4 perils of the internal candidate

June 10, 2017 | by Brian Thorstad

The senior pastor resigns and before anyone can say “awkward!” the associate pastor lets it be known that he wants the job. The associate pastor is an internal candidate, and there are some unique perils involved with his candidacy. 

Peril #1 – The internal candidate who is eventually chosen for the position may be unable to lead effectively because of the emotional whiplash created by his changed position. He may have grown up in the church, or he may have come to the church years earlier as a wild and crazy youth pastor, swallowing goldfish and playing football with raw chickens. Now he wants to be viewed as the “senior pastor.” Really?

Besides that, previously he was “buddy” to some in the church who were his peers. Now, after his “battlefield promotion,” they are expected to see him as the church’s leader. That’s emotional whiplash. (This is the opposite of calling an “expert,” defined as someone from more than fifty miles away.)

Peril #2 – The internal candidate may become an icon for a faction in the church. To some, he may represent contemporary music, or a different kind of evangelism, or a different style of preaching. Without intending it, the candidate can become a divisive figure.

It is actually common for the pastoral search process to bring such issues to light. But it’s far better if the candidacy of an outside candidate (not an inside candidate) is the cause of such an unhappy, but important, discovery.

Peril #3 – The internal candidate may not be considered in an honest and evenhanded way. Those who love him and want him for the job will likely say so openly. Those who love him but don’t think he’s the right person for the job will be unlikely to speak up, not wanting to hurt his feelings. 

Those who don’t like him at all will likely be afraid to speak their minds in fear of what will happen to themselves if the internal candidate becomes the senior pastor.

Peril #4 – Savvy external candidates for the senior pastor position will not consider churches which have rejected internal candidates on the staff.  Pastors who have been around the block a few times know that all too often, rejected internal candidates do not make good pastoral associates.  Even if they behave perfectly, their supporters frequently behave badly.

Have you had the experience of being an internal candidate? Have you been a part of a congregation which has had one or more internal candidates? How did it work out? 

I once made a fairly healthy transition from an associate pastor role to the solo pastor role. (There was some emotional whiplash, but we got past it without major repercussions.) Looking back, I attribute the good transition, in part, to the fact that I did not seek the solo pastor position. I didn’t enlist; I was drafted.

More realistically, the good transition probably had more to do with the grace of God than to my, or my church’s, wisdom. 

Next time, I will suggest a rather radical step which could be taken by church boards to prevent internal candidacy disasters.


Topics: Administration, Commentary, Conflict, Consulting, Leadership, Ministry



Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.

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