Pastor Search

Should our Pastor Search Committee Use a Congregational Survey?

For over a decade, I worked as a statistician in the healthcare industry. Which simply means that I liked crunching numbers. A lot.

Since transitioning to vocational ministry, I still love to crunch numbers and interpret data on occasion. One of the ways that I can continue doing so is by designing and analyzing surveys focused on a specific ministry topic.

My surveys have ranged from the safety and security practices of local churches to the church’s ordination practices to the perceived relevance of local Baptist associations.

So, it’s safe to say that I love surveys!

Pastor Search Congregational Surveys

During the pastor search process, the Search Committee will often survey the congregation to discover their thoughts about their next pastor. For example, the survey might ask if the church prefers him to have a certain level of theological education, a specific age range, or a minimum number of years of ministry experience. 

Given my love of surveys, you might assume that I’m in favor of such methods. However, the truth is, it depends.

If your church is currently searching for a pastor, a Congregational Survey might help. Then again, it might hurt the search process as well. If you’re considering using a Congregational Survey, take some time to weigh the following pros and cons.

Reasons Why a Survey Might Help

Here are four reasons why a Congregational Survey might help your church’s pastor search process.

#1: Invites Congregation into the Process

During a season without a pastor, the Pastor Search Committee works incredibly hard to complete their assigned task – often out of sight of the congregation. Meanwhile, the average church member’s weekly experience doesn’t change much, except a different face behind the pulpit.

The reality is that most church members have very little direct participation in the pastor search process. However, when the Pastor Search Committee uses a Congregational Survey, they invite the church to actively participate by sharing their thoughts, opinions, and hopes for their church and their new pastor.

For many churches, a Congregational Survey is the only time the church is invited to actively participate in the pastor search process. (Note: if you’re looking for a Sample Congregational Survey, the Kentucky Baptist Convention has one in Appendix 7 of their Pastor Search Guide.)

#2: Emphasizes the Congregation’s Value

I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of placing individuals with personal agendas on the Pastor Search Committee. These folks often operate independently of the congregation’s wishes. In their minds, the congregation’s job was completed the moment they appointed the Pastor Search Committee, and now the search is in their hands and their hands alone.

These individuals often have a specific checklist of characteristics they want in their next pastor, and they don’t care if the congregation agrees with their list. They see a Congregational Survey as a waste of time since the results will not influence their search.

However, inviting the congregation to become active participants in the pastor search process through a Congregational Survey indicates that the Pastor Search Committee values the congregation’s input. It shows that the Search Committee understands they cannot operate independently of the congregation. It’s a recognition that they are still accountable to the church.

#3: Measures the Search Committee’s Understanding of the Church

If a Search Committee chooses to utilize a Congregational Survey, I recommend that they complete the survey themselves before offering it to the church. This recommendation allows them to compare their responses to those of the congregation. 

This comparison allows the Search Committee to discover if they’re on the same page as the congregation. If the responses are similar, the process can move forward. If there are notable differences, the Search Committee should pause to understand the reasons for the differences.

#4: Identifies Underlying Issues

A Congregational Survey can also be a valuable tool for identifying underlying issues. If the survey reveals significant differences of opinion among different groups in the church, the Search Committee or other church leaders need to investigate further. 

For example, the survey could reveal a significant difference of opinion regarding the desired characteristics of the next pastor between those under the age of 50 and those over the age of 50. A Congregational Survey may be the only way to discover this difference of opinion until it’s too late.

Reasons Why a Survey Might Hurt

The use of a Congregational Survey may help many churches during the pastor search process. However, there are reasons why it could hurt the process as well.

#1: Provides an Opportunity for Criticism

When a church member completes a Congregational Survey, they may (wrongly) assume that the Search Committee is obligated to find a pastor that meets all their criteria. When a candidate is presented that doesn’t match their standards, it opens the door for criticism.

Sadly, the church member might be more likely to vote against the pastor candidate simply because he doesn’t check all their boxes. Depending on their perceived level of entitlement, they may (publicly or privately) criticize the Search Committee and call the entire search process into question.

#2: Provides an Opportunity for Division

Every pastor knows all too well that it’s impossible to please everyone because it’s impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. Similarly, it’s impossible for a Pastor Search Committee to please everyone because it’s impossible to meet everyone’s preferences during their pastor search.

Using a Congregational Survey will reveal that everyone has their own opinion about the characteristics needed in their next pastor, and those opinions will differ. Sometimes, those opinions will be in direct conflict with one another. 

Unfortunately, both sides could assume that their voice has now been heard and the Search Committee will honor their wishes. When the presented candidate doesn’t check all their boxes, it could create division in addition to criticism.

#3: Elevates Preferences

The very nature of a Congregational Survey invites the church to share their preferences. Those preferences may be rooted in the Scriptures, but then again, they may not.

For some church members, a potential pastor’s age, number of children, or years of experience may carry more weight than his biblical qualifications.

Everyone has preferences. It’s naïve to think otherwise. However, using a Congregational Survey may encourage church members to elevate their desires for their next pastor into demands. If that happens, the Congregational Survey will do more harm than help. 

#4: Congregational Blind Spots

Everyone has blind spots. Those traits about ourselves that we’re unaware of that are obvious to everyone else. The nervous tick. The propensity to talk about ourselves. The habit of interrupting others. We often don’t see these things, but everyone else does.

Just as each person has blind spots, every church does as well. Those things we don’t notice about ourselves that would be obvious to a guest or an outside observer.

Church members will not see these congregational blind spots when completing a Congregational Survey. Therefore, their responses will be somewhat biased. This could lead to the survey results indicating the characteristics of the pastor the church wants but not the characteristics of the pastor the church needs.

Tips if You Use a Survey

As you can see, Congregational Surveys may help the pastor search process. But sometimes, they may hurt as well. The spiritual health of each congregation is a major factor in determining if a Congregational Survey should be used.

If your Search Committee chooses to use a Congregational Survey after weighing the pros and cons, here are four tips that might help.

#1: Clearly Communicate the Survey’s Purpose

Make sure the congregation understands that the purpose of the survey is to inform the Pastor Search Committee, not to direct them. The Search Committee will use the survey results as one factor in their search, not as the sole factor.

Remind the church that it will be impossible for any candidate to match everyone’s preferred characteristics. There must be some give and take. As Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-4, “In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

#2: Distinguish “Must Haves” from “Wish List”

Similarly, make sure that the congregation understands the difference between a “wish list” of characteristics and a required list. The only required characteristics are the biblical qualifications (see 1 Timothy 3 for the most exhaustive list).

#3: Utilize Congregational Health Survey

In addition to a survey seeking desired characteristics in the next pastor, use some type of Congregational Health Survey to assist the congregation in identifying the church’s strengths and weaknesses. Make it a package deal! (Note: Click here for an example of a Congregational Health Survey.)

Using two surveys provides a more holistic approach. While the traditional Congregational Survey identifies the congregation’s preferences for their next pastor, a Congregational Health Survey identifies what the congregation needs from their next pastor. Both surveys provide helpful information for the Search Committee.

#4: Compare Survey Results

As I mentioned earlier, compare the Search Committee’s survey results to the congregation’s survey results. Are the results similar or significantly different? If they’re different, in what ways? What do the differences mean? These are important questions that need answers. 

The Survey Says…

Congregational Surveys can be a valuable tool during the pastor search process, but they’re not for everyone. Consider the pros and cons and your unique context to see if a Congregational Survey is right for your church.

If you found this post helpful, check out my book The Church During the Search, which explains six commitments every church member needs to make to honor the Lord during the pastor search process.

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