Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Good Search Committee Communication, part 2: starting commitments

In May we looked at why good communication from search committees matters so much. We're called to love our neighbors, and it's just the neighborly thing to do.

How should a search committee communicate? Obviously it's going to be different along the various stages of the search process, but it starts with a fundamental commitment to doing it.

Appoint a Secretary

If you're going to communicate well, someone must take the leadership on your search committee to do so. I recommend appointing one person to be the secretary for the committee; this simply means that they are in charge of any and all communication (internally and externally) that the committee has need for. The secretary can (and should) take notes for each meeting (not necessarily minutes, but those aren't a bad idea either) and make a regular report to the session, board, or other primary leadership of the congregation.

And the secretary should also be charged with the responsibility of communicating with each of the candidates that the committee interacts with. This sounds more daunting than it needs to be; as you will see, it can be fairly simple to do, even if there are a lot of candidates.

It's not a bad idea for the secretary to have an e-mail address set up specifically for the search process. This can be done through the church's existing system (something like search@firstcommunitychurch.org, for example) or you can opt to set up an address through G-Mail or one of the other free services. Having a separate e-mail address allows the secretary to compartmentalize the communications work for the search team, and also protects their personal e-mail address from getting added inadvertently to a mailing list. (Do this well before you begin receiving submissions of candidates' names, if possible.)

Decide on a Timeline/Process

Even though the secretary will be in charge of communications, the committee as a whole should decide on the timeline and process by which they will communicate. It is important that everyone on the committee be in on this discussion, both so that they can know how much each candidate should have been communicated with, and so that they can all be accountable for the quality of communication from their committee. If everyone was part of the decision, then no one gets to say down the line, "We should have communicated more with them than we did"—which is only ever divisive and accusatory.

Be careful, as a committee, to find the right balance of communication. Too little, and you have failed in the process in an important way; too much, and you have overburdened the secretary and set him/her up for burn-out. I recommend that, in the early stages, communication occur roughly every 4–6 weeks, though it will need to steadily increase as time moves on. This is okay though, because as the search progresses there will be fewer and fewer candidates with whom the committee has to communicate.

Thus, a good timeline and process might look like this:
  • Stage 1: Beginning—in this stage you're still forming the search committee, gathering information from the congregation, and/or assembling the search profile information; if you receive any name submissions at this stage, it is easy enough for the secretary (or the chairperson, if a secretary has not yet been appointed) to acknowledge them immediately.
  • Stage 2: Getting Started—here you are beginning to receive names of candidates, but have not eliminated any of them yet; this is one of the busiest stages, because you will receive so many names—but you still need to acknowledge their submission in a timely manner (probably at least within a week or so).
  • Stage 3: Early Progress—now you have begun to eliminate some candidates and have "culled" the list for the first round; you should keep those candidates who are still "in the running" in the loop, at very least by a quick note to that effect. You must also notify those who have been eliminated promptly that they are no longer being considered. And, if you receive new submissions, you should either acknowledge them as you did the rest, or inform them that you aren't accepting new names for consideration (which one should be determined by the committee).
  • Stage 4: Middle—at this point you are actively considering candidates that passed the first round of elimination: listening to sermons, reading questionnaires, or some other form of evaluation; those who have been eliminated must be informed of that right away. Meanwhile, you should let the other candidates know that they have advanced to the next stage with you.
  • Stage 5: Late-Middle—by now you are beginning to do phone interviews or some other evaluation with select candidates; your communication with this increasingly-smaller list of candidates should be growing more frequent. You're still keeping candidates that have been eliminated well-informed of their status, while also keeping up open lines with those that you are still considering.
  • Stage 6: Advanced—you are in the process of bringing one or more "finalists" to you for in-person visits, interviews, and meeting with the congregation; the non-finalists deserve to receive prompt word that they are no longer being considered. Meanwhile, you're probably in touch with your primary candidates on a fairly frequent basis.
  • Stage 7: Almost There—here you have extended a call to your candidate of choice, and are waiting for their response, for presbytery or another governing body, or simply for him to move to the area and be installed; at this point every line of communication should be wide-open with your (hopefully) soon-to-be pastor.

Some fundamentals to notice in the above: First, there is never a stage when communication levels do not remain high. The secretary of a well-functioning search committee will always have work to do. Second, you must continue to communicate with candidates that you have eliminated, to inform them that they are no longer in consideration. This is not some extra-nice touch; this is common decency and giving respect and dignity to these candidates. Third, the longer a candidate is in the process, the more communication they should receive from you.

To elaborate on this last point, let's move on to the next big decision.

Determine the Venues/Contexts of Communication

Communication in the search process should grow increasingly personal and intimate. It is fine to use a pretty impersonal means to communicate in the early stages; frankly, most candidates will simply be glad to have heard from you. But when you start to get into more advanced stages, you—by which I mean ALL of the committee—should both expect it to get more personal, and be open to that.

First, let me explain what I mean. Communication tools like e-mail and form letters are pretty mechanical. Sure, e-mail can be very intimate—but we all know that an e-mail from a search committee secretary to a candidate they only know on paper will probably not be anything close to intimate. And in stages 1–3 above, these are fine. In fact, I recommend it—not because impersonal is good, but because these more mechanical means will allow the secretary to do his/her job efficiently. (In future posts, we will provide some sample/template letters and e-mails that you might use in these early stages.)

Once you get past the first "culling," though, you really must begin to communicate more personally. If you reject someone in or after stage 4, they deserve to know why, at least in broad terms. And their rejection should come in a warm and genial letter or e-mail that was written specifically for them—not through some slightly-adapted template.

Likewise, after you have had a phone interview with a candidate, the most appropriate way to tell them that they have been eliminated is through a phone call. To simply send them a form letter or abrupt e-mail at this stage is both rude and cowardly. Let's treat each other with more dignity than that.

And it goes the same for candidates that you're keeping in consideration, if not even more so: You need to get to know him, and let him get to know you, and see your relationship grow over the weeks and months that you are considering each other.

This is why, by the middle or end of stage 5, I would recommend that candidates have the phone numbers of the secretary, committee chair, and at least one or two other committee members. He should be made to feel welcome to call on them and get to know them, and even ask about how the search process is going. Sure, search committee members will need to be careful that they do not share information that they shouldn't, nor should these growing relationships give way to "picking favorites" at the expense of the integrity of the search process. But there is nothing wrong with growing relationships at the later stages.

So, a good plan for contexts might look something like this:
  • Stage 1: Beginning—form letters or e-mails are fine at this stage.
  • Stage 2: Getting Started—form letters or e-mails are still fine.
  • Stage 3: Early Progress—again, form letters or e-mails are still fine.
  • Stage 4: Middle—now the communication must begin to get more personal; e-mails and letters are still fine, but should not be just a boilerplate form letter.
  • Stage 5: Late-Middle—phone calls and personalized e-mails should be the norm; especially for rejections, a phone call is expected.
  • Stage 6: Advanced—phone calls and casual personal e-mails ought to be happening with increasing frequency by this stage.
  • Stage 7: Almost There—now you are beginning to really build relationships through every possible form of communication.

Now let me tell you why this is so important. With increasing likelihood throughout the process, this guy may actually be your future pastor! How important is it to you that your next pastor know you personally? How important is it that you know him? I both cases, I would say it is very important. Vital, in fact.

Beyond this, attentiveness to both the content and form of communication is dignifying and considerate. When your committee attends to this, you are demonstrating that yours is a congregation that any potential pastor should be eager to serve.

On the other hand, when you ignore the simple opportunities for communication, you are still communicating with him: however, what you are telling him now is that you don't care enough about basic courtesy to be bothered.

A Closing Anecdote

When I was in my last year of college, I had an opportunity to interview for a youth ministry position with a church in a city about 90 minutes away from where we lived. We went to visit them for a Sunday, and after worship and Sunday school went over to the home of one of the search committee members. The whole committee was there, along with the senior pastor and his wife, and we visited together casually for most of the afternoon. As the day grew long, someone realized that we still had a 90-minute drive home and offered us a gracious opportunity to begin our goodbyes.

On the way out, the senior pastor walked us to our car. He spoke of how well he felt like things had gone that day, and the last thing he said as he shook my hand goodbye was, "I'll be in touch with you as soon as there is something to tell."

I never heard from him.

For years I joked with Marcie that their search must have stalled, because I still hadn't heard anything from him. The truth is, though, that pastor looked me in the eye and made me a significant promise that he didn't keep. In retrospect, I'm relieved that I was never in a position where I had to decide whether I would want to work under a pastor like that.

Search committees are infamous—notorious, even—for poor communication. You can distinguish yourselves as an outstanding church simply by being different, through extending basic dignity and consideration for the candidates you consider. Please do it!

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