This past Sunday we installed a new associate pastor at our church. As we looked back on the process, we thought that it might be helpful to use the same process in the future.
In our case, I had a connection with the candidate for a long time. Josh, (the guy we hired), was a seminary student at a friend’s church (Ryan Fullerton at Immanuel Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky). Through different events like the Canadian’s gatherings at Together For the Gospel, and through email correspondence, I got to know Josh as one of the guys who were burdened to return to Canada for ministry. This connection lasted for three or four years, without any formal plan either on Josh’s part or ours that he would be pastoring with us.
We can recall the networks of relationships in Paul’s day, or the various hubs for the gospel in the first-century Mediterranean world such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. Through these connections, there became an awareness of different Christian workers (eg. Luke, a physician, Onesimus, a slave), with different skills (eg. Paul, planter, Apollos, waterer), who could partner together at different times (Paul with Barnabas, or Silas, or Luke, or Timothy). The same is true today. We are most comfortable hiring people we know, or who are in our network, rather than via a website resume.
There came a point when Josh was available. He had graduated from seminary and was looking for a ministry position. At the same time, our church was looking like it would make a big change. We were talking about church planting with our longtime associate pastor Jeff Jones leading the new work.
So we were possibly in need of a new associate pastor and Josh might possibly consider working at our church. But it was all too soon to know either way if that was something that would happen. All that we knew as was that on both sides we were coming into some transitions.
In the process then, we had to evaluate what were the pastoral skills that would mesh with the needs in the church. Specifically, we had to see the needs created by Jeff’s coming departure. I was grateful to get feedback from Jeff about his job as he was leaving because he knew best what kind of work he was doing.
It was also a time for me to assess what I thought the church might need for the future. For example, it would do no good to have someone with uninterested in leading a range of church ministries. If they either wanted a small solo pastor charge or to be responsible for a single department (like youth ministry), then that kind of hire wouldn’t be helpful.
Above all, it was important to consider how a new hire could affect our church’s unity, especially the unity of the elders’ board and the cohesion of the congregation. If a new pastor desired to come in and radically change our church into something it wasn’t, it would cause upheaval. Rather we wanted to find someone who can participate in plural elder leadership, work well with a staff, and seek to improve the faithfulness and effectiveness of our ministry as God gave supply.
Josh had to evaluate things for himself too. Having had extensive ministry experience before and during seminary, he was unlike a lot of guys who get a degree but have never had real responsibilities. So he had to consider what kind of ministry role he aspired to. And he also had to consider if such a role was available in the region that he preferred.
Now sometimes, a man seeking a pastorate has no real preference for where he might be employed. Other men desire to serve in particular cities or distinct contexts. He might want a rural church, or a multi-staff church, or a church near family, or a church in an unchurched region. Whatever his preferences might be, the candidate has to evaluate his desires. What does he really want? What are his preferences? Josh had to go through this just like any man seeking a pastorate.
When it came to our process with Josh, we were intentionally careful not to promise too much too soon. That wouldn’t be fair to Josh, nor to our congregation.
So the first move that I made was to invite Josh to become a member of our church. This was pretty unique and wouldn’t likely work for most potential hires.
Since Josh was leaving seminary and embarking on his own transition into full-time ministry, I invited him to join our church, even if it was only for a short time and we were merely a transitional launch pad for his final ministry destination.
The benefit for Josh was that he had a new home-base in a region where he wanted to serve. It also re-introduced him into those regional networks of churches. He could also see our church and start to acclimatize himself to the differences between his church experience in the US with the realities in Canada.
I think the acclimation period is something that returning seminarians can miss. The intense fellowship, energy, and resources of churches in American hubs can lead to discontentment, loneliness, and discouragement when returning to the church back home. By getting acclimatized a prospective pastor can start to see the strengths and not just the weaknesses of the churches they aim to serve.
Of course, when a new prospective pastor comes into these church networks, there are opportunities presented to him. Such was the case with Josh, and he became aware of three different senior pastor positions which he could candidate for.
At that point, we weren’t in a position to hire Josh, so we simply had to care for him, and give him counsel as he prayerfully considered these other options.
A Sample Size
As time passed, some of the doors closed for Josh to candidate at other churches. One church continued to talk with him about becoming their senior pastor.
At the same time, even though we couldn’t invite Josh to candidate as an associate pastor, we did have a need for a pastoral assistant to help with administration. The job wasn’t what Josh aspired to, and it wasn’t a permanent solution to our administration needs. Nevertheless, we decided that a short term contract could be beneficial for us both.
So we hired Josh for a set number of months as a pastoral assistant doing administration. We were desperate at the time for help in this area, so we were glad to have Josh learn on the job.
Josh needed work even while he was looking for his next ministry move. The solely administrative work was not what he felt called to do, but it was work he was capable of doing in the interim.
All the while Josh was working for our church, he was in talks with another church about becoming their pastor. This was open and transparent. Our church elders were giving their evaluations and counsel on the prospect. And we knew that Josh could receive counsel from those outside the church that might lead him away from us. We were all trusting God to direct our respective paths.
The pastoral assistant position offered a good sample size of Josh’s ministry. He could see what it would be like working at our church. And we could see how Josh fit. So many of the crucial elements of effective pastoral ministry can be reduced to being an exemplary Christian. Even the elder qualifications of 1 Timothy 3, are characteristics of all exemplary Christians (except for the one-woman man, and the ability to teach). The pastoral assistant job didn’t necessarily involve teaching, but it did give lots of occasions to exercise humility, wisdom, discretion, integrity, generosity, compassion and love.
This sample size became a short test to see if someone wishing to be a shepherd was willing to work among the sheep. It also gave a realistic picture of what most pastors have to do at some point in ministry. Whether it is sending out newsletters or crafting announcements or formatting bulletins, pastors often have to do these tasks in the absence of administrative help. By getting Josh into this work, he would be better equipped to lead a staff in a church. He could know the tasks and have empathy for the people doing them.
The pastoral assistant contract was a great time to get to know Josh. It was also a season for him to know people in the congregation as well as the rest of the elders’ board.
As it became clear that we would need an associate pastor, and with Josh coming to the end of his contract with us, our church had to make a decision. Would we offer Josh the opportunity to candidate for the associate pastor position? At the same time, he was talking regularly with another church about being their senior pastor. We needed to act or move on to other plans.
So we did. We made a formal invitation for Josh to candidate for the position of associate pastor. We established a tentative timeline that included the following checkpoints:
Meet individually with all of the elders.
Meet congregation members individually and in a series of luncheons.
Attend all non-confidential portions of elder meetings.
Teach adult sunday school classes.
Preach at the main services.
Lead the worship services.
Prepare an essay on a theological topic.
Prepare a personal confession of faith.
Be formally examined by the elders’ board regarding doctrine, life and ministry.
At this point, there were no guarantees for Josh and us that he would be hired, but we entered into this process trusting God’s direction as we all sought to walk in wisdom.
We announced to the congregation that Josh had been invited to candidate for the associate pastor position. The members were called upon to review Josh’s life, ministry and teaching during his time as a member in the last year, the latter part of his contract work and during the formal candidacy. We sent out what our church calls a Congregational Review for a Candidate Elder/Pastor. It was a request for each member to respond in writing whether they affirm Josh as an elder and associate pastor. The statement would go like this:
I, [insert name], support and will joyfully submit to [Josh Kary] if he is appointed to the office of elder.
If they didn’t support him and had concerns about him, then the members were invited to respond with their thoughtful feedback. Since it was only the elders’ board that saw this, members could have confidence that they could speak openly about their concerns. It also gave the elders a chance to address any misconceptions. Though a member’s mind might not be changed, they would know that they are being heard. As well, the pastors could know more distinctly what members were thinking about the candidate.
From this review period, and the elder collection of gleanings about Josh’s overall life and ministry, the elders were able to make an informed decision about appointing Josh to this ministry role at our church.
Compared to other churches, they may have a more detailed process than we had or a lot less. They may have convictions about where different parties enter the process such as the local congregation, local leadership and denominational affiliations. But most of the time, healthy churches will look quite similar in their processes, though using different language, different requirements and a different pace.
Take a few test drives before you hire a pastor or install an elder. Giving real opportunities for the candidate and the church to get to know one another will benefit you both in the long run (see 1 Tim 5:22). This is risky but it is better to hear a doctrinal quirk in a candidate’s sermon than to have it be embedded as an agenda for years after he is hired.
Clarify the difference between your aspirations and the way things are. A church may hope to have a pastor, but if they are unwilling to make a clear offer, then they aren’t really wanting one yet. The same goes for a young man looking for a pastorate. He can aspire to lead a modern Antioch church, but he must decide if he can be content to work with the church that is offering him a job. When both parties are clear about expectations it will keep them both from misunderstandings.
Don’t be afraid to be a stepping stone. Some churches can delude themselves into assuming their place of ministry is the best available. They would feel slighted if someone only came for a short period. But if they can embrace a wider kingdom role, they will know that any short stay by a pastor can be fruitful in God’s plan. A church can be part of pipelining that man toward other ministry under the sovereignty of God.
Take care, but don’t take control. Since the pastoral office is so important in the church, there can be a tendency to be so careful that a church is paralyzed. This overly-controlling attitude can be driven much more by fear of the future than faith in God. We must trust God to bring to light both weakness and strength (cf. 1 Tim 5:24-25). At the same time, there must be a lot of care exercised in examining a potential pastor. This has to go beyond C.V.’s and credentials. It must be through the eye-test of seeing a candidate’s interactions with the sheep. And it must be through the ear-test of hearing his pastoral instruction in various settings from the living room to the pulpit. Such care will benefit both the candidate and the church even if he isn’t hired.
In all of this, we can praise God that he raises up workers for the harvest. Isn’t it all the more reason for us to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send more (Mt 9:38, Lk10:2)?