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What Do Lay People Want in Pastors?
Answers from Lay Search Committee Chairs and Regional Judicatory Leaders

by Adair T. Lummis

In What Do Lay People Want in Pastors?, Adair Lummis examines
the criteria churches use in selecting their pastors, working through
lay search committees and regional judicatory executives. Lummis finds
that, as a practical matter, pastoral searches are becoming an option
only for larger churches, usually in urban areas, that can afford to pay
a full-time salary. Otherwise, finding any trained pastor is a growing
problem across virtually all denominations, particularly for small rural

In the first part of her paper, Lummis draws upon interviews with lay
leaders and judicatory executives to outline the specific pastoral qualities
sought by lay search committees in churches that can provide full clergy
salary packages. Generally having active memberships of 200 or more, these
churches are quite discriminating, with lay leaders often relying heavily
on their own experiences with a previous pastor or two. Regional leaders
often believe search committees’ final selections are emotionally biased
or arbitrary, but underlying such choices is a "gestalt" of
pastoral attributes.

The following are the criteria Lummis found in her interviews and some
of the implications of those findings:

  • Demonstrated competence and religious authenticity. Search
    committees want pastors who have the ability to do the work required
    and a genuine religious life that brings together both "head and
  • Good preacher and leader of worship. Regional leaders and lay
    leaders differ regarding what constitutes good preaching. Lay leaders
    generally care less than judicatory officials whether the sermon reflects
    careful scholarship and organization and are concerned instead that
    it relates to their own life and engages them personally.
  • Strong spiritual leader. Lay leaders want a pastor with a deep
    commitment to religious beliefs and an ability to inspire spirituality
    in others. But many judicatory executives regard this as problematic
    because of the difficulty of determining who will be a good spiritual
    leader for a particular congregation.
  • Commitment to parish ministry and ability to maintain boundaries.
    Lay members and search committees generally expect their pastor to be
    primarily devoted to ministry and take minimal time for other pursuits.
    This criterion, Lummis suggests, is a key place where lay visions of
    ideal ministry run counter to current thinking among those who counsel
    clergy about the importance of maintaining boundaries and the need to
    find time for other interests.
  • Available, approachable, and warm pastor with good "people
    Regional leaders across denominations cited the pastor’s
    ability to show church members he or she likes and will care for them
    as an essential quality search committees try to find. This quality,
    however, can be situationally specific to the culture of a particular
    church or region.
  • Gender, race, marriage, and sexual orientation of clergy. Lummis
    finds among other things that male gender still remains a criterion
    for most search committees, even in denominations that have ordained
    women for the past fifty years or more. Typically, search committees
    want pastors who are married men with children, under age 40, in good
    health, with more than a decade of experience in ministry. Such criteria
    are often not expressed to regional leaders but remain unspoken just
    beneath the surface, particular in liberal mainline Protestant denominations,
    where lay search committees know it is unacceptable to refuse to accept
    a candidate because of gender, race, or ethnicity.
  • Age, experience and job tenure of the pastor. Laity often want
    a young married pastor as a way to draw in young families, but also
    a pastor with experience. The dramatic increase in older, second-career
    seminarians, however, has changed the relationship between age and experience.
    Rather than having 20-years’ experience, many middle-aged pastors today
    may have just received their M.Div.
  • Consensus builder, lay ministry coach and responsive leader. Lay
    leaders want pastors who are responsive to their concerns, pastors who
    can initiate ideas to revitalize the church, while soliciting opinions
    of members and engaging them in putting ideas into operation.
  • Entrepreneurial evangelists, innovators and transformational reflexive
    This area often presents a disconnect between what churches
    say they want and what they really want. Many say they want a pastor
    to help grow the church but don’t want to undertake or think about the
    necessary changes that will be required.

In the second part of her paper, Lummis looks at the difficulty of recruiting
pastors for small congregations. The issue, she says, is not a clergy
shortage, but a salary shortage. Even with efforts to recruit more "good
pastors" into seminary, fewer congregations are able to pay a full
time salary sufficient to support a pastor and his or her family.

At the same time, many seminary graduates find that their educational
costs have made it financially impossible to consider such positions and
are instead considering other forms or ministry or non-church careers.
Even if pastors are willing to serve part time, it is still difficult
to find a secular job that pays sufficiently, both for clergy and spouse,
and clergy and their families may find such areas socially isolating.
Consequently, regional executives are struggling to find clergy for small,
poor congregations, especially in rural areas.

Churches are addressing the rural clergy shortage in several ways, including
financial supports and incentives, retired clergy, clergy from other denominations,
ordination to less than full clergy status, and the use of laity as pastoral
leaders. Regional leaders’ ingenuity in filling pastoral vacancies in
small congregations with non-seminary educated clergy may cause unintended
results, Lummis warns, potentially reducing the amount of authority national
church and seminary executives can wield over congregations.

Lummis’s report also includes three responses from judicatory executives
and lay leaders.

William Hopgood, a regional minister of the Christian Church (Disciples
of Christ), says the reported criteria generally ring very true. He calls
upon the church to recognize the plight of small churches and to work
for creative ministry for all congregations, regardless of size. He also
offers several suggestions in a time of clergy shortages, including a
campaign to educate laity that good pastoral leadership comes in both
females and males and in all colors.

Anthony Pappas, Area Minister for American Baptist Churches USA of
southeastern Massachusetts, explores the implications of Lummis’s report,
arguing that her findings reflect a lack of spiritual passion and faithfulness
in the local church. He suggests that seminaries should be preparing entrepreneurs
of change, rather than chaplains to the local church.

Timothy G. Turkington, a member of the Staff Parish Relations Committee
at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., offers a layperson's
perspective. He agrees that judicatory officials and laity have different
understandings of the pastor's job, but suggests that congregations should
have a role, at least in part, in defining those duties.

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