What to look for in a pastor

Being engaged in the work of a pastoral search committee, I recently came across and had the privilege of reading through Brian Biedebach’s book What to look for in a pastor: A guide for pastoral search committees (Leominster, UK: Day One, 2011). The book is a significant contribution to a crucial part of church life: the pastoral search. Biedebach states “this book is all about helping committees and churches find the right men for their pulpits. It is also a book for pastors to help them keep the right balance between preaching and other shepherding responsibilities that are given them by God.” What brought him to write on this topic? Through personal experience and connections he came increasingly to feel that

“the typical pulpit committee is made up of six or seven church members who hardly know one another and have never before experienced the process of choosing a pastor… Pulpit committees often gamble with their selection of candidates because they usually don’t have a clear understanding of biblical guidelines for choosing a pastor. Many pastoral search committees unwittingly have incorrect expectations, erroneous criteria, and a skewed evaluation process. The result is that their churches end up with the wrong man.”

Liam Goligher, senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, attests similarly in his commendation of the book:

“I’ve just come out of a pulpit-selection process in which I have been quizzed and questioned by people who knew what their church believed and were anxious to know whether I measured up to their doctrinal position. They pulled no punches as they probed my answers, listened to my sermons, and read my responses to make sure there was a unity in the truth. Would that this was always the way it was, but I can assure you it is the exception rather than the rule. In other words, this church’s process was so unlike the “beauty pageant” that often passes for pulpit selection in many “evangelical” churches today…”

Phil Johnson, of Grace to You, and the Pyromaniacs blog states:

“Perhaps no process in all of church life is more fraught with pitfalls and hazards than the task of choosing a new pastor. Pastoral search committees often consist of marginally equipped lay people who are utterly inexperienced when it comes to examining a pastor and evaluating his giftedness. In many cases, members of search committees themselves could not pass the most elementary doctrinal exam, and they are often totally clueless about how to choose a pastor to lead and feed the flock. What to look for in a pastor is filled with sound advice and solid help for churches seeking pastors… fills a void that has needed to be addressed for a very long time.”

Sobering words, though as Liam Goligher attests, there are healthy exceptions. So what does Biedebach suggest? How does he fill the void?

In six chapters and three appendices he covers:

(1) “Is He an Expositor?” – qualifications in preaching.
(2) “The Balance of Responsibilities” – evaluation of not only the ability to be both a preacher and a pastor, but also the ability to balance responsibilities.
(3) “The Character of the Man” – the Timothy and Titus lists, “if he is not qualified biblically he is useless to you as a pastor-teacher.”
(4) “The Theology of the Man” – “an effort to assist you in the identification of your church’s doctrinal position and of how that may or may not be aligned with your candidate’s position.”
(5) “Where is His Theology in Practice?” – “it is important to ask your candidate detailed questions about his practical theology–that is, his theology as it is actually put into practice on a daily basis.”
(6) “How to Find Your Pastor” – “an evaluation of the pros and cons of four contemporary search models” concluding with a summary of beneficial principles from the various models.

The appendices include the doctrinal statement from Grace Community Church (Sun Valley, California), a list of “good questions to ask a prospective senior pastor”, and for the candidates themselves “checklist for clarity in a call.”

What to look for in a pastor is a timely and helpful contribution to a neglected area of the life of the church. My only caveat for readers is that it is very distinctively shaped by a congregationalist church polity, with Baptistic, dispensational theology. As such it is well fitted to churches similar in polity, theology and ethos to Grace Community Church. For confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches a number of the questions asked and points made ought to be substantially reworked, as would be the case for Lutherans and others. Some of the difficulty faced by search committees in a congregationalist polity (common to Baptist churches) is more easily avoided in the Presbyterian form of church government, to the degree that presbyters (ordained ministers and elder representatives from regional churches) are faithful and robust in conducting presbytery examinations of prospective ministers. This needs to include the willingness to thwart a local church’s desire to call an unqualified man, along with maintaining a meaningful presbyterial accountability for those already ordained and serving. That said, in mutual areas of concern for doctrine, life and polity, Biedebach provides principles and insights of enduring value, applicable to every pastoral search. As Wayne Mack states “Brian Biedebach has done the church a tremendous service.”