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Headhunters help churches find pastors, staff

Faith & Family

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Garry Clemmer didn't want to go through the hassle again. Five years after an internal search to find a lead pastor for Ecclesia Hollywood, a non-denominational Christian church meeting in a purple-hued edifice visible from Santa Monica Boulevard, the group still needed to find a permanent replacement.

So Clemmer, the congregation's executive pastor, led the effort to hire a headhunter.

While using executive search firms — colloquially known as "headhunters" — is a common practice among Fortune 500 companies and other firms seeking to fill top positions, it's a fairly recent practice among churches in which prospective pastors aren't supplied through a denomination. These churches are often independent bodies, or are in denominations with a "congregational" governance structure where a local assembly makes hiring decisions.

When Ecclesia Hollywood's founding pastor, a film director who took on the position in addition to his day job, left in 2009, Clemmer said the do-it-yourself route was arduous, attracting a pile of applications from inexperienced candidates.

"The sheer number of applications taxes a lay committee," Clemmer said, "and it's hard to vet them all. We could only go through a certain number of applications."

Using a search firm enabled Ecclesia Hollywood to zero in on what they wanted, Clemmer said: someone with at least five years experience to shepherd a church that draws as many as 800 worshippers on a Sunday and a regular attendance around 280.

"In order to take advantage of all the (potential) applicants out there," Clemmer said, "we just thought, it makes sense to go with someone who does this every day."

Ecclesia Hollywood leaders interviewed three search firms and settled on Vanderbloemen Search Group of Houston.

"Churches hire us to help determine who their new pastor should be. It's akin to a heart transplant: A church (sometimes) needs to go outside their body to find someone to come inside the body and run all the major systems," said William Vanderbloemen, who heads the firm.

A search firm can be "an objective third party" for a church seeking a new leader, he said. Continuing his transplant analogy, Vanderbloemen said while it's important to "find a list of potential donors," or candidates, "the real art is … doing the tissue match," identifying a candidate who'll fit a congregation's personality.

Finding replacements

Pastoral turnover is a continuing issue for churches. Thirteen percent of those holding "senior pastor" positions 10 years ago are not in those same jobs today, according to a recent survey from the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Missions Board, conducted by LifeWay Research. Among evangelical pastors, survey responses indicating "I'd taken the church as far as I could" and "my family needed a change" were cited as the top two reasons for departing, with "conflict in the church" coming in third.

"I think pastoring, which is basically leading a group of volunteers who are functionally your boss, is like herding cats," said Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist pastor and president of LifeWay Research. While he believes "some of the horror stories" about the number of pastors leaving the profession, he estimates that 250 pastors a month leave their positions.

Vanderbloemen said the job is very stressful while also rewarding. "Ministry can seem Sisyphean; it's the greatest job on the planet, and it's the toughest job on the planet," he said.

Departures can stun congregations, particularly if sudden. For example, Tullian Tchividjian, Billy Graham's grandson, quickly departed Florida's Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale after confessing an affair. The recent hacking of AshleyMadison.com, an online site for married people seeking affairs, caused "at least 400 church leaders" to leave their positions after being found in the firm's subscriber database, Stetzer wrote at christianitytoday.com.

Whether or not a crisis precipitates a departure, many churches lack a succession plan, according to experts in the field. The late Oral Roberts, the Pentecostal televangelist who built a Christian university, once told a reporter, "Success without a successor is failure."

The emergency plan, Vanderbloemen said, needs to identify who will inform the congregants, who will preach the following Sunday and a list of guest speakers for succeeding worship services.

"A steady percentage of our searches are on the heels of that kind of situation," Vanderbloemen said.

A former senior pastor of the 5,000-member First Presbyterian Church of Houston, that city's oldest congregation, Vanderbloemen said an executive search firm can identify those who can handle the job. "You know what the life is like, you understand that Monday is always going to be a depressing day," he said. "There are a thousand little idiosyncracies in pastoral ministry."

Finding the right fit

In May 2014, Lowell Linden, senior pastor of the First Congregational Church of Redlands, California, told his congregation he would retire after 38 years leading that congregation.

"I’m 76 years old — that’s why," Linden told the local Highland Community News when asked the reason for his announcement. "It’s just time."

While another pastor on staff filled in, Zachary Taylor, a professional fundraiser who also is the church council moderator, supported enlisting outside help to find a permanent replacement. Adding to the challenge of finding a successor to a 38-year pastorate, he said, several other Redlands-area churches were looking for senior pastors at the same time.

Neil Waner, another search committee member who also serves on the Redlands School Board, added that a headhunter could cast a wider net for prospects. The church's location in Southern California's Inland Empire — an hour or two from the ocean, but a more affordable place to live — would likely be a draw, and "since we could appeal to people across the country, we could probably attract talent at a national level" using professional help.

First Congregational selected FaithSearch Partners, also based in Houston, and worked with Jeff Jernigan, an ordained pastor who heads the firm's ministry team.

For recruiters, Jernigan said, the biggest challenge is creating a profile of the church that not only describes the job, the congregation's goals and its place in the community, but also lets a candidate "read between the lines of who this individual needs to be in terms of their talent, skills, calling, values, maturity and character."

Should a congregation go it alone, Jernigan said, two things might happen. "They'll find someone within three or four months that may be selected prematurely and not work out at some point, or they might take eight to 10 months to get it done because the (search) committee doesn't have the same focus and expertise."

Vanderbloemen estimates a church using a search firm can cut the time to find a new pastor by about half. But that "doesn't mean we're done in a week," he added. "The most common thing people tell us is, 'We know we need to get this right,'" which can take some time, he said.

As the year-long search in Redlands progressed, Jernigan reached out to Steven Jay Davis, an experienced pastor who, it turned out, "pined to get back into the pastoral ministry" from his position in development for a Christian nonprofit.

"I think one of the things Jeff and FaithSearch provided for the congregation was an opportunity for them to do an effective self-assessment and get a full sense of who they were as a congregation and where they needed to head as a search," said Davis, now several months into his role at First Congregational.

Davis said he's happy with the move. "I pinch myself every day. I'm so thankful the Lord has guided us here, and I feel just so blessed to be in an area that has the needs that I can fulfill."

A new trend?

While there is clearly a demand for search firms to fill vacancies in the ministry, it's unclear whether enlisting headhunters will become a new pattern for independent congregations.

"Executive search for churches is a fairly new idea," Vanderbloemen said. "The church has a pretty steady pattern of adopting things that happen in the non-church world a little later than anybody else."

Employing a recruiter makes sense, First Congregational Church's Tucker said, "unless you have an human resources expert or search expert sitting in one of the pews in your church."

Tucker said that although hiring outside help "was not an inexpensive venture, we felt strongly this was an investment." While not disclosing specific numbers, Vanderbloemen said pastoral search firms are generally paid a percentage of the salary a new pastor would receive.

That fee can often be covered thanks to the stability a permanent pastor can bring. "There's a difference in offerings when you have a pastor and (when) you don't," Vanderbloemen explained, "not to mention the spiritual difference in a congregation."

That argues, he said, for succession planning and perhaps the use of a recruiter.

"It doesn't matter the size of the church, every single pastor is an interim pastor, unless they run it into the ground or are here when Jesus returns," Vanderbloemen said. "Someone's going to follow them, and it's good to get people talking."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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