Looking over the landscape of Baptist churches, there are days when we might rightly cry out, “Lord, give us a bishop!”
Too often, churches use their full autonomous rights to make awful hiring decisions. Not all the time, but not just occasionally either. Is saying so questioning the work of the Holy Spirit? Hopefully not; more likely it is acknowledging that churches are human institutions serving divine purposes. Sometimes humans get it wrong. And sometimes humans administering churches get it wrong in consecutive terms.
The result can be devastating, not only to the minister but also to the church. And not just for the tempestuous term of that pastor but for years to come. Call it the ripple effect. Pastors and personnel committees sometimes make the same kinds of errors in hiring other staff members, too.
Hiring the wrong pastor or key staff member can derail the unity and vision of the church for a generation, just like a broken leg may leave a long-term limp.
Of course, bishops are human as well, and in churches where bishops appoint pastors, mismatches still occur. So that’s not the answer, either.
At least five factors play into these hiring errors: Fear, putting personal attachment over reason, settling for a candidate just to get the work done, thinking too highly or too lowly of yourself, and lack of adequate research.
Fear takes hold when churches worry that they are going to be left behind, that they can’t survive an interim, that some other church is going to steal their members, or that they need to hire someone who is the exact opposite of the previous pastor. Decisions motivated by fear carry high risks.
Putting personal attachment over reason occurs when search committees or pastors let family ties, school connections or other non-work-related factors take precedence over the qualifications outlined for the job. In the long view, favoritism doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Settling happens when a search is long and exhausting and those in charge decide they’re just going to have to make a choice, even if it’s not an ideal choice. Such hires seldom end well, thus effectively extending an interim period unintentionally.
Overinflated or underinflated self-image leads churches to set impossible standards or not to be selective enough. Both are dangerous with a similar net effect. Setting impossible standards often leads to hiring someone who reached those standards with another deficiency that gets overlooked. And setting your sights too low keeps churches from moving forward in vision and energy.
Lack of adequate research is perhaps the most common culprit, though. Just a little bit of digging with open eyes would prevent many a church-minister mismatch. If preaching, for example, is the top priority in a search for a pastor, a committee must not disregard a candidate’s competencies in other areas. No amount of great preaching can make up for a rotten personality. Nor can any amount of excellent pastoral care make up for sorry preaching. And regardless of what qualities rise to the top, always find out how well the pastoral candidate handles money.
The best safeguard against bad hires is to create a healthy search process that acknowledges and avoids these five pitfalls. Determine in advance not to let fear be your motivator. Set boundaries up front to protect against personal attachments ever being a factor. Find some trusted confidantes who will tell you honestly if they think you are settling just to be done with it. Get some outside counsel to ensure you have an accurate self-awareness. Make sure at least one person on your search team knows how to do research, and do not rely only on references given to you by the candidate.
Above all, begin with a clear set of expectations in mind for the role, not just for the person to fill the role. What is it the church hopes to accomplish by hiring this staff member? And then consider what you’re willing to give up in other qualities in order to hire someone with your desired gifts. Life is full of choices, so you’ve got to know the tradeoffs — especially if you don’t have a bishop.