Pastors and congregations: Marriages made in heaven?

pastor match for churchThe marriage between pastor and congregation can become a beautiful celebration of harmony, like a finely tuned orchestra. The pastor and the church’s leadership are on the same proverbial page, the worship service is exquisite and the various programs run like a clock. The congregation is growing spiritually and numerically, and the community is envious of that body of believers.

Okay, that’s utopian. At minimum, it’s rare. More often than not, churches are content with the status quo, preaching is good, the church leadership gets along well with each other, and the church continues to produce the usual menu of discipleship programs.

When a church becomes vacant – that is, without a pastor – it becomes an opportunity to find that perfect match between pastor and congregation. How do we connect the right pastor with the right congregation?

The denomination – and you can insert any Reformed or Presbyterian or other denominational name here – used to consist of cookie-cutter churches and pastors. One could photocopy a Sunday liturgy and apply it to hundreds of churches across the country. Similarly, one could photocopy a sermon and have it preached in any one of those churches with equal effect. Ministers were well-trained, they experienced a deep sense of ‘call’ to the ministry, and their job descriptions didn’t vary from congregation to congregation.

Today, each church reflects its unique culture, specific focus and liturgical quirks. Ministers come from a variety of backgrounds and enter a church with a wide range of theological training. Some may be second-career pastors after having served  a time in business. Many enter the ministry through non-traditional educational paths: a few years at a Bible college, a few courses at a neighborhood theological seminary that may not reflect a Reformed perspective, and then a requisite year at the denominational seminary, often via distance education.

I have been privileged to have served as an elder in five different congregations, each one of them involving a vacancy – that dreaded time when a church is without a pastor. Most of those periods of vacancy were actually delightful times in the life of the church. One church actually flourished during their four-year vacancy.

Search committees are eager to find a new pastor. They establish a few criteria: the age of the pastor, their gifts as preacher and pastor, their perspective on local key issues of contention, their interest in community involvement and evangelism.

Pastors are generally open to the notion of moving after they have been in a congregation for five years so they submit their cv’s to the appropriate denominational office, an indication that they are open to considering a call. They also generally provide a few criteria: They will indicate whether they prefer an urban or rural church, perhaps state a preferred congregation size, and probably the preferred geographic location.

Typically, search committees request a stack of cv’s of potential pastors from the denominational office. It is left to the search committee – with all of its collective wisdom, but not too much experience – to select two or three likely candidates from among those willing participants. Pastors wait for the right call from a church that meets their criteria.

The process hasn’t changed in 50 years even though we no longer have cookie-cutter churches nor cloned pastors.

During my recent six-year stint as stated clerk of Classis Huron of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, I was not surprised when search committees asked where they should start. Most of those search committee members had never been involved in a pastoral search process before. They’ve been quite content to simply sit in the pew.

There are two problems, one involving the search committee and one involving the pastor.

Most search committee members – and this is anecdotal – were chosen because of their age, gender or ethnic origin. They were chosen because they collectively represented the congregation.  They were not (as a rule) chosen for their theological knowledge or their ability to discern a good sermon from a great one, nor for their intimate knowledge about a pastor’s potential  job description.  And most search committees are often mandated to come up with a church profile, often a painstakingly cumbersome process to tell a prospective minister just what kind of congregation he’d/she’d be inheriting.

Our presbyterian/ congregational system leaves it up to each church to figure out for themselves just who they are and who they should have as a pastor. That is the way it should be. Otherwise we’d have bishops simply assigning pastors to the churches. Many search committees and councils, however, would benefit greatly from support, encouragement and direction from an outside consultant who is equally invested in finding the right pastor for the congregation.

I have met numerous pastors across Ontario, some of whom are delighted to be serving  their particular congregations and, indeed, find it a match made in heaven. Many pastors are lonely. That is the nature of their work. They are struggling with a wide range of issues, whether that involves conflict with church leadership or members of the congregation, workload, or their own anxiety and stress. Many find solace and support from colleagues in the ministry where they are able to bare their souls … to a certain extent.

We have hundreds of pastors who, after graduating from seminary, are left to fend for themselves. They receive call after call and move from congregation to congregation. It takes time and experience for a pastor to discern whether he or she is more suited to a large congregation or a small one or, more seriously, whether he or she still feels called to this ministry.

Pastors would benefit greatly from a third-party consultant who can help to identify a pastor’s giftedness and then match those gifts with a particular ministry, whether in a congregation, church plant, chaplaincy or other setting. Meeting over coffee with a colleague or a regional pastor just isn’t enough. They can listen but they have no authority to act.

Preacher or pastor?

I was recently delighted and relieved to discover a Chicago-based organization that focuses on helping search committees find the right pastor to fit their needs, but also helps pastors rediscover their own sense of calling and giftedness.

ChapterNext helps congregations turn the page. Rev. Dr. Sam Hamstra of ChapterNext has developed an intentional, thorough process where he leads search committees to discover their new ‘ideal’ pastor within 9 to 12 months. His track record over the past seven years is incredible.

He also works with pastors, either one-on-one or as a group, to rediscover their gifts and even re-evaluate their sense of calling. Some pastors just shouldn’t be pastors in a congregational setting. They may fit perfectly as a chaplain or may have specific gifts as a church planter.

Hamstra recently visited Ontario and spent an evening with the search committees of three neighbouring vacant churches. He laid out a thorough search committee process for them and also offered a few tidbits. “If you want your pastor to become involved in the community, then you need to eliminate the second service. If he is preaching twice on a Sunday, he doesn’t have the time or energy to effectively work in the community.”

And then this one: “A large church needs a good preacher; a small church needs a good pastor. If a pastor can reach 500 people on a Sunday through an excellent sermon, that is an effective use of his time. A pastor in a smaller congregation can supplement his ‘good’ sermon with pastoral visiting throughout the week.”

Full disclosure: I have become so impressed by ChapterNext’s holistic approach to pastor and congregation, that I have joined the ChapterNext Team to help bring this ministry into Ontario and, possibly, across Canada.

Since a congregation’s culture is unique, it needs to have a pastor who has similarly unique gifts. Our traditionally cookie-cutter approach no longer works. Throwing a stack of ministers’ cv’s on a table, with a directive – “Pick one” – no longer works. We have seen too many churches and pastors who clash over incompatibility.


Keith Knight is a member of the ChapterNext Team as well as the executive director of the Canadian Christian Business Federation. He lives in Guelph ON.

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