A “buyer’s market” for pastor search committees

The 21st century is proving to be a buyer’s market for many churches that are looking for a pastor. Even a tiny, troubled Baptist church can get 100 resumes from men and women looking for a church to pastor. A larger, stable congregation might get 200 or more resumes.

Some explanations are obvious. Others are more subtle. Thirty years ago, rumor among Baptist pastors was that the average stay of a Southern Baptist pastor was 18-30 months. That had the ring of truth. Recently, I did an unscientific (but pretty accurate) study of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina pastors and ministers of music. I discovered that the average pastoral tenure is almost nine years! Why do CBF pastors (or all pastors?) stay longer these days? My survey also revealed that the average tenure of ministers of music at CBF of SC partner churches is over 11 years? How do we explain these somewhat surprising statistics?

  1. Home ownership (versus parsonages) encourages pastoral stability. Don’t you wish there were a more spiritual response than this? When the congregation owns the pastor’s home, then it is easy for the pastor to pick up and move.
  2. Frequently, 21st century spouses have stable jobs. Once again, this is not a very spiritual answer, unless you consider the spouse’s employment as much a calling as that of a pastor! When my wife was considering a career 45 years ago, she received advice that was common in our youth: A woman should get a job such as teaching or nursing that is easily transferable to another location so that she can follow her husband when he moves. These days, pastoral spouses, both wives and husbands, have non-transferable vocations. They are doctors and lawyers and CEOs. Moving to another location is out of the question. Indeed, the non-pastoral spouse is often the primary bread winner.
  3. The economy is a factor. People who have a job in 2013 are more likely to keep it than to move. According to Clarissa Strickland, the national CBF Coordinator for Reference and Referral, “Pastors often see turmoil in churches outside their own and maybe decide to stick with the ‘evils’ they know rather than fleeing to those that are unknown or that might be worse.”
  4. CBF is a smaller organization than many Baptist pastors in the South have been accustomed to. “Upward mobility” is simply not as likely as it was in a grander system. In many denominations and states, a pastor of even a large congregation (average attendance of 150 people each Sunday) can look around the state and still see dozens of more sizable congregations without a pastor and aspire to serve in one of those churches. When I did the research for this article in 2010, in CBF of SC, there were no churches looking for a pastor. None. Zero. Not churches of any size. We partner with about 70-80 congregations, and only one was without a pastor, and they had not yet formed a pastor search committee.
  5. Larger churches are becoming smaller. First Baptist Churches of small towns (whatever their denominational affiliation), which once averaged 300 per week, now average 150 per week. Churches that averaged 200 per week now average 100 per week. That means there are fewer Big Churches for pastors to go to from their current ministry. What was once a “promotion” is now a lateral career move. Pastors stay where they are. I know that everyone is not called to bigger churches. Still, lateral moves have been the exception, not the rule. The result in the real world is less activity in the ministerial transfer system of Baptists.
  6. CBF “Reference and Referral” or “Placement” personnel can be more hands on in helping congregations and pastors. Not all resumes represent good candidates, and all churches do not provide good opportunities. As a state CBF coordinator, I enjoyed having a job where I was allowed to tell the truth and not just push paper, mindlessly sending resumes, even when I knew the church and the pastor did not make a good fit. I had coffee with one man wanting to serve a CBF church. After thirty minutes of conversation, I told him, “If I had only ten candidates, you would be number eleven!” You may think I was being unkind to him, but I was protecting your congregation! In another instance, I heard of a church in a neighboring state that called a pastor from SC who lasted less than a year. The instant I was told that he had been called to pastor a congregation, I said, “That was a mistake.” Some people should not pastor your congregation.
  7. Moderate Baptist pastors are plentiful. When CBF was formed, tens of thousands of Baptist preachers talked and voted their non-fundamentalist theology. But when the time came for pastors to lead their congregations to embrace a new organization of Baptists who are passionate about historic Baptist principles, they failed to do so. Still, these moderate pastors would like to pastor a congregation with an identity of freedom, openness, inclusivity and grace. Furthermore, over a dozen fine seminaries are related to CBF, and each is producing excellent young pastors. Also, women have been added to the candidate pool. CBF told women they can serve as pastors and they believed us. Now they are ready to serve, and, with rare exceptions, we do not call them to be our pastors. This is a tragedy. Every moderate Baptist congregation, whether exclusively CBF or dually aligned, has dozens, if not hundreds, of so-called moderate Baptist pastors lined up to claim a desirable pastorate. (There are some problems related to this reality. I have already mentioned that women are being left out disproportionately. While this article applauds the fact that Baptist churches can carefully select their next pastor from an abundance of applicants, the reverse is a predicament for pastors. When 100-200 people apply to pastor a congregation, that means there are scores of unsuccessful applicants. That is not a happy statistic.)
  8. Dare I say it? CBF seems to be enjoying, on the whole, healthier pastors and churches than Baptists experienced in recent years. Most congregations can remember one much beloved pastor in the past thirty or forty years, but they also have some short-term disasters. Churches have made the decision to slow down the pastor search process by calling consultants to work with them during the interim period. Rather than foolishly pretending that 2013 is 1960 and that changes in culture and congregational life can be ignored, more CBF churches are paying attention intentionally to issues that need to be addressed. Rather than treating pastors and staff as expendable commodities to be used and thrown away, churches are learning some personnel lessons from the secular world. If a pastor or staff person is not performing adequately, maybe they need to be re-trained rather than fired! Sabbaticals are being encouraged and granted. On the other hand, pastors, by not jumping ship every time a church has a problem, have their own opportunity to grow spiritually and emotionally. Let me quote Buddy Shurden: “’Fit’ is now more important than ‘ambition,’ ‘ladder climbing,’ or ‘getting a bigger church.’ Pastors would rather stay in a ‘good’ place than go to a ‘big’ place. Another way of saying this is that ‘personal happiness’ is more important than ‘more money.’” (One of the issues that makes me nervous about writing this article is that some naïve church members will think that if 2013 is a buyer’s market for churches, then, “Let’s get rid of our pastor and take advantage of this buyer’s market and get a new one.” No. No. No. If there is a deficiency in your current pastor’s performance, work with him or her to overcome the flaw. That moves your congregation and your pastor to better health. Stable churches are better churches. Stable pastors are better pastors. It is worth noting that the three congregations that give the most money in South Carolina to our cooperative mission endeavors have an average pastoral tenure of over 20 years! I notice that kind of statistic!)
  9. Professional safety nets no longer exist for CBF pastors. Once upon a time in Baptist life in the South, theologically moderate pastors could come to the time for a new chapter in their ministry, and find employment somewhere in the Baptist world, working for a mission board, for a denominational entity, for a children’s home, or for a Baptist publishing house, options not available to CBF pastors in 2013. Instead, pastors who would have been “promoted” to denominational service stay where they are, not vacating their current position. Those “below them on the denominational food chain” (a quotation from a friend) end up staying where they are as well.
  10. New churches rarely have a denominational identity. No one knows what this means long term. Not all that long ago, when young pastors planted a congregation, the church and the pastor understood themselves to be part of a larger structure. Newly established churches were always coming “on line” in the denomination, and became part of the system. That is no longer true. New more-or-less Baptist churches today remain largely independent. If the pastor leaves, the congregation may get their next pastor from within their own constituency, not from another church in the denomination. Independence is a Baptist idea, so I am not complaining about this new reality, just observing.
  11. Success has been redefined. Many young graduates of seminaries (and possibly a few old preachers) have wondered whether the local church is the best place for them to do ministry. Rather than “maintaining the ecclesiastical industry,” they would rather serve God in some other capacity and function as a layperson within a local faith community. Maybe that has always been partly true, but I sense that more post-modern, post-denominational young adults are choosing to serve as social workers, community organizers, teachers, coaches, chaplains, counselors and in parachurch organizations (such as Habitat for Humanity and Fellowship of Christian Athletes) than previously. When I was coming along as a young adult, if we felt some sort of divine nudge, there weren’t many categories into which our Baptist culture told us that God might call us: preacher, minister of music, youth minister, or missionary. Nowadays, our seminaries are correctly teaching students that God can call them to do almost anything, and they are responding. Some of the men and women whose resumes I have in my files are perfectly happy in their “other” calling, They might be interested in pastoring a small church part-time, if the location seems right, and the hours aren’t too taxing, but otherwise, they are happy in a distinctively different primary vocation.

This is a strange era in the world of pastors and churches trying to match up with one another. The Baptist system is not perfect. But if you ask a Methodist, she can tell you the defects of their system of appointments. It is a time, apparently, of surplus pastors, of more pastors in CBF life than churches. In God’s economy, that is not inherently a good or bad thing. It might be bad for pastors. It can be good for churches. Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In that same chapter, we read that “In all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to God’s purpose.” Death and resurrection. They always seem to go together. For pastors. For churches. Thanks be to God.

Marion Aldridge

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Marion D. Aldridge is a popular preacher, public speaker, workshop leader and an award-winning writer. Author of numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from religion to sports to travel, Aldridge’s interests are wildly eclectic. Aldridge has invested a lifetime in discovering what it means to be a citizen and participant in God’s wonderful world. Aldridge is at home whether having High Tea at Harrods or rafting on the Chattooga or worshiping at our planet’s holiest shrines.

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  • Greg Mamula

    This is a great article. It has some pretty good insights that are transferable to my Baptist branch of American Baptist Churches USA. Many of your points are identical situations to what we are observing in ABC life, especially in the midwest where I serve. Thanks for sharing this.

  • J. Earl Williams

    If churches are becoming smaller in congregational numbers, the solution may lie in part with part-time or bi-vocational pastors requiring the laity to assume more pastoral duties. Reduced church income may drive these changes. That could be a good thing.

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  • Clarissa Durrett Strickland

    Well said, Marion. In my work with CBF reference and referral, I am seeing more churches which have moved to a bivocational pastor model. I am also seeing more minister candidates who are willing to consider bivocational work.