized chair who keeps the process clipping along efficiently. They have already agreed they are open to whomever God leads to them, regardless of gender, and the compensation package will be generous.
Each church has different procedures for selecting the search committee, so you can anticipate at least a few unfortunate traits—difficult personalities, political agendas, fiscal anxiety, scheduling conflicts, and maybe even folk who do not want to be there.
Serious search committee members stake their personal reputation on how well they deliver a superior candidate to the congregation. They are tasked with finding the best available candidate in terms of experience and performance. The living history of previous search committees’ results haunts them during the search-and-call process and beyond. They need to complete their assignment in a timely manner, and they are working with financial restraints set by the church—both the expenses of the committee and the compensation package for the candidate.
In their first few meetings, they get oriented to the process, the position description, their given parameters, their chemistry as a group, their varying levels of experience, and trying to sense God’s presence in their endeavor. All these factors are in place before the committee even begins considering candidates, which presents another dilemma.
They must decide how to gather résumés—via announcements in selected publications, denominational and specialized sources like BWIM, seminaries, word of mouth, and perhaps proactively inviting some folks to submit their profile. Inevitably, they will receive names from less reliable sources like the Internet or well-intentioned church members who have a cousin who wants to try ministry since becoming unemployed. Individual committee members may even propose specific candidates and advocate for them, clouding objectivity.
Next there are the questions of screening candidates’ credentials, researching their performance in previous positions, and background checks. The committee may find their initial pile of résumés lacks diversity, or the candidates are falling short of expectations, or the most desirable candidates are beyond their financial reach.
Historically most ministers have been male. This means that the “picture” most church folks have of a pastor they’ve known and loved through the years—is male. Considering a woman of God may not be on their radar. It looks like another hurdle to clear before they can get on with the interview and selection phase. You can see how a search committee, already feeling stretched and uncomfortable at this point, is looking for something—anything—to make their job easier.
But let’s presume they agree to seriously consider female candidates. This means they could end up recommending a woman for leadership. How much energy do you think the committee has to deal with the obstacles they might face from church members? The search committee is reticent to create conflict and fallout in the congregation, so they surmise “the church just isn’t ready yet” for a female pastor. They correctly confess that turning minds around is a lengthy educational process that needs to involve the whole church.
All these realities are symptoms of the deep misunderstanding of God’s call as it relates to gender. It is unreasonable to expect the search process alone to bring enlightenment. That’s why it is our ongoing challenge to help churches take many “baby steps” frequently. When we have a guest preacher, invite an ordained woman. Call a female Interim Minister. Denominational gatherings featuring women pastors provide leadership and opportunity for churches to contemplate the same for their own house of worship.
Ultimately the search committee is a group of individuals, and each one is free to participate, to obstruct, to lead, to follow. They need information and encouragement to address their concerns and help expedite their task. The good news is that times of transition often create an atmosphere of anticipation and openness, along with fear and anxiety. We all can play a role in helping search committees—and their congregations—see whom God is preparing to lead them into the future.
Rev. Dr. Z. Allen Abbott is senior benefits consultant with the Ministers & Missionaries Benefit Board.