There is something about the ‘system’ which I am part of that bothers me. It’s the whole idea of pulpit committee’s. While I’ve had the privilege of working with several wonderful groups of people, this is not always the case.
There are problems with this system. First of all, you have sheep calling the Shepherd. There is no Biblical precedence for such. Paul apparently selected Timothy to pastor one of the churches he founded. I have a hunch that many of the pastors of the first century church were selected, not elected. Granted, there are no Apostles today but there is some merit to the system of Bishops and Elders. The church could get more of what it needs rather than what it wants.
Since the mid 1980’s, I’ve listened to, talked with and sometimes laughed at pulpit committees. They are a group of the unwilling elected by the greater body of unwilling to travel, pray, discuss, cuss and ultimately find God’s man for their church. Have you ever considered the phrase, God’s man for our church? Just a thought.
Most pulpit committees, when they visit another church to hear someone preach are more obvious than the black spots on a dalmatian. They stand out like a sore thumb and everyone knows they are there. I’ve watched a committee walk in and all sit together – dead give away. I’ve seen them cluster in the same section – another dead give away.
Not long ago, I had a committee come to see me for three consecutive weeks. Each week, as soon as the service was over, they gathered at the front of the church where I was standing to have a word with me. They were kind, gracious, and painfully obvious. One of the men in the church who was on the committee that called me spotted them the first week. It also set off more than a few rumors among the congregation.
Pulpit committees tend to react rather than act. They react to the whims of those back home. They either want to re-create the pastor who just left or go to the opposite end of the spectrum. In reality, this is man centered and leaves God out of the picture. The church I pastor has called two men with the gift of prophet. Why? God knows a church that drips with mercy needs balance or their agape will be sloppy.
The danger for pulpit committees is they feel intense pressure to succeed. They are supposed to find God’s man – the perfect pastor. The problem is, he’s not available. He doesn’t exist. He’s a fairy tale and we live in a real world.
Within a year after I came to my present church, the chairman of the committee was basically an inactive church member, at least one member had left his wife, I had to confront one about being less than honest about the church finances and one left over the way I dealt with a staff member she liked. Most are still active and faithful. One has served on staff for the last ten years. It wasn’t a total horror story, but there were a few nightmares.
I have a friend who had five members on his pulpit committee. Within one year, all five had left the church. They didn’t agree with his direction (which he clearly stated in his meetings with them).
I have a former pastor who once said to me, “Never underestimate the ability of a pulpit committee to lie to you.” They are trying to fill a position. They want to get off the road. They are tired of meetings. They rarely penetrate the real issues and talk about the challenges the pastor will face. The attitude seems to be, “Well call him and then let him figure it out.”
The best case scenario I’ve ever had was in a church in Oklahoma. I asked the pulpit committee to stay together during my ministry there to serve as a buffer, sounding board and advisory committee. Some in the church didn’t like it – of course, they were the ones who were ticked off because they weren’t selected to serve on the committee.
There is another church in Oklahoma that did that for several decades. In fact, they considered themselves a ‘farm club’ for young pastors. The same five men served on the committee for about twenty years and they would end up calling a pastor every three years or so. They believed God had called them to train up young men in ministry, to protect them from the wolves who would want to devour them and to get them ready for ‘bigger and better’ things. I know at least four men who served there. All of them count it as one of their greatest experiences in ministry. It can be different, unfortunately, it is rarely the case.
I know of churches that are now going three and four years without a pastor. They foolishly set standards no man can meet. They have unrealistic expectations. They demand too much. I talked to one member of a committee (one of the largest churches in our denomination) he was actually bragging that they hadn’t had a pastor in over three years. He was pumping me full of ‘facts’ about how they were growing during this time and the spirit was great. I’ve watched their Sunday School numbers, they are down by several thousand on Sundays. In reality, he was saying, I like being in charge and I like the feeling of power.
There is very little material out to train a pulpit committee. They are ill equipped for the task. Few know the theological questions to ask. Few understand doctrine. Few are familiar with any controversies in their denomination. Few have ever been to a national convention meeting. It’s not that they are bad people, they just don’t know.
How many committees would know to even ask a question about open theism? How about one’s views of sovereignty? Would anyone on the committee know the difference between a pastor who leaned toward Calvinism and one who leaned toward the Armenian position? Unfortunately, I’ve listened to committees who think if we can find a pastor who ‘preaches the Word,’ everything will be okay. Not really.
What Word? Does he believe in the inerrant, infallible Word of God? Where does he stand on major doctrines? Does he believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis are truth? Does he believe the miracles of Jesus actually happened? Is the Virgin birth a necessity? These are not insignificant questions. They determine the Biblical character, integrity and trustworthiness of the pastor.
It’s more than sounding good on tape. It’s more important than catch phrases and sound bites. Is the man solid in his faith? Does he contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints?
Another issue is will the church allow the pastor to lead? If he’s the Shepherd, he needs to lead the flock. Not beat it, but lead it. To do that, he has to have freedom. If he’s hog tied to a system of rules and regulations or bound to something set up because we didn’t like something the former pastor did – he can not be successful. Beware of committees that have a knee jerk reaction to the last guy.
I recall one pulpit committee that wanted me to come. We were in serious talks when the chairman said, “Could you send us a copy of your last five Income Tax returns?” When I asked why he said, “Well, the last pastor didn’t pay his taxes and we want to make sure you do.” I told them I wasn’t interested in coming – the last pastors problems are not my problems and that the problem was, they didn’t do a thorough check before calling the last pastor – which was not my problem.
I know of a church in a neighboring state. During an interim in the late 1980’s a man of God was preaching and he challenged them to pay off their debt before they called their next pastor. He knew (and we all know) they had the money to do it but the saints were sitting on their wallets. The challenge was plain and simple. Pay it off and free the man up to build up the church without worrying about the mortgage.
They didn’t. Since that time, they’ve had two pastors. The church has lost thousands of members. They are on the verge of foreclosure on one of the nicest, most visible church sites in America. They have gone from a position of prominence to the cliffs of disaster.
And by the way, I’ve watched this church over the years – there’s another underlying problem. Every time they call a pastor, he is the exact opposite of the previous pastor. I’ve never seen a pendulum swing so far in so many directions. In the thirty years I’ve watched the church, this has been their pattern. Bible expositor, Evangelist, Bible Expositor, Church Growth expert, Felt needs comedian, Bible expositor.
I call that a schizophrenic church. They don’t know who they are or what they want to be. I blame it on the pulpit committee. In reality, it is a sign of a church that believes God’s leadership comes from the pew up rather than heaven down.
Pray for pulpit committees, they are in a no won position. Pray that sometime before Jesus comes back, someone will figure out a better system. It shouldn’t be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I for one believe there is a better way. I think if a pastor serves in a long term pastorate, he should have input on who his successor should be. He knows more than anyone what it takes to pastor the church and can build the bridge (if he’s willing) for the next pastor to cross. I’ve seen this work in several instances and it has been healthy. One week, the pastor steps aside and becomes Pastor Emeritus or Minister at Large and the same week, the new pastor is introduces. Seamless, simple, no break in momentum. The mantle is passed. It worked for Moses and Joshua. It worked for Elijah and Elisha. It worked for Paul and Timothy. But then again, that’s a Biblical model. Why would we want to do that?
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.