By Pastors Kelly Larson (Bishop Creek Community Church, CA)
Let’s say your church has been progressing nicely. Attendance is growing, and the community is flourishing. In the midst of this growth, your team decides that an additional staff person should be brought in to help ease the pressure on other leaders. You start to receive applications. He seems like a good fit. She has a strong résumé. Everyone cheerfully affirms the candidates.
The new hires all looked good on paper. But then, quite suddenly, things begin to unravel. In short order, it becomes clear that the new person is not a good fit. The church starts to experience divisions. People start leaving in droves. The district is called in to triage the damage.
Have you ever experienced this scenario at your church before?
It’s unfortunately a rather common occurrence, from my vantage point as a pastor. Why is this? The demands on a church are ever-present: There is always more ministry to be done, more people, more meetings, and yet a limited amount of precious time. Need is always knocking at the door. As my pastor used to say, “Sunday comes every three days!” Doesn’t it often feel like that?
As church leaders, we need help. In the spirit of Ephesians 4:14-16, we want to have “the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part,” which “causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” We’re eager to bring on great, God-honoring fellow leaders. But in our eagerness, we may prematurely appoint individuals to leadership roles.
In the rush to hire church staff or fellow church leaders, I confess that I’ve missed a few of the “obvious” red flags along the way. Some people were clearly desiring to serve from misguided motives. Some, perhaps, presented as gifted instructors or dynamic leaders or as having the perfect theological “pedigree,” but these gifts never made up for the lack of character that was eventually revealed.
I share this because it’s my fear that in our urgent desire to fill positions, we are tempted to compromise. Sometimes, we think the best of people, or we hope for the best. Sometimes this obscures sound, Spirit-led judgment.
Poring over profiles, checking out referrals and conducting multiple job interviews may not sound like the pinnacle of pastoral pleasure, but this kind of methodical, intentional engagement in the hiring process can spare the congregation immeasurable despair. Though the most sincere efforts do not guarantee the absence of any future trouble, we can have a clean conscience that we have been thorough and sought to abide by the counsel of Scripture.
Assessing character is slow work
We should give weight to someone’s background and training, but it takes a long longer to vet his or her character.
Endorsements and references are helpful, but they don’t take the place of observation and personal verification of Christian character. How often have we allowed years on a résumé or impressive seminary degrees to be substituted for a deep, thorough character assessment? It takes time to observe a person’s integrity; it takes time to assess character.
The words of Paul to Timothy serve as a helpful guide to those of us in a position to hire leaders: “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Timothy 5:22; emphasis added). These are the wise words of a seasoned pastor to his protégé. Paul exhorts Timothy to avoid moving too quickly. In this way, he can protect his flock from future danger and chaos.
We ought to keep Paul’s words in mind when we consider hiring practices at our churches. Let’s be honest: Not everybody serving as a ministry leader should be serving as a ministry leader. Some have been squeezed in to fill a staff vacuum. Some were perhaps appointed because they exhibited a particular skill or had a great degree. Some had experience in another ministry. Some are there because a decision “had” to be made quickly. Many unfit leaders persist in roles that do not serve the body of Christ well. How many of these hires could have been avoided if we had followed Paul’s advice and taken our time?
Paul urges Timothy to consider many qualities in his fellow leaders: calling, competence, content, capability and, above all, character. These are in addition to the more “objective” requirements shared in Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.
Talent or expertise never make up for a lack of character. Choosing men and women who will shepherd the flock requires careful observation and discernment.
The time it takes is the time it takes.
How should you vet candidates for roles in your church if you feel pressured to act quickly? Remember: You’re not on the clock, even if it feels like you are. The time it takes is the time it takes.
Some counsel to consider in this process:
- Never be in a hurry to make a mistake. It’s much more difficult to remove someone from ministry than it is to put them there. It is far better to leave the position open and struggle than to fill it and kill it with the wrong person.
- Don’t make the decision alone. Lean on others for perspective and counsel. And ask loads of questions.
- Start looking at potential candidates long before the position needs to be filled.
- Pray continually for the right person and for the candidates before you. Trust in God’s hand in this process.
Finding the right leader matters. It matters if the person is a denominational leader, a teaching pastor, an elder, a deacon, a worship leader, a Sunday school teacher or a children’s ministry staff member. Every person we bring on the team matters. Deciding to hire anyone in the church should be a decision that urges us all to act with prayerful judgment and wisdom.
We take our time in the hiring process because we love the Shepherd, and we love the sheep. We move slowly because it’s not a race; it’s ministry.
[Kelly is an ordained minister with the Evangelical Free Church of America. Kelly and his wife, Suzanne, live in Bishop, California, where he is privileged to serve as the pastor to Bishop Creek Community Church. He blogs regularly at The Shepherd’s Pen.]