Concerning God’s Will in the Pastor Search Process: for pastors and churches

I remember coming out of Seminary and looking to place my resume. I was serving in a youth ministry position and believed God wanted me to pursue the position of a lead or teaching pastor. I asked this question, “God, where do you want me to go?” It’s more than only those looking to find a position in ministry. No matter our pursuit, those who care about what God wants always ask this question and this answer is the same.

I consulted my friend, Google, and found many articles about how churches can look for pastors, what to include or exclude when catering a pastoral resume, what to look for in a church, what churches ought to look for in a perspective pastor, and many more articles about the pastoral search process. I found some things that pastors ought to ask search teams and what search teams ought to ask candidates. Frustration surfaced. I had much opportunity. Many calls. A few offers. As a candidate, I asked where that particular church was that God would send me. I am sure that the churches were asking what particular pastor God had for them. There were no answers. Are we left to guess the will of God? Are we able to make this discernment? The heart deceives; isn’t that what Jeremiah prophesied (17:9)? Lord, where do I go? I beg you to send, and to do so clearly!

The church

The first mistake I think we’ve made, and why an answer to this question is so difficult to find, is that we have no idea how God raises pastors. He does not raise pastors in seminary (I know, shocker). Neither does He raise up people who have rejected the church to be pastors because they are unsatisfied or upset with the way that they perceive local churches to be. I will say this, if you are convinced that you should be a pastor because you have a better way of doing things or because you are convinced that you will bring the reforms you think will honor God, please stop sending your resume out to churches. From where does God raise pastors for His church?

Read Acts 11:19-26:

Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. Then the report about them was heard by the church that was at Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch. When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with a firm resolve of the heart, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And large numbers of people were added to the Lord. Then he went to Tarsus to search for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.

Persecution drove those who followed Christ out of Jerusalem and across the countryside. As the people went, they were talking about Christ and preaching Jesus. This meant that the word was being preached. People were responding to the word being preached by following Jesus. This was before a church gathered in Antioch.

When a church did gather, as a result of people responding to the word being preached, Paul and Barnabas taught them for a whole year.

Now, look at Acts 13, and read verses 1-3. Here, I will include them for you as well:

In the church that was at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.” Then after they had fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them off.

Within four years, from within the new local church, there were prophets and teachers (elders). There are two things we see when God is working things together for His glory in the church. He brings people from within the church and matures them, qualifying them for service as elders. He does this on the level of the universal church. Paul and Barnabas came from a different location to instruct the believers in Antioch, and God raised up elders from within the church at Antioch. He did this in a relatively short period of time. God brings elders from different locations, and He raises elders from the midst of the people. God is operating on a scale that is bigger than the local church. Elders will always come from those who are within and actively engaged with the universal church.

Furthermore, we see that elders are not products of our seminaries. They are products of healthy local churches where proper discipleship is taking place. If anyone is searching for a church to pastor but is not actively involved in the universal church (and really not participating on the local church level), he is not a pastor or elder or to be an instructor in the true church.

Churches raise pastors who raise churches, and God is the one working that discipleship together for His glory. God has the right to place any pastor in any church for His glory and the benefit of His people. The church is to be raising up elders by God’s grace for God to move and do with as He wills.

Discerning God’s will

The question still beckons, Lord, where do I go? I beg you to send, and to do so clearly! Lord, who will come and serve as Your pastor in this local church?

Scripture gives some very clear direction on discerning the will of God. First, I’d like to ask about some tendencies we have, as people, when trying to discern His will. We do two things. We look for signs to try and confirm what we are thinking. We trust our intuition or the intuition of others. Doing either of these things is entirely unbiblical. Looking for signs is a component of eastern mystic or folk religions. Trusting human intuition is a component of Buddhism and Atheism. Both concepts have permeated our culture and have pervaded the walls of the organized church, but both are unbiblical.

We turn to Romans 12:1-2, and read this:

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

From this, we learn some things about God’s will.

First, it is to be discerned. That is mental work for the person wanting to know God’s will. It is a struggle. It was designed to be so that we might be humbled (Romans 12:3). Furthermore, God is the one who distributes faith according to His own will (also Romans 12:3). The fact that discerning God’s will is so difficult should have a humbling effect in our lives. It’s not about what I want or feel or what is confirmed by some sign that I have perceived. It is about what God wants and God is the one who provides the faith needed to discern His will. I don’t even have the ability to discern the very will of God. That is humbling. It is designed to be humbling. That is why we are wrong all of the time when we think God’s will is one thing, but something entirely different happens. It frustrates us. It is humbling. The pastor search is no different. It is humbling for us. God’s will be done!

Second, we participate in the discerning of God’s will by being transformed by the renewing our minds. Notice that we are not the active agent in this process. We are the ones being transformed, not transforming. This means that we are not even the ones actively renewing our minds. Our minds are being renewed. This fact is further demonstrated when we think about the fact that it is only by the mercies of God that we can present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (v. 1). We are humbled through this process called sanctification. God, by transforming us by the renewing of our minds, brings us into His will. The whole process is designed to humble people and exalt God.

Third, the pastor search process will not be like the process to fill any worldly position. When we, by God’s mercy, present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, we are instructed not to conform any longer to the patterns of this world.

Pastors looking for a church

Here is what this means for pastors who are looking for a church. First, it means that the process isn’t about you. Whether you will be established as an elder in your current place of service or moved by God to another locale, our focus is not to be the position. It is to be God. God’s will is worked out in us by this process of sanctification, then we pursue God. We pursue knowing God more. Even though we distribute our resumes to different churches, we are to concern ourselves with the relationship God has brought us into with Himself. He takes care of the details. Our concern is the pursuit of Christ, which includes doctrinal accuracy and spiritual health. We waste our time worrying about gaining a position according to our own desires.

Churches looking for a pastor

For local churches looking for a pastor, the process isn’t about you either. Whether you will establish an elder that God has raised from within your body or call someone from a different locale, our focus is not to be filling a position. It is to be God. God’s will is worked out in us by this process of sanctification, then we pursue God. We pursue knowing God more. Even though we have received resumes from different candidates, we are to concern ourselves with the relationship God has brought us into with Himself. He takes care of the details. Our concern is the pursuit of Christ, which includes doctrinal accuracy and spiritual health. We waste our time worrying about filling a position according to our own desires.

Who will pastor?

We have addressed two basic principles, but we still have not answered the question. Perhaps this is why no one has really answered it (at least not that I found). Lord, where do I go? I beg you to send, and to do so clearly! Lord, who will come and serve as Your pastor in this local church?

As we put the pieces of this puzzle together, we examine the life of Paul. Romans 1:13,

Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles.

Paul made many plans. God closed the doors that He did not want Paul to walk through at any given time. He opened the doors that Paul would walk through. A correct understanding of God’s sovereignty as He works all things together (Romans 8:28) leads to an understanding of the way God works together opportunity. There is not a place that I have been that God wasn’t working together for His glory and the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I will always be exactly where God places me. There are no accidents and this process is about God, not me. That is the way God works, and the process humbles us while exalting Him. We can read through Scripture and see God always working things out this way.

When God works things together, we know because they work together. When God is not working things together, we know because they don’t work together. To the pastor who is looking for a church, stop worrying. Stop getting so depressed because God hasn’t placed you. He works things together for His glory and your good. To the church that is looking for a pastor (elder), stop worrying. Stop getting so frustrated because you can’t find a guy that ‘fits.’

Instead, pastors looking for churches should pursue Christ and sound doctrine. Answer questions honestly in interviews. Your establishment in a church is not about you trying to earn a job. God operates entirely by grace, remember? If you feel so inclined or don’t know what God wants, see if a healthy church will establish you as a church planter in Biblical fashion. If you can’t get that to work out, then God hasn’t opened that door either. That is the lesson we learn from Paul. Pursue Christ, pursue the work of the Gospel in every possible avenue. God will prevent you from being where He is not going to place you and will place you exactly where He decides you will be. Don’t get stressed thinking that you can somehow ruin or step outside of God’s will. This is the process for your sanctification and mine.

Churches looking for pastors, pursue Christ. Be sure you are doctrinally sound and looking for a pastor in Biblical manner. Don’t be so concerned about finding the right fit. Don’t put so many limitations on God based on your preferences. God has a pastor that He will place. Measure the candidates according to God’s word, not your age restriction or preferred personality type or stance on second-tier issues. Pursue Christ. Strive to be a genuine, Biblical church. God works out the details. This is the process for your sanctification and mine.

We overcomplicate things. This process reveals that every pastor and every church body is insufficient. Incoming pastors will never be able to fill someone else’s shoes. Churches will not be exactly like what we want. We make it about us, but it is God who works all things together. Christ is the one who is all-sufficient, not the incoming pastor or the church body.

The Scriptures reveal to us the sovereignty of God in the pastor search process for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Often the way we approach pastor searches from both sides tries to place either the pastor or the church in the place of sovereign. That is what makes it so stressful and so worrisome. It is not wrong to ask good questions and to evaluate and to discern the will of God. In fact, we should. We simply remember that the process of discerning God’s will is designed for our humility and the exaltation of Christ. Embrace God’s process, and I will also.

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