Pastor Search Committees: Telltale Signs of Potentially Problem Pastors

Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision….
-Philippians 3:2

You’re on your church’s Pastor Search Committee? Good for you. It’s a difficult task, one that can make or break your church for a long time to come. But this can be one of the finest services you can render for the Lord and his church.

At first, you step tentatively into those pastor-searching waters, testing to see if they are acidic (scary, dangerous), too deep (you’re in over your head) or turbulent (requiring skills you do not have).

Then, you go forward.

In your search for the next pastor of the Lord’s people, there are ten thousand things for you to know and remember, to watch out for and to stay away from. What follows below is just one of the prohibitions—a summation of some pastor-types you and your committee will want to be wary of.

By the way, this is what Paul was doing with Timothy, cautioning him against certain types who would impose themselves on the Lord’s churches. When he said to beware of the dogs, the evil workers, and false circumcision, Paul was referring to those who would mutilate the church (think of wild dogs tearing into a defenseless victim), misuse the church (working their evil, which comes in all kinds of varieties), and mislead the church (pushing their false doctrine, in this case that believers had to be circumcised to be saved). I love the way Beeson Divinity School’s Frank Thielman puts it in the NIV Commentary, “Beware the curs! Beware the criminals! Beware the cutters!”

All right. Beware of these preacher-types in your quest for God’s leader for the flock….

1. The Single Issue Pastor

In the political realm, a “single-issue candidate” has one big item on his mind, some change he/she wants to introduce in Congress. They are the abortion candidate, the big-oil candidate, the environmental candidate, or the Tea Party candidate. There are pastors like this, men who have one huge issue on their plate and all their sermons and programs revolve around it.

A friend told me of a pastor under whom he once served. With that man, everything was missions. And in his case, it was one country in particular where he was always traveling to minister and taking church groups. My friend said, “Too bad if we wanted to do something for the children in our church, take the youth on a retreat, or needed to renovate the fellowship hall. The pastor needed those funds for Guatemala.”

In most cases, pastors need to be generalists, not specialists. They are called upon to be students and teachers of God’s word, to deliver great sermons, to administer the stuff, and to oversee a church that ministers to all age groups—a church that ministers in the community, and touches the world with the Gospel. The church needs to be evangelistic, but also mission-minded, Bible-teaching, and good stewards. There may be a place for a pastor who excels in one area and all other aspects of the ministry do not interest him, but chances are your church is not the place for him.

Know whom you are getting. Bring an one-issue pastor to a church needing a Jack-of-all-Trades and nothing good will come from it.

2. The Politically Ambitious Pastor

In this case, it’s denominational politics. I’ve known pastors whose driving force was to become known throughout the Southern Baptist Convention and be elected for a high office. Why in the world any right-thinking man of God would want that burden is beyond me, but I suppose it takes all types.

The problem–well, one of many–is that he will be inclined to use the church to further his goals, even to the point of manipulating programming and misusing people.

The Lord Jesus said, “I am among you as One who serves,” and “He who would be great among you, let him be your servant.”

So find out if that pastor has a servant heart, and what service he is now doing.

Before writing a letter of recommendation to a children’s home ministry in search of their new executive director, I learned they wanted someone with pastoral experience and administrative skills. In the letter, I pointed out that not only did this candidate have his degree in administration, and not only had he pastored several churches (and every church he serves as interim wants to make him their permanent shepherd), but at the moment, he and his wife were working with children in the inner city of New Orleans through one of our smaller congregations. No one said, but I’m guessing this last detail is what clinched the deal. It certainly did for me.

What is the pastor doing at this moment that reveals him to have a shepherd, serving heart?

3. The Predator Pastor

Jesus spoke of shepherds who watch the sheep, hirelings who do not stick around when the sheep are threatened, and wolves who are the enemies of all sheep. Pastor Search Committees need to know how to tell one from the other. (John 10 is a good starting place for your study).

A shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, Jesus said. A hireling has no appetite for conflict, looks out for number one, is not devoted to the flock, and skips town (or locks himself in his study!) at the first threat of trouble. The wolves are the ones who make the trouble (see Acts 20:28-30).

As I sometimes get reminded on this article–which I admit is directed toward pastors and church leadership–the church’s problem can be the preacher. Of course this is true. And when a congregation has a pastor who is the cancer, spreading disease throughout the flock, its lay leadership must rise up and take action. But, for our purposes here, we’re talking about a search committee trying to spot the trouble-making pastor in order to avoid bringing him in.

Ask a lot of people about the pastor you are interested in. When you finish, ask some more. Ask references for the names of others whom you will want to call in order to have a full picture of this minister. Consider having a member of your committee who knows how to fly under the radar visit that pastor’s city and make discreet inquiries about him and his church.

Sexual predators are the worst kind. If rumors persist about a particular minister you are interested in, don’t automatically assume the worst. Your committee should have as its advisors one or two ministers with vast experience–either a retired pastor or a denominational leader–who can give you his perspective and make recommendations, but will hold everything in the strictest confidence. If however, the rumors trail the minister from church to church where he has served, you will want to pay attention.

4. The Combative Pastor

Paul told Pastor Timothy, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all….” (2 Timothy 2:24).

Your committee will listen to the pastor’s sermons and talk with him privately enough to have an idea about this. Then, the references you run–particularly with his former staff members–will confirm to you one way or the other if he loves a good fight.

A combative personality in the pulpit can be entertaining the first time or two. But a steady diet of war-making from the shepherd gets old quick and brands your church as a warmongering congregation (since pastors tend to make the people like themselves).

Is this pastor kind? Is he Christlike? Paul went on to tell Timothy “…but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition…” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

The pastor who is always spoiling for a fight has no business in the ministry. He needs to bring himself to the cross and die there, daily if necessary (1 Corinthians 15:31).

5. The Immature Pastor

These are ministers who have never grown up, tend to be quick to take offense, cannot handle correction, and worry about their careers. Any criticism is unwelcome and the critic becomes marked as an enemy.

Many immature pastors can be spotted by their use of slang, by their adolescent clothing and hair styles, and by their discomfort in associating with people old enough to be their parents and grandparents. In case anyone wonders, while I have not known such pastors, I’ve sure heard stories about them. They’re out there.

My observation is that anyone God ultimately uses in great ways, he first has to “break.”  (Think of breaking a horse.) Until a minister–or any Christian–sees himself as unworthy, a sinner deserving of hell, one who dares not trust himself because “in my flesh there dwells no good thing” (Romans 7:18), and throws himself on the mercy of God, he’s not much good as a shepherd of God’s people.

Has this pastor been broken? Ask people who have worked with him fairly recently, they will know.

In saying this, I’m reminding myself we were all young and immature at one time. I’m grateful to those small churches which took a chance on me (mostly, I expect because they didn’t have a lot of choices, being poor as well as small). 2 Peter 3:18 is a good reminder for pastors as well as everyone else: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The issue then becomes: Is this young pastor showing signs of growing, of being teachable, of being able to make corrections when shown something he got wrong? Do not go forward until you learn the answers to these questions.

6. The Mentally Unhealthy Pastor

Now, poor mental health is a problem for humanity, not just one particular group. But you do not want in  your pulpit a man (or woman, if your church allows women to serve as shepherds) who struggles with ego (either too much or too little), who is still trying to find his own identity, who has anger issues, and whose fragile confidence always needs bolstering. Such leaders are trouble.

Before telling us how the Lord Jesus shed his outer garment, took a towel and basin of water, and stooped to wash the feet of the apostles, John opens the curtain and lets us in on a divine secret. The opening words of John 13 reveal to us exactly how our Lord was able to do such a humble act:

“Now, before the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end; and during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garment, and taking a towel, girded Himself about….”

These four verses are worthy of many hours of our reflection and meditation. They contain a thousand insights, only two or three of which I have grasped so far. The one big message, the truth that jumps out and demands to be considered, is that Jesus was able to stoop and serve in the lowliest position because he knew who he was, knew God’s calling upon his life, was on schedule with his life, and had nothing to prove. Insecurity will paralyze us, but knowing our identity in Christ will set us free to do anything he commands.

7. The Carnal Pastor

I suppose this is redundant, since most of the above indicates a pastor still fleshly and not spiritual. But I’m thinking of one pastor I knew who always had an off-color joke to share, could always be counted on to find a sexual slant to any incident, and who was critical of other ministers. Eventually, I decided that his criticism was intended to justify his excluding himself from his brethren, a protective device lest they find out his secrets.

Only after he left that church did we hear that he was often seen at the race track making bets, and a restaurant owner noted that this preacher always ordered alcoholic drinks with his dinner. When he left our denomination, we were not unhappy. When we found that another denomination had welcomed him with open arms, we were saddened. I hope they know what they got. If not, they probably found out quickly.

Paul says we will have the carnal (fleshly) in the congregations (see 1 Corinthians 2). These are disciples who need to grow and rise above activities and ways of their former life. However, you do not want such a person to be your pastor.

Look for evidence of his spirituality. Does he read his Bible and pray regularly, and not just for sermon preparation? Does he love people and is there a humility in his life?

8. The Loner Pastor

Does this pastor have friends in the ministry? Does he attend meetings of pastors in his city?  Or does he isolate himself from his colleagues as though he fears contamination?

Our Lord called his disciples to become part of the team of twelve, and then sent them in pairs (see Mark 6:7). When the Holy Spirit sent out missionaries, they went not as solo acts, but in groups of at least two (see Acts 13:2; 15:39-40).

One of the most reliable indications of bad mental health in a pastor is his isolation. Whether from a lack of trust of other ministers or a sense of inferiority in himself, nothing good comes from his self-imposed protective quarantine.

Pastors are going to urge people to come to Christ, be saved and baptized, and join the church. They are going to tell the new disciples that they cannot live this Christian life in isolation, that they need the family of the Lord. And they will be right. However, they must practice what they preach. As shepherds of the Lord’s people, they must work with other shepherds, learn from each other and encourage each other. The pastor who cuts himself off from others is revealing something lacking in himself and asking for big trouble. (In Acts 20:17ff, Paul meets with the pastors/elders of the Ephesus church. No numbers are given, but clearly there were several of them. If the Word of God is authoritative for us, we must pay attention to such insights).

Eight kinds of ministers who can give a congregation big problems if the committee recommends them.

Get lots of counsel, search committee. Get a couple of advisors from veteran ministers in your area, men who are sworn to confidentiality but do not necessarily know that you are talking to both. The line in Proverbs about there being “safety in many counselors” is dead on.

Do not fall in love with a candidate so quickly that you cut short your background work or refuse to consider negative information you are picking up. Talk to ministers who have served on that pastor’s staff in previous churches and to pastors who led neighboring congregations, and pay close attention to both groups, particularly if they are all saying the same things.

Keep the congregation on their knees interceding for your committee. You cannot do this without his guiding hand.

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