The doctor walked into the exam room and yelled excitedly, “I have the perfect treatment plan for you! You’ll be back to normal in no time!”
Jerry sat there with a curious look. “What do you mean? You haven’t even examined me yet!”
The doctor shook his head. “I don’t need to examine you. I already know exactly what you need!”
“But you haven’t even asked me about my symptoms. How could you possibly know what I need?”
“Trust me; I just know!” the doctor replied.
“I don’t think so,” Jerry answered. He stood up and began to head for the door. Just before he left the office, he paused and looked back at his former physician and said, “It’s impossible to know how to treat my sickness until you examine my symptoms. Everyone knows that!”
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you would have probably responded the same way as Jerry. Medical professionals don’t make a diagnosis or prescribe a treatment plan until they have completed a thorough examination of the patient. If they did so, it would be a serious mistake at best and medical malpractice at worst.
The same principle applies during a pastor search. The Pastor Search Committee can’t conduct an informed search for a new pastor until they correctly understand the church’s present condition. Therefore, they need to study the church.
Much like a doctor needs to know the patient’s medical history, the Pastor Search Committee needs to know the church’s history. In addition, they need to check the church’s vital signs. They need to identify which ministries are working properly (strengths) and which ones are in need of treatment (weaknesses). They also need to learn about risk factors to watch out for in the future.
Only after a thorough examination of the church will the Pastor Search Committee be armed with the knowledge of the type of pastor they need to lead them to spiritual health and vitality.
Unfortunately, many Pastor Search Committees miss this critical truth. Some assume they already know the characteristics they need to look for in their next pastor, and others don’t want to spend the time or energy required to properly understand the church’s current needs. Still, others create a congregational survey to solicit feedback on the characteristics the church wants in their next pastor but stop short of discovering what the church needs.
If you or someone you know serves on a Pastor Search Committee, don’t make this mistake. Make sure that you study your church before the search begins. Only then will you know what type of pastor you need to be searching for!
3 Simple Ways to Study Your Church
As you begin your examination, you need to study your church in three simple ways. First, you need to study your church’s past. Next, you need to study your church’s present. Finally, you need to study your church’s future.
#1: Study Your Church’s Past
Whenever a doctor begins their examination, one of the first things they ask about is a patient’s medical history. Similarly, your study of your church should also include an examination of its history. Here are some questions to consider as you study your church’s past:
- When was your church founded? Has your church existed for a hundred years or more? Is it a recent church plant? Your answer to this question will shed light on your church’s heritage and propensity to deal with change.
- Why was your church founded? What was the original purpose of the church? What was its mission? Was it started to reach a once-growing community that now is in steep decline? Was it to reach a particular demographic? Your answer to this question will help you understand its founders’ original mission.
- What was the tenure of each of your last five pastors? How long did each of the previous five pastors serve your church? Did they have long or brief tenures? Are the tenures getting shorter with each successive pastor? If each of the past five pastors served five years or less, it could indicate significant issues in the church.
- Why did each of the last five pastors leave? What was the stated reason for their departure? Were any terminated or forced out? Did they move on to another church? Did they leave the ministry altogether? Did they resign due to a moral failure? Did they all leave for the same or different reasons?
- What were the church’s best moments during the past 20 years? When you look back over the past 20 years, what were the high points? Was it a particular event? Was it when the church enjoyed a season of unity? Was it during a spike in baptisms? Why were those moments so special? This question celebrates what God has done in the past and could inform how the church can thrive in the future.
- What were the church’s most challenging moments during the past 20 years? Has there been a church split? Was there a moral failure among one or more of the church’s leaders? While this question may be painful, learning from those moments is helpful as you look to the future.
Your church’s past is incredibly important in informing its future. You can ask many other questions as you study the past, but these will get you started. Feel free to add more questions in the comments!
#2: Study Your Church’s Present
In addition to asking about a patient’s medical history, one of the first things a doctor or nurse will do is check a patient’s vital signs. Things such as their current blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and oxygen levels. These are simple examinations that may indicate the existence of a current medical emergency.
Similarly, after you’ve studied your church’s past, it’s time to examine the church’s current vital signs to discover if there are significant issues at the present time. Here are some initial questions to consider:
- What are the church’s current strengths and weaknesses? You need to have an honest and frank conversation about both your church’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, could your church be described as a house of prayer, or does it struggle in this area? Is it active on mission locally and globally, or does it pay, pray, and stay out of the way? Identifying your church’s current strengths and weaknesses is critical in informing your Search Committee of the characteristics that you need in your next pastor.
- What are your current attendance trends? Is your church growing, plateaued, or declining? Do you have a lot of children in attendance? Do your attendance trends match the population trends in your community? Attendance isn’t everything, but it’s a vital sign that you shouldn’t ignore.
- What is the current financial position of the church? Is the church meeting its budget? Is the budget growing, plateaued, or declining? Does the church have any debts? Is it able to pay its bills? What percentage goes to missions efforts? How often has the pastor received at least a cost-of-living raise? Money isn’t everything, but it’s another important vital sign to consider as you study your church.
- What is the average number of baptisms during the past ten years? Are the number of baptisms per year increasing, plateaued, or declining? What are the ages of those baptized individuals? This question helps examine the evangelistic effectiveness of the church. If you’re discouraged by your church’s answer to this question, you’ll want to search for a pastor with a contagious evangelistic zeal.
- What is the church’s reputation in the community? Is your church viewed positively or negatively in the community? What is your church known for? Is it known as the church that serves the community on a regular basis or the church that can’t keep a pastor? If the church closed tomorrow, would the community even notice? The church’s reputation in the community could be a blessing or a hindrance to future ministry efforts (and to future pastors).
- What are the church’s most/least effective ministries? Which ministries reach people with the gospel and honor the Lord? Which ministries build up the body? Which ministries produce little fruit but a lot of headaches?
- What is the average age of your active church membership? Is your church an older congregation? Is the nursery filled? How does it compare to other churches in the community?
Like your church’s past, you need to study your church’s present. These questions will provide a fuller picture of your church’s current situation. What questions would you add to this list?
#3: Study Your Church’s Future
One other component of a thorough medical examination is a risk factor assessment. For example, the doctor will ask questions to learn if there’s a family history of heart disease or diabetes. He will ask if the patient is a smoker, uses drugs, or consumes alcohol. Questions such as these are used to identify any potential risk factors which can be helpful in anticipating future medical conditions that the patient might experience.
Similarly, the Pastor Search Committee should identify any potential risk factors that may impact the church’s future ministry efforts. Here are some questions to get you started:
- What is the projected population growth/decline in the church’s community over the next ten years? Is the number of people around the church increasing, plateaued, or declining? Are more people moving into the community or moving out? If folks are moving in, do they share common characteristics? To answer these questions, check historical census data and future projections. What does the data tell you?
- What percentage of your active church membership is over the age of 70? The reality is that many of your active church members who are currently over the age of 70 will either become less active or graduate to heaven over the next decade. If that describes a large percentage of your congregation, the church could look quite different ten years from now. For example, studies show that the older generations give a higher percentage of their income to the church, which could significantly impact the church’s future attendance and budget.
- Will your church facilities need significant maintenance or upgrades in the next ten years? Is your HVAC unit on its last legs? Will you need to replace the roof? Will the parking lot need to be re-paved? Do you have significant financial reserves to cover these expenses?
- What will be required for the church to thrive in the future? Given your answers to the previous three questions, what will be required for the church to thrive in the future? Does the pastor need to be a certain age? Does he need to share some common cultural characteristics with the community? Does the church need to set aside more for financial reserves? How would that impact the church’s ability to pay a pastor? While these questions will require your best guess, at least you can make it an educated guess by studying your church’s past, present, and future.
A Different Story
One week later, Jerry heard a knock on the door of another examination room in another doctor’s office. The doctor walked in with a smile and said, “Hi Jerry, I’m Dr. Hughes. Nice to meet you. Tell me, what brings you in today?”
For the next 15 minutes, Dr. Hughes asked Jerry a series of questions. He asked about his medical history. He asked if there was a history of heart disease in Jerry’s family. He checked his vital signs. He listened to his breathing. Finally, he offered a diagnosis and treatment plan.
While Jerry still did not feel well, he couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you for taking the time to see me today, Dr. Hughes. I’m confident that I’ll feel better in no time!”
Too many Pastor Search Committees make the mistake of not studying their church before searching for their new pastor. Don’t be one of them. Take the time to study your church, and reap the benefits for weeks, months, and potentially years to come!
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.