A Brick in the Valley

Got Preaching? On Pastoral Search Committees
June 15, 2007, 4:28 pm
Filed under: Pastoral Search Committees, Preaching

Arguably, the most strategic decision that a local church makes is calling a preaching pastor.  When a local church calls a lead or senior pastor, they almost always want a pastor who will preach with excellence.  Yet, often pastoral search committees do not know how to go about achieving that goal.

Unfortunately, there are essentially no resources available designed to help pastoral search committees / pulpit nominating committees succeed in calling an excellent preaching pastor.  

Books and resources designed for pastoral search committees / pulpit nominating committees focus on areas other than preaching, and these areas are important.  Yet preaching is the center of what their next pastor will do, and there is nothing available to help churches call a pastor who will preach with excellence.

You can read the below excerpt from my doctoral thesis which focused on developing a resource that will help local churches call a pastor who will preach with excellence. . . This is the introduction to my entire thesis – – it introduces the problem.  So, it is written in a technical way – – It is not a portion of the manual I developed.

I am praying that the manual/resource I developed might serve a local church looking for their next preaching pastor.

This week pastoral search committees will meet all over North America.  Small groups of men and women will gather in churches and living rooms and prayerfully conduct the business of looking for a new pastor.[1]  Most will understand that calling a pastor is the most critical decision a local church makes.[2]  Virtually all will agree that their first priority is an excellent preacher.  Adair Lummis writes,  “Regional judicatory executives and senior staff interviewed report that most search committees say they want a pastor who is a gifted preacher . . . One judicatory executive wryly observed: ‘The number one thing they always say is that they want a good preacher.  That always comes at the top of the list.'” [3]  Elizabeth Achtemeier generalizes that “most church members rank preaching as their highest priority in seeking a minister to lead them.”[4]  Haddon Robinson observes that over many years of being contacted by search committees looking for a pastor, only one has not listed strength in preaching as their number one priority.  That search committee ranked it second.[5]

So these search committees will pursue a first-rate preacher, at least initially.  Questionnaires will ask candidates to rate their own preaching.  Written job requirements and advertisements will list skill in the pulpit as the first requirement.  Five or six sermon tapes or even videos will be requested from promising prospects.  Aggressive search committees will petition their deacons to approve expenditures for plane tickets to hear a candidate preach in person.

In many cases, the district representatives of their denomination will visit one of their pulpit committee meetings.[6]  He will provide a handbook and may suggest a personality inventory to use.[7]  The handbook may include sample letters for correspondence with potential candidates and even advice on how to discreetly visit a church as a pulpit committee.[8]  The district representative will assure committee members that resumes will be sent in their direction and a computer program may be used to match candidates and churches.[9]  The district representative will agree that it is important to call an effective preacher.[10]

Soon enough the search committees will have collected piles of resumes and baskets of tapes.  Facing the job of sifting through all the data, attention to the candidates preaching will begin to dwindle.  Committee members will listen to at least a portion of the sermon tapes on the way to search committee meetings.  But, the analysis will be thumbs up or thumbs down: “yes” or “no”: “in” or “out.”  Phrases like, “I didn’t get to listen to the whole thing, but I liked what I heard,” will be common.[11]  The committees that do discuss a particular sermon will be more concerned with whether or not it was relevant and interesting than with if it was biblical.[12]  Few will review a candidate’s preaching against any objective criteria.[13] 

Once personal interviews begin, the focus will shift to interpersonal skills and answers to specific questions.  Ultimately, a decision to call a pastor may be made on the basis of how the committee feels about issues like drums on the platform rather than on specific criteria used to evaluate his skill at preaching the Word.[14]   Even more likely, the committee will evaluate the candidate against a negative or positive experience with the former pastor.[15]  At the end of the day, pastoral search committees with a first priority of finding an expository preacher will have done little to ensure that they achieve their goal.   Attention to a candidate’s preaching will not ebb because the committee no longer cares about preaching.  Rather, they will simply not be sure how to go about the process in general and evaluating preaching in particular.[16]  Most of all, they will become impatient with the long process.[17]

This is the problem that this thesis-project proposes to address.  Even though they may believe that they are,[18] most pastoral search committees are not motivated and equipped to call pastors who will preach expository sermons.[19]  This problem exists for two basic reasons.  First, evaluation of sermons is a daunting task.  Search committees need help if they are to assess sermons and make a determination about calling a particular preacher.  Educational research has demonstrated that, in any discipline, evaluating material requires a high level of understanding.[20]  It is one thing to hear a sermon and be challenged personally.  But, to understand expository preaching on a level that allows one to evaluate the sermon and effectiveness of the preacher requires a much greater depth of knowledge.  Unfortunately, there are almost no materials available to help search committees grow in their ability to evaluate sermons.[21]  In the absence of such help, committees focus on areas other than expository preaching.[22]

A second, and more foundational, reason that many pastoral search committees are not equipped to call a pastor who will preach expository sermons is that they do not value expository preaching.  These committees would say that preaching is important but they assume that expository preaching is irrelevant or academic.  It is critical that this be addressed.  Numerous books and articles have documented the decline of expository preaching.  Alistair Begg writes:

Much of what now emanates from contemporary pulpits would not have been recognized by either Alexander or Baxter or Sangster as being anywhere close to the kind of expository preaching that is Bible-based, Christ-focused, and life-changing–the kind of preaching that is marked by doctrinal clarity, a sense of gravity, and convincing argument. We have instead become far too familiar with preaching that pays scant attention to the Bible, is self-focused, and consequently is capable of only the most superficial impact upon the lives if listeners. Worse still, large sections of the church are oblivious to the fact that they are being administered a placebo rather than the medicine they need. They are satisfied with the feeling that it has done them some good, a feeling that disguises the seriousness of the situation. In the absence of bread the population grows accustomed to cake![23]

Steven Lawson calls the need for expository preaching, “the crying need of the hour.”[24]  Arturo G. Azurdia writes:

It is a colossal understatement to suggest that preaching and preachers have fallen on hard times in recent years.  Christians themselves often speak of preaching in disparaging tones.  Political correctness demands that the man of God is no longer be regarded as “a preacher,” but instead as a “communicator.”  An absence of preaching is often the means now employed to attract people to the assembly on the Lord’s Day.  “Come to our church.  Our pastor won’t preach at you.”[25]

Marsha Witten conducted an extensive study of sermons preached on the parable of the Prodigal Son.[26]  She concluded that the majority of sermons were driven by accommodation to the culture rather than exposition of the truth.[27]  Interacting with her findings, David Wells summarizes how preachers did in negotiating the “treacherous waters between the rocks of unchanging biblical truth and the swirling currents of relativizing modernity.”[28]  He concludes, “Most sermons navigated these waters only with such great difficulty, and most took on so much water that by the end the sermon was no longer seaworthy.”[29]  Elsewhere Wells observes that, “the older role of the pastor as broker of truth has been eclipsed by the newer managerial functions.”[30]  Kaiser writes

The exposition of God’s Word today is as rare and scarce as it was during the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1) . . .But that scarcity can end if and when God’s people and his ministers deliberately decide to take steps to reverse our current appetites and procedures.  A consistent and systematic exposition of the Scriptures will help restore order, end the habits of a violent society and repair damaged relationships at every level of society.  I rest my case for an urgent return to expository preaching.[31]

Many seminary professors and denominational leaders express concern.  But, ultimately search committees control whether or not an expository preacher is called to a particular church.  Without search committees who place a priority on expository preaching, it will be difficult to improve the preaching in pulpits in North America regardless of the concerns of theologians and the training of seminary students.  Adair Lummis’ study demonstrated that there is, in fact, a gulf between what denominational leaders think is important in preaching and what search committees are after.  She summarizes:

Judicatory executives, who typically are seminary graduates, often with graduate seminary degrees, use different standards in evaluating how “good” the preacher is than do members in the majority of their congregations. By “good” some executives (and probably most seminary faculty) mean a sermon that is carefully exegeted, researched, or at least well organized and presented, so that the preacher engages the minds of the members. Regional leaders, however, suggest that relatively few congregations in their jurisdictions shared these criteria for a “good sermon.” In the words of one judicatory executive: “There are some congregations in this diocese that really do want a scholar, one who is a learned person, who is going to have a good knowledge base for sermons.” But, they add, such erudite and discerning congregations are a relatively small minority. Lay leaders interviewed appear to care far less about whether the sermon evinces careful scholarship and organization than whether it relates to their more immediate life concerns and engages them personally.[32]

The results of this study imply that preaching is based on solid exegetical study or interesting and relevant, not both.  Seminary professor and denominational leaders favor strong exegesis; search committees are more interested in interesting and relevant.  But, this is a false dichotomy.  Nothing should be more interesting and relevant than God’s word coming into lively intersection with life.  This is what we need in preaching.  Pulpit committees must understand that expository preaching does not mean dry and irrelevant.  Preaching from God’s Word is dynamic, life changing, and powerful.[33]

The purpose of this thesis-project is to develop a manual to motivate and equip pastoral search committees to call a pastor who will preach expository sermons.  The manual will target churches where a search committee either chooses a new pastor or makes a recommendation to the congregation.  The manual will define expository preaching and attempt to persuade readers that it should be a central objective of their pastoral search to call an expository preacher.  Having argued for expository preaching, the manual will seek to equip pulpit committees to evaluate sermons.  It will first conceptually describe the process that a preacher must go through in order to preach an expository sermon.  It will also provide and defend a sermon evaluation form that will equip pastoral search committees to evaluate sermons.  This teaching will also equip a pastoral search committee to interview candidates about preaching. 

Beyond being motivated and equipped to call a pastor who will preach expository sermons, it also hoped that a search committee using this manual will better support a new pastor with the time and resources needed to produce expository sermons.  Ultimately, this could result in greater unity for a church.  One of the problems local churches face is that there is not a shared vision for the role of the preaching pastor.  This problem does not begin on the day that the new pastor officially begins.  The seeds of disunity are sown during the process of hiring the pastor.  Paul Harrison writes, “One of the problems facing contemporary Christianity is pastoral turnover . . . One factor leading to short-term pastorates is the way churches go about filling pulpits . . . This common approach to joining church and minister is much like rolling the dice.”[34]  Gilbert makes a similar observation about pastoral turnover

Within such churches a carefully chosen search committee becomes responsible to search for, to evaluate, and to recommend to the congregation a compatible candidate for the office of pastor. Once appointed, the search committee has liberty to determine how to proceed. Herein lies a major problem contributing to musical pulpits. Few committees have knowledge of criteria or a process to guide them. It is the absence of established criteria to evaluate candidates and a recognized process to guide the search committee, which poses a significant threat to the congregation. When a search committee does not acquire needed criteria from which the congregation and candidates can clearly identify mutual areas of compatibility and incompatibility, it is improbable that a fruitful, long-lasting ministry partnership will be enjoyed.[35]

Lummis adds, “. . . the better the match between  pastor and congregation, the more stable and less conflicted the church – – which is a definite plus for regional leaders.”[36]

In short, equipping a pastoral search committee to evaluate preaching may help improve the longevity of pastorates in those particular churches.  In any case, it will position them to be in local church that is pleasing to the Lord.

I approach this project with a great sense of urgency.  I know that the people I have shepherded over the past decade are representative of our culture.  I think of women who have been thrown down stairs by their husbands, men living in their cars because of drug addiction, parents whose hearts are broken over adult children in trouble, business leaders facing complex choices.  Such people do not need my slant on life or that of any other person.  They hunger for a meal of God’s Word.  It is critical that pastoral search committees are motivated and equipped to call pastors who will preach expository sermons.

[1] Robert W. Dingman, In Search of a Leader: The Complete Search Committee Guidebook (Ventura: Regal Books, 1989).  Dingman, page 7, asserts that the majority of churches are “structured to find their own leaders, with varying degrees of help or direction from their denominations.”[2] Within this thesis-project, “pastor” will refer to the individual who carries the primary responsibility for preaching.[3]  Adair T. Lummis, What Do Lay People Want in Pastors?  Answers from Lay Search Committee Chairs and Regional Judicatory Leaders (Durham: Duke Divinity School, 2003), 7-8.   [4] Elizabeth Rice Achtemeier, So You’re Looking for a New Preacher: A Guide for Pulpit Nominating Committees (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 1. [5] Haddon Robinson, “Unpublished Lecture to Doctor of Ministry Students in Preaching Track,”  (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2004).  This point will be further documented in Chapter 3, A Summary of Interviews With Association / Denominational Leaders and Search Committee Chair.[6] Evangelical Free Church of America District Leaders, interview by author, October 14, 2004, Midwest.

[7] A tremendous number of manuals are available for pastoral search committees.  These will be surveyed in Chapter 3, see “Written Resources Available to Pastoral Search Committees,” page 59.

[8] Wesley E. Johnson, “The Development of a Manual for Pastoral Search Committees of Churches Adhering to Congregational Polity” (Doctor of Ministry diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1985), 89.  Johnson suggests, “If at all possible you will want to visit each candidate in his church to hear him preach.  If this is prohibitive because of cost, you should ask for an audiotape or a videotape.  Before traveling to a church, make sure your candidate is preaching.  Try not to be conspicuous in the service, and do not announce the purpose of the visit to anyone in the congregation.  If you have more than four people, do not sit together.”

[9] http://www.MinisterConnection.com is representative of the kinds of services now available.  This web site is a ministry of the Evangelical Free Church of America.  Candidates fill out an extensive profile as do churches.  This includes a personality inventory.  Candidates are then matched to particular churches with openings.  The American Baptist Church also uses a similar approach, American Baptist Church District Leader, interview by author, October 13, 2004, Midwest.

[10] See Lummis, 8.

[11] One search committee chair shared, “Well at first we all listened to all the tapes.  But, there were so many that as time went on, we were unable to do that and those that did not listen had to agree to defer to those who did.”  Independent Evangelical Church Search Committee Chairperson #2, interview by author, August 2, 2005, Stillman Valley, IL.

[12] See Chapter 3, “How the Interviews Supported Preliminary Findings,” page 52.

[13] Lummis, 4.

[14] See, Chapter 3, “How the Interviews Supported Preliminary Findings,” page 52.    This section summarizes specific comments obtained from interviews with denominational leaders.

[15] Lummis, 6.  This point is further documented in Chapter 3.  See page 56, and footnote 17 on page 56.

[16] Independent Evangelical Church Search Committee Chairperson #2, interview by author.

[17] Southern Baptist Church District Leader, interview by author, October 13, 2004, Midwest.  Lummis quotes district leaders as saying, “[Pastoral Search Committees] may have set one set of standards that says, ‘This is what we are looking for,’ while in reality, they get down to the question of ‘Who is available and what can we afford?'”  Lummis, 5.  Emphasis hers.

[18] “Lay leaders may concur that they have made mistakes in the past, but they believe they are quite competent, and perhaps best able in conjunction with other members of their search committee, to find and call the right person for their next pastor.”  Lummis, 5.

[19]Lummis’ thorough study shows that denominational leaders do not believe committees are equipped to evaluate candidates in any areas.  One leader remarked, “Part of the problem is that we deal with search committees who really have no clue as to what the job of pastor is . . . Despite their efforts to help congregations with the search process, and regardless of how long the search process takes, regional leaders sometimes perceive a committee’s final choice of pastor as emotionally biased or arbitrary.”  Ibid., 5, 6.  See also the study conducted by Joseph Umidi.  He provides summary data saying 37% of pastoral search committees are inexperienced.  Joseph L. Umidi, Confirming the Pastoral Call: A Guide to Matching Candidates and Congregations (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 33.  Additional information about the study is given in note 83, on page 79.

[20] Benjamin Samuel Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives; the Classification of Educational Goals, 1st ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, 1956).   The taxonomy provides major categories of learning outcomes.  The most basic level is knowledge.  This level is followed by comprehension, then application, then analysis, then synthesis, then evaluation.  Norman Edward Gronlund, How to Write and Use Instructional Objectives, 4th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 32.  This is explained in Chapter 4 using an example of Olympic judges, see page 126.

[21] The one resource discovered was Elizabeth Achtemeier’s book, So You’re Looking for a New Preacher.  It is no longer in print.  The kinds of resources available to help search committees will be surveyed in Chapter Three, the section, “Written Resources Available to Pastoral Search Committees,” page 59.  There are many books on homiletics.  Some of these include evaluation forms.  See, for instance, Michael Fabarez, Preaching That Changes Lives (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 2002), Appendix 3, page 200.  However, these books are aimed at teaching someone to preach an expository message and are not generally accessible to pulpit committees.  Other studies focus more on providing feedback to those being evaluated than on helping a search committee objectively evaluate a sermon.  See Roger Raymer, “Mentoring Pastoral Staff in Homiletics” (Doctor of Ministry diss., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2003), 125-130.

[22] Southern Baptist Church District Leader, interview by author.

[23] Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1999), 11. 

[24] Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 19.

[25] Arturo G. Azurdia, “Preaching: The Decisive Function,” in The Compromised Church, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 193.

[26] Marsha Grace Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).  See also Marsha G. Witten, “Preaching About Sin in Contemporary Protestantism,” Theology Today 50, no. July (1993).

[27] Witten writes, “. . . we have indeed noted the extent to which accommodative speech is used in the sermons.  Various indicators point to the substantive adaptation of religion to the norms of secular culture.”  Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism, 139.

[28] David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 48-49.

[29] Ibid.

[30] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 233.

[31] Walter C. Kaiser, “The Crisis in Expository Preaching Today,” in Preaching (1995), 12.

[32] Lummis, 8.

[33] See Chapter 2, “Why Expository Preaching Should Not be Irrelevant and Boring,” page 37.

[34] Paul V. Harrison, “Pastoral Turnover and the Call to Preach,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 1 (2001): 87, 88, 90.

[35] David L. Gilbert, “The Candidate Evaluation Process: An Investigation of Pastoral Search Committees in Their Search, Evaluation, and Selection of a Pastoral Candidate” (Directed Research Project, Lancaster Bible College, 2000), 4.  Gilbert makes helpful suggestions in his study about the overall process, but does not offer any objective criteria for evaluating sermons.

[36] Lummis, 5.


9 Comments so far
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such erudite and discerning congregations are a relatively small minority. Lay leaders interviewed appear to care far less about whether the sermon evinces careful scholarship and organization than whether it relates to their more immediate life concerns and engages them personally. …

I think of women who have been thrown down stairs by their husbands, men living in their cars because of drug addiction, parents whose hearts are broken over adult children in trouble, business leaders facing complex choices. Such people do not need my slant on life or that of any other person. They hunger for a meal of God’s Word.

Really? Have you asked them? Now I agree that any sermon should be well researched and biblical, with “careful scholarship and organization”. But most congregations are not erudite and so don’t need or want erudite sermons which go above their heads and lack practical application. What they need and want, especially for the people in trouble whom you mention, is a sermon which, in a biblical way, “relates to their more immediate life concerns and engages them personally”. This is how Jesus and the apostles preached. If I were searching for a pastor, these would be my criteria. Why? Because I have seen how it is not dry preaching but relevant sermons which build up the kingdom of God.

Comment by Peter Kirk

I don’t disagree.

A sermon should be truth intersecting with life – – a biblical bullet that comes into clear intersection with the life of the listener – – it should not be clouded with academic language etc. . .

The goal is certainly not to sound deep. . .

Haddon Robinson notes, “Sometimes what we call deep is simply muddy.”

Spurgeon makes the guilty cringe when he charges:

An average hearer, who is unable to follow the course of thought of the preacher, ought not to worry himself, but to blame the preacher, whose business it is to make the matter plain. If you look down into a well, if it be empty it will appear to be very deep, but if there be water in it you will see its brightness. I believe that many “deep” preachers are simply so because they are like dry wells with nothing whatever in them, except decaying leaves, a few stones, and perhaps a dead cat or two. If there be living water in your preaching it may be very deep, but the light of truth will give clearness to it. It is not enough to be so plain that you can be understood, you must speak so that you cannot be misunderstood.

Similarly, Joe Stowell observes:
most discouraging compliment I ever hear is, “Thank you for that sermon. It was really deep.” That usually means the person couldn’t understand it.

Comment by cdbrauns

While I’m a HUGE proponent of expository preaching, I think Peter Kirk is right on with regard to what the vast majority of people want (and perceive they need) from preaching.

The really don’t care about the Hittites or the Jebusites, but they do care about themselves. They need the Word and its truth, which is relevant to their lives. The expository preacher just has to show them how it is relevant, not make it relevant.

Churches, far too often, don’t value expository preaching, because most individual Christians don’t. They enjoy and appreciate engaging, entertaining messages that speak to their obvious needs. That’s why so many are popular just because they’re dynamic speakers.

We have to give them more what they need than want, but that may not grow the church as fast and we have to patiently teach and train the congregation to value the Word and to see its relevance across life’s grid.

Yet, there is a huge problem of search committees not knowing what to do or how to do it. They just like what they like and want it. I personally think the problem is compounded when the search committee is a group put together only for that purpose, but has no continuity before or after the process. This will also present a problem since they really like the candidate and most will go along, but the established leadership in the church and/or the people of influence may or may not be as sold and those are the ones the new pastor really needs to have in his corner.



You make excellent points. I agree that most search committees are more concerned with relevant/engaging preaching than with biblical/expository.

I believe that what is needed is to leverage the desire that search committees have for good preaching and then show them what good preaching should be. . . we need to convince search committees that truth intersecting life is anything but boring. Good preaching should never be dull, boring, and lifeless.

Thanks for your thoughts.


Comment by cdbrauns

“I agree that most search committees are more concerned with relevant/engaging preaching than with biblical/expository.”

Amen. What’s we’ve got to do is help people see that those are mutually exclusive categories. I’m sure you’d agree that “good” biblical/expository preaching is still revelant and engaging.

Good stuff, Chris.


Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with a Southern Baptist District leader.

Question: Are search committees equipped to evaluate sermons? Do they have some sort of criteria they use?

Answer: Well, they are given some help in that area, but my feeling is that most search committees come down to the entertainment factor: when the man came in view of a call, was he captivating, was he interesting, was he entertaining? One of the last questions they ask is, “Was it a biblical message? Were we really fed the Word of God?” A consequence of that is that we are seeing more of the really well grounded preachers, potential pastors, lose opportunities simply because they are not good entertainers. That’s a real loss to the church.

Even if we have seminaries that do a great job training pastors, if the “gatekeepers” are not motivated then this kind of thing will happen.

Somewhere, we need resources that will teach and train pastoral search committees. This may need to come at the denominational level.

Again, start with the idea that they want good preaching. Then help them define what good preaching is – – and that expository/biblical preaching should not be boring.

Comment by cdbrauns

I know this isn’t necessarily germane to the discussion but I thought I would bring to your attention a book about helping churches when they are looking for a pastor (from a Fundamentalist perspective but still interesting!).


Comment by allenmickle

Also, see a new post I have on why expository preaching should not be boring.

Comment by cdbrauns

Allen, I’ll bet the book you pointed to is very helpful. I was not aware of it – – -just when you think you know what is out there on a particular topic, you find another one. And, it has been out since 2002.
I did glance through the table of contents, and it does not appear to have much on preaching. And, I know it is not because that publisher does not value preaching! I think it is often just assumed that pastoral search committees will agree on what kind of preaching they want, without any training or discussion.

Comment by cdbrauns

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