Searching for a New Pastor

March 21st, 2012
Looking to fill your old pastor's shoes?

On August 28, 2011, Rob Fuquay, the new senior pastor of 6,500-member St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, received a standing ovation after his first sermon at all three services. During his sermon, he used his predecessor Kent Millard’s shoes as a visual aid.

He said, “You may recognize these. These are a pair of Kent’s shoes. He was kind to let me borrow them this morning. He wore them many times standing right here before you. Now, as you might guess, they don’t fit. As hard as I might try, I don’t think I could ever fit into these shoes. And Kent would be the first to say he doesn’t want me trying to fit into his shoes. So instead of trying to wear these shoes, what I would rather do is walk the path they walked, because Kent Millard is a wonderful follower of Jesus Christ.” There was not a dry eye in the sanctuary.

Three months earlier, in Kent’s final sermon as senior pastor of St. Luke’s, after he and his wife received a diagnosis that her cancer was terminal, he explained, “Rob heard about the bad news in our lives and came over to my office. He hugged me, and we cried together, and then I sat down and he knelt down in front of me, took my hands and offered a prayer asking for God’s loving and healing power in Minnietta’s life. In that moment, Rob became my compassionate pastor, and I know that when he comes this fall, he will be your loving pastor as well.”

These two sermons framed a significant—and successful—transition of pastoral leadership at St. Luke’s.

Three years earlier, we could not have envisioned such a transition.

In the fall of 2009, the Governing Board of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church appointed a group of six laity to work closely with Bishop Mike Coyner and District Superintendent Bert Kite to plan and implement a strategy to transition from Kent Millard to a new senior pastor. (In the United Methodist Church, pastors are appointed by the bishop, so it was essential that our bishop and district superintendent be intimately involved in our search.) During the process, we encountered several challenges, including modifications in our strategy, and a considerable escalation of our process due to Mrs. Millard’s unexpected illness. The daunting task of looking broadly for the next senior pastor of our 6,000-member church was made even more challenging by knowing we must find someone who could follow on the heels of the beloved and long-term senior pastor, Kent Millard.

The process included two important, inseparable strategies: bathing the process in prayer—inviting everyone to pray for our current senior pastor, the new senior pastor, the church’s clergy and staff, the congregation and the community at large; and, casting the net broadly, as Jesus urged Simon Peter, Thomas, and Nathanael (John 21) to explore and learn about as many potential pastors as possible.

While we prayed and discerned, we embarked on ten key activities.

Getting Started

1. Prepare the path, make the way straight. We developed a robust and comprehensive Congregational Profile and a companion Senior Pastor Profile by following the outline in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. We also reached agreement on the things we would look for in our next pastor. We prayed for someone with the following characteristics: alignment with St. Luke’s open theology as expressed in our mission, which includes an identity statement, a vision and method statements; strong pulpit preaching, to which we had grown accustomed; leadership development skills to cultivate our own young clergy as well as others in the conference; proven fund raising ability; interest in local, state, national and international communities; and spiritual leadership able to incorporate the Bible effectively in sermons and teaching. Our list originally was much longer until someone inquired about the ability to walk on water!

2. Gather names prayerfully. Bishop Coyner gave our transition team permission to help look for good names for our next senior pastor, as long as we did not interrupt the current ministry of those pastors. With that understanding, we cast the net as broadly as possible, contacting many religious leaders nationwide for their input and asking them to keep St. Luke’s in mind as these leaders continued their good work around the world. We also reviewed all clergy from the 100 largest United Methodist churches in the U.S. as well as a database of United Methodist Churches available upon request within certain guidelines from the General Council on Finance and Administration. 

Using a methodical process, we studied church web sites, looking for statements that might tell us how a church is similar to or different from St. Luke’s, biographies for each clergy, indications of challenges or obstacles each church faced, and the extent of each church’s mission and outreach. We even read blogs, looked at social networking pages, viewed YouTube videos, and read articles and books authored by the clergy.

3. Listen, watch, and discern God’s will. We spent the most significant amount of time viewing and listening to sermons for many of these clergy. We looked and listened for engaging preaching styles, Bible references, human-interest stories and illustrations, feedback from congregations (laughter, applause, etc.), and key words that would and would not resonate with St. Luke’s congregation.

Our Ongoing Process

4. Review, discuss, pray, discern, repeat. Over the first 18 months, we held monthly meetings to pray passionately for God’s presence as we reviewed and discussed sermons and clergy that we thought had promise for St. Luke’s.  This was a very important part of our experience. We remarked and marveled at the many outstanding clergy we had the privilege of meeting virtually and continued to pray that God’s gentle hand would guide us through the process. While we worked diligently and methodically listening to sermons online, receiving recommendations and suggestions, we knew we had time—we didn’t expect to need a new senior pastor for at least another year, maybe longer. However, circumstances changed.

5. Adjust, redirect and follow God’s lead. In December 2010, Kent Millard announced his intentions to retire on June 30, 2011, to spend more time with his family, especially his wife, whose pancreatic cancer was diagnosed that fall. His announcement left us with several options to consider: a short-term interim pastor who could serve for one to six months; a longer-term interim pastor who could serve for one to three years; a shorter-term pastor who could serve for five to seven years; or a permanent pastor who could serve for more than 15 years as had our two most recent previous pastors. We kept our options open but continued to pursue the latter option; as a safety net, however, we invited Linda McCoy, our long-time St. Luke’s pastor of our satellite ministry, The Garden, to serve as an interim from July through September.

We accelerated our process considerably, setting aside hours upon hours to view and listen to sermons. One member of the team sent her family on vacation so she could stay home and watch sermons for several days. Others took vacation days from their busy jobs, got up an hour earlier in the mornings or stayed up an hour later in the evenings. Lunch hours frequently were spent holed up in offices listening to sermons!

Finally, the LTT knew that the members of the congregation were anxious to know of our activities and we desired to help them through the transition by being as open and informative as possible. Accordingly, we spent considerable time providing brief updates to the congregation through presentations on Sunday mornings, information booths between church services, updates on the web site and written correspondence. During the updates, we invited members of the congregation to join us in prayer every Friday at noon from wherever they were.

6. Narrow the list and initiate contact. Narrowing down the list of potential pastors, we asked some members of the congregation, including members of St. Luke’s Governing Board and Staff Parish Relations Committee, to join us in reviewing sermons and web sites on our narrowed list of potential pastors. We invited very candid review and paid very close attention to their comments. Then, with Bishop Coyner’s approval, and in the case of pastors outside of Indiana with Bishop Coyner securing permission of other bishops, we began having phone conversations with some of the potential pastors. We prepared detailed lists of questions and even followed a script, being careful to say the same things to each potential pastor about St. Luke’s, our history, timeline, and next steps.

Making the Final Decision

7. Visit the potential pastors. As the list narrowed even more, the team began traveling to meet some of the potential pastors. Again, we had long lists of detailed questions and even a short questionnaire for the potential pastors to complete, covering subjects like favorite books, facts they would like us to know about them, etc. We took extreme care and thoughtfulness when meeting and explaining to individual members of congregations the purpose of our visits without revealing our interest in their pastors.

8. Bring the potential pastor to visit. After a series of thoughtful meetings with Bishop Coyner, St. Luke’s Staff Parish Relations Committee and Governing Board, the team received approval to invite the final potential pastor to visit Indianapolis and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. Bishop Coyner paved the way by first contacting the bishop in the potential pastor’s conference and by then speaking directly to that pastor. Then the team contacted the pastor and extended the invitation to come to Indianapolis. During the visit, the potential pastor met with Bishop Coyner and his Cabinet, and then he met with several members of the congregation, clergy, staff leaders, Staff Parish Relations Committee and the Governing Board. A team member was with the potential pastor during each step of the visit.

9. Don’t forget the family. Extra care and consideration were given to the potential pastor’s family, which included high-school age children. We understood clearly that if the family said no, the transition wasn’t going to happen as we hoped it would. We also understood that, even if the family said yes, it would be a challenging transition for them, leaving friends, a championship soccer team and successful leadership in the school orchestra. As a result of these issues, the family visited Indianapolis, toured neighborhoods and area schools to determine livability and likability. (The team admits to pulling out the stops, and a few strings, in order to encourage the family about life in Indianapolis. We arranged for a pace car from the Indianapolis 500 race to pick up the children and drive them around the city, and for the principal, soccer coach, and orchestra director of the prospective high school to greet the family in the school lobby!)

10. A smooth transition. A large measure of the successful transition we experienced must be attributed to our out-going pastor, who had a deep desire for the transition to go well. We had several celebratory events for him that included speeches, gifts, and other expressions of gratitude. On several occasions from the pulpit, Kent described having met the new senior pastor and embraced him as his own pastor.

Likewise, a large measure of the successful transition must be attributed to our new senior pastor. As noted above, Rob’s first sermon, during which he used a pair of Kent’s shoes as a visual aid, was received by standing ovations at all three services. But the transition doesn’t stop with the first Sunday. Now, we are engaged in a large number of small group meetings during which Rob is asking members of the congregation a series of questions to get to know us better. He also is showing considerable strength and leadership by not responding too early to questions about new things he plans to do at St. Luke’s. That will take time to determine.

Every church’s pastoral search and transition is unique—St. Luke’s United Methodist identity requires involvement of bishops and such that congregational polities would not, and it is a large congregation, enabling us to have a wider search pool than many smaller United Methodist churches would. Nonetheless, many of the steps outlined above are relevant to any church of any size: Working with the proper denominational or other administrative channels is essential for such sensitive issues as these. (Imagine the tumult of a church inadvertently finding out its pastor is considering leaving, or a pastor hearing major news through the grapevine rather than directly.) It also helps to start early and to give this process plenty of time. The most important aspect of our process was prayer. We invited God into the process and turned it over to God, again and again and again.

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