Conducting a Pastoral Search: Questions and Preparation for the Team

In a tweet posted July 29, 2021, Lori K asked for crowdsourcing on resources for pastoral searches. This blog post shares several threads I tweeted in response. I have removed tweet numbers and edited and expanded the threads slightly to improve clarity.

What are some good resources out there that church leadership should read before beginning a pastor search? Helpful info on things to watch out for, red flags to look for, good questions to ask..ect.


Issues Related to Abuse and Trauma-Informed Ministry

Here are some thoughts and questions from my perspective of involvement with church planting and social enterprises and church planter candidate assessor, plus my work as a spiritual abuse survivor-advocate-resource developer.

I appreciate the composite of figuring out “healthy” plus weeding out “toxic.” [See Part 2 for my reasoning for why I start with “unhealthy.”]

I would ask potential pastoral candidates to define “spiritual abuse” and detail their approach to how they would intervene when malignant leaders or congregants are abusing others.

Then, detail their approach for how they would disciple a congregation to prevent abuse in its many forms.

Define “healthy” for Christian individuals and institutions, and detail their approach for developing sustainably healthy ministries and congregational life in the long run.

I’d have the above issues on a preliminary questionnaire, which means a pastoral search/pulpit committee must know their perspective beforehand.

For candidates who make the cut to an in-person interview, I’d suggest a series of follow-up questions on trauma-awareness. The decision-makers need to see viable candidates’ body language plus facial expressions and hear their tone of voice as they respond to these questions—because these questions might shock or surprise a candidate (though they shouldn’t).

Define “clergy sexual misconduct.”

Summarize the laws and legal requirements in our state regarding:

  • clergy and counselor sexual misconduct
  • mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse
  • sex and “consent”

What sources do you use for researching current information on these issues?

I’d have a block of questions to probe interviewees’ experiences with associations and actions that abuse survivors-advocates-bloggers have identified as warning signs. “Tell us your thoughts about …”

  • use of non-disclosure agreements/NDAs
  • church discipline
  • church membership covenants/contracts
  • your “ideal” for leadership structures in the congregation * #MeToo movement and Christian parallels
  • what are boundary lines between legitimate pastoral care and influence, versus “overlording”
  • how leaders must handle allegations of abuse (any form) and what should instigate an independent investigations
  • what should a genuinely “independent investigation” into personal and institutional responsibility for reported abuses look like
  • what constitutes genuinely “biblical” counseling and pastoral care, contrasted with forms that abuse survivors have identified as (re-)traumatizing
  • interpersonal and institutional “reconciliation” that avoids flaws that abuse survivors have noted regarding Christian arbitration, conciliation, mediation

If interviewers/committee members don’t have answers themselves to these issues, are they ready to discern how knowledgeable and equipped candidates are to deal with spiritual toxicity in the congregation?

I may later suggest questions on the more constructive side of building healthy church. But these issues and questions about abuse and toxicity come mostly from the compilation I posted on some history plus core concerns of abuse survivors/advocates over the last 15 years that I’ve been part of it. The constructive side questions come more from church planting/assessing experiences.


Reasons Why I Put Understanding of Abuse/Toxicity Issues Before Plans for Growth/Health

Great list! I’ve thought asking to define (several things) great weeding out tool. Everything here should comprise a required seminary class

I’ve been developing an intermediate introduction that could be used at the college and seminary level. It starts with how to identify and deal with malignant people and toxic systems–then goes into how to build collaborative organizations and partnerships, using systems that are

  • safer
  • suitable for the people involved
  • culturally sensitive
  • match the scale of resources already in the context/neighborhood
  • can survive trends that no one can control (like generational shifts)
  • are holistically sustainable.

For some background on these six elements of stewardship, see section Essentials #9 – Six “S” Indicators of “Success” in Field Guide “Essentials.”

I start with the so-called “negative” for good reason. In working with church planters and social entrepreneurs over the last two decades, my sense is that they’re so focused on getting their start-up off the ground that they are especially vulnerable to it being hijacked by people with toxic agendas. So, if you can’t discern toxicity yet, it is not a great idea to do a start-up, or to attempt transitioning an existing church, ministry, or non-profit.

Similar reasoning goes into my questions aimed at figuring out where pastoral candidates currently are in knowledge, experiences, and wisdom on personal and systemic abuse dynamics. Do those first. If candidates are deficient in understanding about systemic abuse and toxicity, are they adequately prepared to facilitate congregational leadership for “health”? Or would this job situation just become a place for them to experiment with implementing whatever good *theories* they have about how church/organization should ideally run? Getting someone as a congregational facilitator/leader who is merely a theoretician about abuse is a setup for potential (probable?) disaster.

Here’s the overview of that series of Field Guides, the thinking behind it, and probable components. I’m not writing it for a Christian-only context. This forces me to use common-ground language and metaphors that work across communities.


Temperament Indicators are Insufficient for Detect Character-Deficient Candidates

Another Lori, whose tweets are set for limited viewing so I am not linking to her tweet here, commented on the thread with questions for candidates and prep-work for pastoral search team members—which apply to church planter candidate assessments as well. She noted reading @chuckdegroat‘s When Narcissism Comes to Church, and seeing “a need for new systems that start with prevention.”

My response brought up the need for a rigorous psychological evaluation of candidates for pastoral and church planter roles.

Thanks, Lori–many see the need for a new paradigm in church leader/planter assessment. Deep discussions of this came up during launch of @chuckdegroat‘s #WhenNarcissismComesToChurch, including need for psychological evaluation, conducted by a trained professional. A mere Myers-Briggs temperament will not tell you what you need to know about probable narcissism or other character issues that are disqualifications of the candidate from roles of influence and ministry.

The following link goes to a compilation of my study notes on Chuck DeGroat’s excellent book, When Narcissism Comes to Church. That page includes discussion on leader qualification assessment criteria.

Search for “Ridley” and you’ll find links to other posts that discuss or detail Dr. Charles Ridley’s assessment systems for church planter candidates, using experience-/behavior-based evaluation criteria, and more that would be helpful to pastoral search teams. His research work on what constitutes a most probably “successful” planter is based on more of a conventional business model of ministry, where the candidate is more of a vision caster who motivates and influences followers. I would suggest his criteria need to be turned inside out to accommodate the more current embodiment-based model of ministry, where the candidate is more of a vision carrier who role-models and informs/equips those he/she collaborates with. (Eventually, when time/energy allows, I plan on editing and posting an extended essay I wrote 20 years ago on what I see as this necessity for a completely revised paradigm of assessment, based on research using radically different assumptions about what constitutes “success” in ministry leadership.)


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