Pastoral appointments: rethinking our process

The BBC political panel show, Question Time, is now seeking a new host. After 25 years in the role, David Dimbleby is stepping down. Of itself, this isn’t particularly interesting. I suppose there is a question over whether a woman who was as old as Dimbleby (79), would have been allowed to carry on in the role for so long. I don’t know the answer to that but, no doubt, it will be asked.

What is more interesting is the way they are looking to appoint a new host. In what some are calling ‘Question Time Idol’, the BBC have decided to run a series of pilots – in front of live studio audiences – to test out different candidates. The Guardian report, ‘the trials are designed to give the corporation the chance to see how the presenters fare in a live setting similar to that of the flagship BBC1 show.’

I was set to thinking about our processes for appointing church leaders, particular pastors. The Question Time approach seems reasonable when the question before those making the appointment is no more or less, ‘how will they cope in a live Q&A format?’ In churches, we often have a similar approach and expect somebody to ‘preach with a view’ a bunch of times to see how they fair in that environment. If all we are appointing is, per the Presbyterian approach, a ‘preaching elder’ then that is probably as sound an approach as any. But most people are looking for something more than a good preacher and our processes for discerning anything else seem severely lacking (at least, so far as processes I’ve been involved in have gone).

Two common issues stand out. The first, as I mentioned, is this emphasis on preaching ability when more than a few folk are looking for somebody who is ‘pastorally gifted.’ Now, I recognise the pastor people through our preaching, so that isn’t unimportant. But what people usually mean when they say ‘pastorally gifted’ is something closer to, ‘what is this guy like out of the pulpit and how far does he care about us as people?’ We expect people to discern this over a cup of coffee after the bloke has come to preach with a view. That doesn’t seem like a very robust approach to me.

Second, we have a habit of mimicking the Question Time approach and almost having a ‘Pastors Idol’ (or, if you object to idols because… the Bible, X-pastors or whatever). We are tempted to accept applications and then conduct a process that amounts to a run-off between two or more candidates. That seems highly inappropriate to me. You surely consider one candidate on his own merits – especially given the time it usually takes to follow the process through – rather than play two guys off against each other What standards are we applying here? If they’re the Biblical qualifications, we shouldn’t need the yardstick of another candidate to measure them by. A person is either Biblically qualified or they are not.

I’m not sure I have the answer for a better process. I think, inevitably, we want to see whether somebody can preach or not and it makes most sense to do that by inviting someone to preach for us. But I almost wonder whether a better approach to appointing somebody might be intensive weeks. Ask a candidate to spend two intensive weeks, at different times, during which you will hear them preach, lead Bible study, see how they get involved in evangelistic work in the church and how they interact with church members.

Such an approach, unlike the standard ‘preaching with a view’ model, has several benefits. You see the candidate in a wider range of scenarios and get a better sense of how they would fit into the life of the church. It also reduces the amount of time it would take to make a decision. Usually, churches take months and arrange several opportunities to preach before even considering beginning a formal process with somebody. This approach would limit the time to two weeks, after which members would have a fairly rounded view of the candidate and could make a more informed decision.

I don’t think it’s a perfect suggestion, and I would be interested to hear if others have a better one, but I wonder whether it’s time to rethink our approach to appointments?