Reprinted from the August 1994 edition of Essentials

In the previous articles I have considered how to develop a ministry description for the vicar or rector, how to prepare a parish profile, how to write a philosophy of ministry, and how to interview candidates. In this article we will look at how to form a short list of potential candidates, and how to make the most of the interregnum.

Theology is everything
A leader's theology will make or break a church's spirituality and effectiveness. The basic issue is authority: we all resort to some ultimate authority. There are four possibilities for the Christian: rely on the teaching of the church and its councils over the centuries, rely on his/her own ability to understand the truth, rely on his/her own spiritual experiences as a form of direct revelation, or rely on the scriptures as God's authoritative word.

The wise committee seeking a new leader will discern the candidate's attitude to the Bible and to the priority of Bible teaching. This attitude will influence other commitments; for example, which training college was chosen, which missionary societies are given allegiance, the passion for evangelism and so on.

Discernment will also take a note of a more fundamental question: is the candidate a genuine Christian? This is usually assumed, but one does not need to look to see that there are church leaders who have gone beyond a broad definition of "Christian" in their beliefs and their behaviour.

Track record
Another factor that must be weighed is the track record of the candidate. Has God's blessing been clearly on the person's ministry (whether as a lay person, or as an ordained person)? Are leadership gifts evident, or is there weakness of character? Is the work pattern one of energetic labour, or laziness? What extraparochial commitments are there? (balance is needed, as a commitment to the wider church is responsible, but the parish should not be seen as a sinecure enabling the minister to pass his/her time elsewhere) . How supportive are the other family members?

These are the sort of factors that will be used to discern which candidates are suitable for consideration. It is important that the parish members of the incumbency or patronage committee do their homework as early as possible so that they are reasonably clear about the theological commitments of potential candidates.

Suggestions from outsiders
Occasionally other names will be suggested to the committee. Some of these will be helpful suggestions, others will not. However unsuitable candidates can be eliminated at the interview stage even if they cannot be excluded earlier. The wise committee will insist that they interview a favoured candidate even when it is suggested that the candidate is not suitable or not available or not interested. Similarly, the wise committee will be immovable when it seems as if an unsuitable person is likely to be appointed. Too much is at stake to allow the parish to be ruined for the sake of temporary convenience or politeness.

Traps to avoid
A couple of mistakes are frequently made by the parish looking for a new leader. When the search has been prayerfully conducted and the favoured candidate has turned down the invitation it is too easy to lose enthusiasm and initiative. The danger in being discouraged is that valuable time may be lost. On the other hand, if there is a sense of panic the position may be too quickly offered to someone who is available, without calmly reassessing the whole situation.
Some committees will fall into the trap of being too passive and expecting to be led to the perfect pastor without having to work hard and take a lot of initiatives in the process.

Others make the mistake of aiming too high in their expectations. Most clergy are ordinary people who have some spiritual gifts that can bring blessing to a church. Few are superstars who have outstanding gifts mixed with high levels of entrepreneurial flair, energy and the ability to bring the best out in others.

Making the interregnum a time of renewal
Many ministers fizzle out in a new parish after a couple of years and become what has been called unintentional interim pastors. Sometimes a popular leader who has had a long ministry should be followed by a short-term pastor in order to take the parish out of its shock and grief. That short-term pastor may have to face some opposition and resentment. At other times the interregnum is filled by a pastor who has little authority and allows the church to drift.

The lay leaders of a parish can make the interim period a time of healing and preparation by doing a number of things. They can set the tone by "ownership" of the church and working together to provide servant leadership. They may need to deal with problems in the body and restore relationships through repentance and forgiveness. Integrity is a key to public confidence. When the lay leaders work hard to establish unity, renewal is likely to come. On the other hand underhanded intrigue will damage the church. When a parish is waiting for its new pastor it has a great opportunity to encourage a high proportion of its members to use their spiritual gifts to build up the church. Lay leaders can also help move a church through the challenge of an interim period by setting a forward-looking focus. This can be achieved by clarifying the church's primary purpose, its vision and its goals. This strategic planning will enable the new leader to enter with the expectation of seeing a unified, purposeful church grow as it experiences God's blessings.

Peter Crawford is Vicar of St Mark's Emerald