Friday, May 09, 2014

Good Search Committtee Communication, part 1: why it matters

A friend of mine is between positions in non-church jobs, and he had an interview a few weeks ago. The company he interviewed with met with him on a Tuesday, and they said at the end, “We’ll let you know what is next on Friday.” And that’s exactly what they did.

To a pastor in transition, the above situation seems foreign, if not inconceivable. That’s because pastoral search committees, as a category, have a reputation for being fairly horrible at communicating with candidates. And I have yet to encounter or hear about one that defies this reputation consistently, if they have any kind of process in place at all.

(This means that I don’t have any one particular church or experience—so no one should take this personally. Actually, scratch that;  everyone should. This is very personal, and not just to me: it is personal to every pastor who is in transition, along with their wives and families. It’s personal to the people on the search committee and reflective of their perception about just how important it is.)

Search committees: this post (and this series) is for you.

What’s going on with your candidates

By a certain point in life, all of us have had job interviews. Some of them may have been more informal, while others required the greatest of poise and decorum. We heard back from some right away, while others made us wait.

The point is: somewhere in everyone’s personal history, they know the mental, emotional, and spiritual challenges of having to wait to see whether this job will be the next one for us.

Your candidates are going through this, too. Whether they are currently in another position as a pastor or associate/assistant pastor, without a call, or approaching graduation from seminary, they are wrestling with the same challenges.

Only maybe a little more. The pastoral transition process takes longer, and in some ways is much harder, than the process of many other professions.

The timeline of a pastoral transition

In many secular professions (by which I mean simply, “not a profession working in ministry”), the timeline for a transition can be as simple as this:
  1. Professional feels it is time to move on from his/her current position, or is fired/laid off/“downsized"/let go
  2. Professional contacts those who might help him/her find another position (recruiters, friends with similar positions in other companies, etc.) and asks for help
  3. A new opportunity arises
  4. Professional submits his/her name for the new opportunity
  5. Professional interviews for new opportunity
  6. Professional is offered a position with new opportunity and decides whether or not to take it; OR
  7. Professional is NOT offered a position with new opportunity, and explores other opportunities
This timeline can take a while—maybe a few months—or it can take as little as a few weeks. In rougher economic times, as we have seen in recent years, it can be trying and a much longer process. Often, though, professionals are able to make an effective transition to a new position within, say, 2–4 months of when they first decide that it is time to move on.

Let’s assume the same starting-point for a pastor: he has determined that it is time for him to move on to another pastorate. What happens next?

He will probably spend several months waiting for a position to come available that likely is a good fit. This is because the positions that are currently open are already well-along into the process of considering other candidates.

He may submit his name for several positions as they come available, and will wait another month or two still. This is because church search committees typically receive between 50 and 150 applicants for any position.

He might finally hear from a search committee that they are interested in exploring with him his fit for their position, through a questionnaire or possibly a brief phone interview; this time of exploration may take another several months. This is because search committees are almost always done by volunteers, who can only devote a few evenings or weekend afternoons a month to the process—and they are also still considering as many as 20 or 30 other candidates at this stage.

He might then be asked to work with them on the next stages of their consideration—such as a phone interview (a second one), another questionnaire, or possibly an in-person visit with just the search committee; this time will take perhaps as little as a few weeks, or as much as another couple of months. This is because, while the search committee has culled their list to only a dozen or fewer candidates, they are still considering several candidates; meanwhile, the volunteers on the committee have begun to tire out, and their efficiency in the process is understandably suffering.

Now assume that he gets the invitation to be the main candidate—now he will be asked to come for a visit (probably several weeks in advance) and spend a weekend with the congregation; thus, he may wait for as much as a month or more before the next phase can be completed. This is because the logistical aspects of the process take time, and travel arrangements can’t be made for just a few weeks out without substantial cost.

If you’re following so far, this pastor’s timeline has added up thusly:
  • Waiting for a likely position: 1–3 months
  • Submitting his name and waiting: 1–2 months
  • Initial search committee processing: 2–3 months
  • Advanced search committee processing: 3 weeks–2 months
  • Invitation for in-person candidacy: 3–6 weeks
Total: 5.5–11.5 months

If this pastor is efficient in his own process, he may have more than one of these going at the same time (up to a point)—but if he is attentive to fit and not just submitting his name willy-nilly to every open position, he may not!

But remember this, too: it’s not unlikely that he’s also already been through this once or twice with other congregations, and at some point (maybe half-way through, or maybe all the way at the end) it reached a conclusion without this pastor receiving a call. In such situations, it can be well over a year from the time when a pastor first decides to seek a new call until he actually has one, even if every search committee is as fast and efficient as the minimum timeline above

I know one fellow pastor who searched and candidated with other congregations for four years before he actually received a new call—all the while waiting, and striving to serve his current congregation faithfully until he was called elsewhere.

This is actually a good thing

All of this process is actually good for the church; it should take a while to find the guy who will be the next pastor! I am in no way advocating that the search process should speed up, or be cut down in some way to make it happen faster.

What I want you to see here is two key points.

First, this process is long, elaborate, and exhausting. It’s not the same as any other professional transition process. (Probably the closest analogue in a non-church setting is the teacher/professor who seeks a new position with another school, university, or other academic institution—and must usually wait until a certain time of year to make their transition.)

Second, with a process this lengthy, good communication is a must. Think of it this way: I often counsel candidates to treat each opportunity as if they will be the next pastor of that congregation, and seek to minister to them throughout the process. What if search committees took the same approach—and sought to communicate with each candidate as if he were to be their next pastor? (One of them likely will be!) 
I wonder if the communication breakdown that often happens would be different?

In future posts in this series, I’ll explore how it could be different. Stay tuned.

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