by Ann Evankovich
March – April, 2003
Navigating the search for a new minister
The seas had been rough for our congregation in Bowie, Maryland, for a few years when we faced the added challenge of searching for a new minister. Our church family struggled with the issues so many congregations have faced in recent years: leadership styles, worship renewal, women’s roles, increased audio visual technology, and even remodeling the auditorium. During the course of two years, four of our six elders resigned, some willingly and some reluctantly, over the various stresses that position demands. Our previous preacher decided he could no longer continue to struggle with problems that festered under a divided leadership. He and his family bowed out graciously.
Even though we still had a great deal of love for each other, we had many members who were emotionally and spiritually wounded from all the turmoil. We had been a family here in Bowie for approaching 40 years. Although we never had a big split, about 40 members of our 150-member congregation had trickled away. As they trickled away, others trickled in. Despite the fact that attendance was down from its peak in the late 70s, we were maintaining but just barely.
Our congregation had been floating in a ship built on the designs of generations before us. Although some of our leaders still believed our ship was seaworthy, many of us could see that we were taking on water in this storm. Many feared we might sink. We were divided as to whether we should keep bailing water out of this boat of our fathers, or build a new boat. Either way, we were clinging on for dear life.
Some of our members wanted to wait until our storms had passed before pursuing a new pulpit minister. Others thought we had waited too long already. Like sailors in a storm afraid to stop rowing, we kept moving.
Our first step was the only one we all easily agreed upon: a commitment to prayer. We set aside the first 40 days of the new year to pray about the future of our congregation. We prayed that God lead us to the right person. In many ways it felt like the 40 days Jesus spent wandering in the desert. We felt weak and many were tempted to just leave and find a place where our spirits could feel fed. I’m not sure if it was our stubbornness or God’s protective shield, but we held together in our leaky little boat.
As we began our commitment to prayer, we also began to plan. There were more details to be decided than we realized at first. We felt it was very important that each part of the process be open to everyone in the congregation. The storms we had weathered so far had left us all feeling a little seasick. No one wanted to force anything on anyone. Consequently, there was much deliberation over every step.
In a congregational meeting, we brainstormed a description of the ideal minister for our church family. This wish list was revised into a job description. While we realized that no single person could meet all our hopes, we decided to set our goals high. A committee spent many hours drafting a plan and estimated timeline for our process in selecting this ideal minister. Again, this committee met at announced times, keeping it open to anyone interested.
Much helpful information came from an exit interview with our former minister and his wife. A couple of our members sat down with them and had a candid conversation about their experiences and perceptions when we hired them. We gained great insight from this interview. For example, we determined that when the minister came to meet with the congregation, we would not hold a full open interview with all members of the congregation. Instead we decided to have the candidates meet with each of our small groups for a less formal and less stressful opportunity to ask questions. We also realized the importance of establishing and working within a timeline. Searching for a new minister is not only stressful for the congregation, but also for the candidates’ families.
After many hours of deliberation, the basic process was this:
- Advertise and accept resumes up to a pre-established deadline
- Formulate a standard interview to be used for every candidate
- Conduct initial phone interviews and narrow the field of candidates
- Conduct second phone interviews to narrow the choice to three candidates
- Check references and run criminal background checks on the three finalists
- Bring out the finalists on separate weekends for a visit and worship service
- Select a minister by consensus of congregation
Using the job description, we drafted an ad to be placed on various websites. The ad included a lighthearted statement, walking on water optional . We prepared interview questions, a rating system, and scheduled the interviews.
Several committee members, myself included, were apprehensive about the stiff, numerical plan for evaluating human beings. Was this a business model or a Spiritual model for hiring a minister? How would it take into account those intangible qualities of unique individuals? How flexible would this allow us to be? One member who worked for the university kept assuring us that the system would work. Once we started using the form, we were all soon won over.
One of the first resumes we received had a cover letter that intrigued many of us. His Vision Statement rang true with many of our personal hopes for our congregation. But what peaked our interest the most was his post script which read, “Walking on water is not one of my specialties, but I can do an awesome dog-paddle.” To those of us clinging to our ship in the storm, we really identified with the image of treading water. We wanted to put our faith entirely in Jesus, but we were surely expending a lot of our own effort.
In several cover letters, the applicants’ responses to the “walking on water” line from the ad were quite telling. Some responded with humor. Others used it to clarify their faith in Jesus. One candidate sounded scolding for our arrogance, completely missing our attempt at humor. Many made no comment about it at all. Our first impressions were forming, but they were not always accurate.
The actual interview process was fascinating. We deliberately made sure that different demographic groups were represented on the interview team. We soon realized that each member had their own rating style. Despite the variety in scoring styles, as long as we remained consistent within our own ratings, the results would be consistent. We taped the interviews and left our score sheets and tapes in the office for any member to review.
It was very encouraging to hear so many people interested in coming to work with us. We heard a fascinating variety of philosophies and experiences. We were comforted to hear that our congregation was not the only one struggling. Yet in all our planning efforts, we overlooked something: the candidates had questions for us. For this we were completely unprepared.
We were aware that each candidate was representing himself in the best possible light, but so had we. They wanted to learn more about us too. We had discussed the need to be honest about our struggles as a church, but we didn’t want to run everyone off either. I’m not sure if it would have been smoother to have canned answers prepared, but it certainly would have helped if our team had anticipated and discussed possible questions we might have to answer. On the second night of interviews, a candidate rocked our boat by asking why the last preacher left and about the style of our elders. We froze. We looked around, pointing to each other because no one wanted to be on tape being so honest. We floundered. Once again, we were aware of the stormy seas surrounding us. We got better over time at walking that fine line of being honest without being tactless.
The interviews forced us to be honest with ourselves about where we were, where we hoped to go, and where we might end up. The candidates asked excellent questions. The “dog-paddler” dropped out before we even had a chance to interview him. We were disappointed but felt confident that God would lead us to the right family. We were still rowing. We had narrowed the field from 40 to 10 candidates. On the day of the deadline, May 15, I received a phone call. “Ann, this is John Brooks.”
“John Brooks, the Dog-Paddler?” I recognized with immediate excitement.
He hesitated as he remembered his post script. Yes, it was him. He was hoping he wasn’t too late for consideration. His previous offer hadn’t work out. I happily scheduled him for the next night’s calls.
After that evening, we had eleven finalists for the second interview. In addition to checking references systematically, we wanted candidates to get to know us as well. We sent a list of our various ministries and their coordinators and participants, a narrative describing who we are and a typical Sunday, our mission statement, and a recent letter from the elders to the congregation regarding our continued struggle making a decision about the role of women. The candidates needed to have time to decide if we were the right church for them. One of the most difficult steps in this process was notifying candidates whom we did not select to move on in the process. Many highly qualified individuals were not chosen because of various experiences, philosophies, or personalities that simply didn’t seem to suit the unique needs of our congregation. We collaborated on the wording of the letters we sent to these men. As much as we wanted to offer specific responses, we kept the letter standard and as gentle as possible.
The second interview helped us easily narrow our choice down to three finalists. So we were not prepared for the storm’s biggest waves yet. The time had finally come for our congregation to quit bailing our ship. We had to step out of the boat and really put our faith in Jesus.
What brought on this final squall? The eldership of our congregation had been struggling for the last couple of years. When we began the interviews, we only had two elders remaining. Three of the four who had resigned in the recent months remained active members of our congregation. In the turmoil over the renovations, individual crises, the changing worship style, women’s roles, and the previous preacher’s resignation, the two remaining elders had run into insurmountable problems. A group of members asked for them to lay aside their role as elders.
As the wave swept over our church, the two men were under tremendous pressure and the rest of us in the boat were exhausted from the white-knuckled clinging. Our last two elders stepped down. With no one clearly at the helm and no one willing to bail anymore, the ship that our fathers built, the ship we’d been in for almost forty years, was clearly going under. The question was, would we go down with the ship, or could we find Jesus walking through this storm?
We had no choice but to notify the three finalists of our new situation. We were definitely treading water. Would anyone want to jump in the water with us? To our relief, all three candidates were still willing to come out to meet us for a weekend in the summer.
There was the last big task of arranging the weekends so that we could give every member the chance to visit with each candidate and his family. One member coordinated the schedule for the weekend visits. Almost every meal over each weekend was hosted by a small group. With all the stress and the onslaught of potlucks, every member gained weight.
After we met with each candidate’s family, we agreed that they were each well qualified for the job. We had to decide not which candidate could do the job, but which candidate was the best for our painfully unique situation.
We gathered immediate information from the congregation after each candidate departed from surveys that were distributed after the Sunday morning worship service. We also talked in our small groups, discussing how each family would fit with us. Then we brought all that together in a congregational meeting.
God answered our prayers and we easily agreed on John Brooks, the Dog-Paddler. The Brooks family arrived at the end of July way ahead of schedule. Perhaps God knew that we needed someone sooner than we planned. It was surprising for God’s timetable to be ahead of ours. Perhaps he was waiting for us to recognize who was really in control. The seas for our congregation have calmed, but we still have had plenty of rough water around us. We’re trying to keep our eyes on Jesus. Sometimes we sink a little and end up dog-paddling. Still, we are walking by faith on a new path, even if it is a wet one.
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Ann Evankovich is a freelance writer who has written articles for Wineskins.org, gal328.org, Integrity Journal, and Christian Woman. Ann and her family are members of the Bowie Church of Christ where Ann coordinates the Ministry of Adult Education and served on the ad hoc Minister Search Committee as a scheduler and interviewer. She earned her degree in English Education from the University of Maryland. Ann, her husband, Tim, and their three beautiful children live in Bowie, Maryland. [ann.evankovich@Verizon.net]