More an art than a science, matching a minister's skills with a church's needs has tested the limits of generations of pastoral search committees. And for Baptists — fiercely committed to local church autonomy and resistant to outside influences — the task always presented distinct challenges.
But in the face of waning denominational loyalty, observers note, difficulties have multiplied — and nowhere more so than in the critical initial step of discovering pools of potential candidates.
"It's one of the great unmet needs of the post-denominational era," said Bill Wilson, president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Like other congregationally based faith groups, calling a minister is left to local Baptist churches, leaving little room for input from state or national denominational bodies. But for much of the 20th century, churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention found a steady pool of potential leaders in six widely trusted theological seminaries that conferred on their graduates, if not official credentials, at least a measure of confidence in their preparation for Baptist ministry.
By the end of the century, however, that pattern was breaking down, partly due to theological disputes among Southern Baptists, partly to churches' weakening denominational commitment. Today, many minister search committees express frustration at their inability to uncover candidates.
But theological institutions — especially a new crop of Baptist seminaries and divinity schools that have sprung up across the South since 1989 — remain a significant resource for churches, said Michael Clingenpeel, pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, Va.
"Going through the traditional (Southern Baptist) seminary systems was a nonstarter for us," said Clingenpeel, whose church recently completed a search for a new choral director. "We had to find other sources."
Among those were the "new-start seminaries," he said, which are "legitimate talent pools."
"I see the divinity schools and seminaries as still very viable," he added.
A number of Baptist state conventions — including the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the Baptist General Association of Virginia and Churchnet, also known as the Baptist General Convention of Missouri — maintain referral services. But some of those are "more of a resume-posting service," similar to Internet sites such as ChurchStaffing.com and MinisterSearch.com, said Ken Kessler, who oversees Virginia Baptists' Minister Matching Service.
"We've got to move away from being a resume-keeping service to being a viable connector between churches and ministers," said Kessler, who said he continues to "search for what that right method is."
The Minister Matching Service essentially is a "closed" system, Kessler said. Ministers and churches both submit profiles, but neither can browse the complete database. Specific resumes are shared with churches on the basis of a set of criteria.
"We limit ourselves sometimes because of the nature of the questions we ask, as well as the expectations we have of the way people will fill out their profiles," Kessler said.
"People are looking for more open systems than closed systems. We're evaluating how we can redo the process to make it more open."
In Missouri, MinistryConnect, an 11-year-old organization with Baptist ties, offers not only candidate profiles, but also "helps churches and ministers find the right match," according to its website. "We believe that churches and ministers become healthier when they are successfully matched in as many areas as possible: doctrine, ethics, issues affecting the church, marital and family issues, temperament, leadership style, gifts and values, financial understandings among others. This is not about just placement, but matching."
Some churches seeking to fill ministerial vacancies explore services that provide more than resume posting or matching services, but actually recruit and interview potential candidates on a church's behalf for a fee — what the business world often refers to as "headhunting."
"Congregations may have to realize that what was once free will now cost them money," said Wilson of the Center for Congregational Health. "And the nice thing is, you can expect good quality candidates."
Among the more successful recruiting firms is the Houston-based Vanderbloemen Search Group, which promises "a deep understanding of local church work with the very best of knowledge and practices of professional executive search." The group's CEO, William Vanderbloemen, is a former senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Houston.
"The recruiting stance is what I'm interested in exploring," said Wilson, who has worked closely with churches in pastoral search processes. "Wouldn't it be nice if there were a logical way to assist the Spirit — not replace the Spirit, but assist the Spirit."
Some churches fear a recruiting approach to finding ministers will "take the spiritual out of the search in terms of finding God's direction," Kessler acknowledged.
"There's such a spiritual connection in a pastor search that people feel if there's no sense that God is leading it, then the process is too mechanical. But take it from the other end. If you so spiritualize the process, then you hope that God will just drop someone down out of heaven. There has to be a happy medium."
In the past, the search committee process meant "pray, then call the seminary," Wilson said. "You never wait for your mailbox to fill up without taking out an ad or making some calls. In our current reality, recruiting may be the way that works best."
An additional—often neglected—pool of talent is "second career kinds of people—folks who have been in business or some other field and decide they want to work in the religious field," Clingenpeel added. The challenge, he said, is tapping into this pool beyond one's own congregation.
"Clearly, the question is, how do you tease them out?" he said. "You can start in your own congregation. Beyond that, you can find other sources locally through networking with your own church members. They have their own networks and know people with a variety of skill sets. That could give us whole new ways of seeking out candidates for ministry. …
"Maybe I'm suggesting that increasingly you'll find people who aren't theological trained but who are theological sensitive. They could make excellent church ministers."