Barber’s Bullets for the Preacher Search: Suggestions from Observation and Experience About Looking for a Preacher

From chapter 36 of Between Preachers, by Jerrie Barber

This started as a hand-out during the training workshop for the group looking for and evaluating the next preacher. These are things I’ve learned from the University of Hard Knocks. Consider what I say and feel free to use the wastebasket.

  • Invite God to be part of this process. Remind yourself and others that His wisdom is available to those who pray for it (James 1:5) and work for it (Proverbs 2:1-5). You’re starting a lengthy, difficult, invigorating, enlightening, and frustrating journey. Neither you individually nor the group collectively has the wisdom to deal with all issues, individuals, families, and churches you’ll be affecting as you carry out your task. Each person, including yourself, is a creation of God deserving to be treated with respect and love. God’s word gives us principles for every situation in life. God promised to give us wisdom when we realize we don’t have it. I suggest you begin this search being poor in spirit and begging God for the wisdom you need.
  • The process is as important as the product. Christians on the Search/Interview committees are not just doing a job. You are participating in an opportunity to grow spiritually. You can learn about God, others, and yourself. Be aware of your hopes, fears, prejudices, and faith. Watch for growth. Thank God for the opportunity to take part in this good work and the strength and wisdom He furnishes.
  • What are your rules? What are the spoken guidelines? What are the unspoken expectations? Don’t start talking until you agree, as a group, how you’re going to talk. Some suggested guidelines: Discussion Rules, Chapter 20. Good agreements reduce conflict before conflict begins. If you don’t have conflict—differences of opinion—several of you are unnecessary. We have a committee instead of a CEO to get different perspectives. The goal is to create an atmosphere where each person feels free and is encouraged to express every viewpoint. What may seem trivial to you, may spark an idea in another person and will make a difference in the outcome.
  • Spend five minutes at the end of each session to evaluate the process. How did we do? Was I heard? How am I feeling about what we’re doing? How am I relating to others in the group? Do I feel part of the team? It’s easy for a dominant personality or two to monopolize and unduly influence the group. Many people won’t talk unless they’re asked. Be concerned. Be honest. Be interested in the best choice possible. The chairman should ask each person about the process and how they feel about how they interacted during the meeting today.
  • Consider a “no suicide” contract for the search team. Sometimes people get tired, disillusioned, or frustrated when working on a project. They may quit unexpectedly in disgust: “Now they’ll know how important I was.” A better way is to keep current. It may be during selection that one or more will have a good reason not to complete the assignment. Communicate your intentions and reasons to the group and give them time to adjust to your absence on the committee. Rule 1 is to let God be a part of the process. It’s not Christian conduct to ignore the teaching of Jesus when you’re searching for a preacher—or any other time. Considerate family members don’t disappear and never explain where they went and why they didn’t show up when expected.
  • When you’re pursuing a “good preacher,” your first task is not to “hire” him. The first goal is to help you and him decide if this church is a good fit for him and you. When and if you talk with a “good preacher,” and you or he decides it’s not a good fit, you’ve been more successful than if you’d “hired” a “good preacher” that didn’t fit.

Some good eligible men don’t need to marry some good eligible women—not because either is bad or unChristian. They just don’t fit. Many good preachers don’t need to preach in many good congregations—not because they’re bad preachers or the churches are bad. They’re good. But they don’t fit. From my perspective, this is one of the first tasks of the search team and prospective preacher—determine if you fit. If you don’t fit, you’re wasting time talking about salary, insurance, vacation, number of weeks off for meetings, workshops, and lectureships, retirement plans, and whether to rent a U-Haul or call North American Van Lines.

  • Remember it’s not only the preacher that’s “trying out.” The congregation is also “trying out.” Both have choices. If he’s a “good preacher,” he’s watching and investigating every aspect of this congregation just as you’re watching and investigating him.

Our family served as Shoney’s and Captain D’s mystery shoppers for six years. We ate at the restaurants once a week and filled out a form, answering questions to check the restaurant, staff, and food each week. We mailed the form to their headquarters as soon as we ate to help them know how they were doing. They took our suggestions and made adjustments.

When we moved the next time, we made a Shoney’s Mystery Shopper form for each church where we were “trying out.” The church was “trying out” from the first contact until we completed our decision on where we were moving.

In the Appendix are samples of notes I made during one move in my ministry.

They narrowed their search to four men at one church where I served as an interim. They invited each of them and his wife to visit on successive Friday-Saturdays. They interviewed, showed the community, and continued their evaluation of each other.

On one weekend, the preacher stayed over on Saturday night and visited Bible classes and worship the next morning. I wasn’t aware of this, and very few in the congregation knew—just the search team which saw him. I asked the congregation the next Sunday if they were aware they were “trying out” the previous Sunday. I told them one of the four top preacher candidates was present. He was watching and listening, observing singing, praying, friendliness or unfriendliness, the condition of the building and grounds, and getting on-site impressions of what kind of church this was and whether there was a fit. Often search teams go to a prospective preacher’s congregation, observing him. It’s also valuable for a preacher to do this. I call this “equalizing the pressure.”

  • Don’t promise prospective preachers much.

Each search team member should be careful not to discuss their preferences and indicate to a preacher he’s the “top pick” when the group hasn’t reached a decision.

Avoid feel-good phrases without specific meaning, “We’ll take care of you when you get here.”

Think before you promise, “We’ll call you Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m.”

  • Do what you promise. One of the most disappointing things in my years of ministry is the failure of elders and search committees to call when they promised. An interview often ends with the statement, “We’ll meet and discuss this. We’ll call you Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. to let you know what we decided.”

My question was, “Central time or Eastern time?” When clarified, I wrote the telephone appointment in my Day-Timer™.

As Tuesday night approached, I told my children, “I have an important call Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. If one of your friends calls from 7:45 on, tell them, ‘Daddy has an important call coming at 8:00. I’ll call you back.’ ”

8:00 came and went; 8:15, 8:30, and 9:00. No call. My reasoning: elders usually meet on Wednesday night. That’s what they probably meant. They’ll call after services. On the way home from Bible study, the conversation with my children, “I may have an important call coming in tonight. If one of your friends calls, tell them, ‘Daddy is expecting an important call. I’ll call you back later.’ ”

No call on Wednesday, Thursday — often never. I’d learn about their new preacher when I read an announcement in the Gospel Advocate. This happened time after time.

This practice was so pronounced that one elder who did what he promised stood out. In 1988, I learned at Freed-Hardeman lectures the church in Amory, Mississippi, was looking for a preacher. I called one of the elders, Jimmy Vaughan, and talked with him. He told me, “Yes, we’re looking. We heard you might be available. We may want to talk with you. We’re talking with one man at a time. We’re talking with a preacher now, and it looks like we may come to an agreement. If we don’t, we want to talk with you next. We plan to decide this weekend. I’ll call you Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. and let you know, either way.”

“Central time or Eastern time?”

“Central time.”

In my conversation with my children, “I have an important call Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. If one of your friends calls from 7:45 on, tell them, ‘Daddy has an important call coming at 8:00. I’ll call you back.’”

Tuesday night came. I was waiting. At 8:00 p.m., 7:00 CST, my phone rang in Dalton, Georgia.

“This is Jimmy Vaughan from Amory, Mississippi.” That’s when he said he would call!

From that day, every time I saw Jimmy Vaughan, I would address him, “There’s Jimmy Vaughan from Amory, Mississippi, the elder who tells the truth.” In notes in my Contacts list on my iPhone under Jimmy Vaughan, I have this written, “the elder who tells the truth” – 1988. In notes below Contacts information in his daughter’s entry, “Daughter of Jimmy Vaughn, Amory, Mississippi, the elder who tells the truth”.

I’ve labored this point because this practice is common in my experience, and in the experience of many preachers who’ve talked with me. That should not be!

The time to look for a preacher isn’t the time to disregard principles of Biblical morality of telling the truth and being considerate of others.

  • Keep everyone in the process informed. Considering moving is a time of stress for many people: the preacher, his wife, his children, the congregation where he’s working if they know about his consideration, and other congregations he’s considering. If a person is no longer in consideration, let him know. Let the people involved know if it’ll be longer to complete a particular phase than you stated. If it’s been some time since you communicated to those involved and you don’t have anything to say, let them know you don’t have anything to say.

Both preachers and churches should study verbal and non-verbal communication. We’re beginning to tell each other how we’ll treat each other when we get together.

  • Be sensitive to the family. The wife and children will be part of the decision and will be vital to the happiness after the move. A special activity for the children when they visit will impress. Leaving them in a motel to watch TV while Dad is being interviewed will also leave an impression.

When the family visits to begin making the final decision, continue to plan activities to give them information about the church and community and leave adequate free time.  They need time to pray, talk about you, question, doubt, make calls for advice, and think.

  • Plan a Funeral—Graduation Party at the conclusion to celebrate your good work and reflect on what you have learned about God, His church, others, and yourself.

My policy for being a reference at an interim congregation is included in the last paragraph of this training document, “Suggestions for the Preacher Search:”

I appreciate your willingness to work on this significant task. I’ve enjoyed our time together. I’m glad to give thoughts on looking for a preacher. I won’t discuss the persons you consider. I won’t be a reference for or a critic of men who apply.

May God bless you as you seek His wisdom in this process.