Let Them Down With Grace: Rejection Etiquette for Church Search Committees

By Rebekah Bell

Church search committees undertake a Herculean task – determining who God has called to fill an empty ministry position within their worship community. This sacred process has infinite rewards. Search committees participate directly in the movement of God among their people. They get to see miracles and watch as God designs the pathway of the one He has called.

However, being part of a church search committee does come with some difficult and awkward drawbacks. Because for every minister selected to fill a ministry position, there are countless others who must be told they are not the right fit.

While it is true that God is ultimately the One who calls any minister to any church, human foibles can and will disrupt the process. The church is Christ’s bride, but it is a sinful and imperfect bride. When serving on a church search committee, church members must remain humble and remember that just because they are chosen to help select their church’s next minister, they do not get to play God in the life of their church. Perhaps most important of all, search committee members must remember that they are representatives of Christ to any and all ministry candidates that pass through the process. And as representatives of Christ, search committee members must treat all ministry candidates with the love and respect Christ demands of His followers. Likewise, search committee members must remember that there is no such thing as a perfect minister.

Too often, in their earnest desire to find a person of Godly character to fill a role at their church, search committees can resort to being harsh and insensitive to the ministry candidates they encounter. People forget that ministry candidates are people too, and being called to ministry does not mean that a person does not deserve grace and the same professional demeanor that any other job candidate deserves from a hiring party.

Church search committees should determine their processes and filter their actions through the eyes of every minister they interview. Keep in mind that potential ministers put a lot out in the open before a church search committee. Unlike other professions, where job candidates put only their professional selves on the line in hopes of being hired, ministry candidates share intimate details of their personal and spiritual lives with complete strangers during the hiring process. These personal details are gifts that should not be exploited, whether or not your church decides to move forward with hiring a ministry candidate. Not only is the hiring process for ministry positions deeply personal, it is also a lengthy process. It is not uncommon for a minister to go through the hiring process for three to six months. Sometimes longer.

Informing ministry candidates that they are no longer being considered for a position is inevitable. But it is a task that should be handled with delicacy. Not necessarily for the sake of the feelings of the one who is rejected, but for the sake of the Christ whom the search committee represents. When being turned down from a position, ministry candidates deserve your respect and gratitude for their time and vulnerability.

Having been a ministry candidate who was suddenly informed that I was no longer a candidate for a position with no warning and no explanation, I have compiled a list of 5 tips for turning down ministry candidates with grace and in a way that does not sour a church’s witness. Consider it a crash course in search committee “etiquette.”

  • Keep All Ministry Candidates Informed Throughout the Entire Process

The first step to letting someone down gently takes place before a search committee has even decided to rule a candidate out. Too often, church search committees feel that they must be constantly only pleasant, nice, and positive when interacting with ministry candidates. While those are not necessarily bad things, “niceness” should not get in the way of honesty or else it becomes something akin to “leading a ministry candidate on.” Be up front with every ministry candidate about how many other candidates you are speaking with and where they stand in regard to how seriously the search committee is considering them.  That way a person is not taken by surprise when they get an email or have a meeting where they are told they are no longer a candidate. Remember, a ministry candidate is at the end of the day applying for a job that impacts their livelihood. Ministry candidates have bills to pay and families to support just like anyone else. If a candidate is not being seriously considered, they deserve to know that so that they have the opportunity to continue applying to other churches where God might be calling them.

  • Always, Always, Always Give A Reason

The imagination can be a cruel thing. When I was turned down from a ministry position, I imagined all sorts of awful reasons why I may have been rejected. Needless to say, the church who cut me from the selection process did not give me a reason why this was the case. When a person shares so much of their lives with you in the interview process, they deserve to be told why they are not a good fit for your church. Avoid pat answers and over-spiritualizing your response. “We just think God is pushing us in a different direction” is often a cop-out answer. While it may be the case that God is pushing you in a different collection, explain to the applicant WHY you sense that God is leading you differently.

  • Let Them Down In Person

This becomes more and more crucial the further along a person is in the hiring process. If a person makes it through several rounds of cuts and has had multiple interviews and meetings with the search committee, has visited your church and taken a tour, has talked at length with you about moving their family and finding a place to live where your church is located, this person absolutely deserves more than an email or text message informing them that they are no longer being considered. Having an in-person meeting to inform someone they are no longer a candidate is certainly not a pleasant task, but it is the right thing to do. Before the meeting, be sure the person has some sense of what to expect from the meeting. Do not take a person by surprise. Be gentle, be gracious, but be honest.

  • Wish Them Well

Just because a person is not the right fit for your church does not mean that God has not called them elsewhere. Be sure to emphasize this with those candidates that you turn down. Pray with them. Wish them well on their journey to find God’s place for them. They are not a bad minister just because they are not your minister.

  • Thank Them

It may seem odd to thank a person who you have interviewed and considered for a job position, but remember, ministry candidates put a lot of themselves into the hiring process. Thank this person for sharing all they have with you. Thank them for being patient with you. Thank them for considering you, too. When it comes to hiring a minister, it is not just the search committee that is doing the searching. The minister is also getting a sense of the church and the people there to see whether or not God may be calling them to your church. Be humble and thankful that your church was being considered by this person as well.

Sadly, many church search committees fail to treat their ministry candidates with dignity and respect. Together, the Church can commit to changing this reputation and behaving like Christ toward all people they meet – ministry candidates included.

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