the shape of leadership

Should Churches Go Outside to Fill Leadership Positions or Hire from Within?

One issue, two perspectives

Influence Magazine on May 22, 2018

Hiring new staff can be the greatest risk your church takes and the best reward it receives. When filling a leadership position, we generally focus on what’s on the résumé, matching skills to a job description. However, before you start collecting applications, consider for a moment where you begin your search — either from within or exclusively outside your organization.

When it comes to filling the top leadership positions, including senior pastor, where do you turn? Most churches hire from outside, believing a wide search is best for finding the right candidate. But there are some who believe in prioritizing internal candidates. Going with a known commodity eliminates most of the risk, even if it lessens the reward.

In this Perspectives, we look at both sides of the issue. Should a church focus exclusively on outside talent or train replacements from inside the church? As always, no one way is completely right. But as you’ll see, each side has unavoidable positives and negatives. When filling that leadership position in your church, take these factors into account, and apply them to your situation.

Outside Candidates

When filling crucial staff leadership positions, you have to find the best person available. That means you can never limit your search. In fact, starting outside your organization is usually optimal. Any new hire is an opportunity to infuse your church with new passion and fresh perspective.

First, take a look at the culture of your church. When you fill a key leadership position, that’s often a sign the status quo is not working. Filling that position can be a way to improve the overall health of your church through culture shift. A new person on board can help motivate the team in new directions with renewed passion. Depending on the level of leadership you’re hiring, this can almost feel like a reset for the entire team — in a good way.

The new ideas an outsider brings to the team can positively affect those around them. Sometimes church staffs suffer stagnation. Without new personnel from outside, your staff runs the risk of becoming insular. Repeatedly following the same patterns over time takes its toll. A new hire from outside will bring fresh ideas as well as new attitudes.

The next season of your church may require finding someone who’s “been there” before. When God takes you into new areas of ministry, it’s usually into uncharted waters. Filling a ministry position with an outside candidate who has been where you’re going will give your church bearing and direction. It’s a way to reduce blind spots. They’re ready for the unexpected just ahead because they’ve lived it.

The main criticism of going outside for a new hire is that it could disrupt your team’s chemistry. You know where everyone on staff currently stands with each other, and you’ve likely addressed any concerns about discord. Your staff works well as a team. Why add a new element that could break its stride?

But it’s never a given that transitioning from within will go smoothly. In fact, internal hires and promotions often lead to competition or envy. It also creates leadership vacuums, which necessitates backfilling crucial roles. You also run the risk of elevating a person beyond their level of competency. If you look only inside, you may be tempted to promote for the sake of promotion rather than leaving people in places of their natural fit.

Before you start collecting applications, consider where you will begin your search.

The best candidate isn’t always the one with the most attractive skillset. Ability is important, but fit is also key. Using a search committee allows you to focus on the team’s chemistry while they zero in on the best applicant.

Your next key leadership hire will likely make a large impact. Don’t limit your search. Minimize distractions by focusing on the best candidates available. And listen to God as He directs the right person to your church or ministry.

Internal Candidates

If you need someone to fill a key leadership role on your staff, you probably know them. An employee search should begin with your staff. You’ve seen them minister with a high level of excellence, you’ve watched them interact with the rest of the team easily, and you’ve followed them enough to know the incredible character they possess.

Internal candidates should receive priority over external applicants. You’re already aware of their competency, chemistry, and character. Now you can reward them with a promotion to a key leadership position.

Hiring from within safeguards the culture you’ve been developing. Maintaining the flow, energy and balance is important to the momentum of a growing church. Keeping your team intact means keeping the culture intact as well.

The best way to make sure your internal search for leadership runs smoothly is by instituting a succession plan. This concept is usually set in place for passing the baton from one senior pastor to the next. However, you can replicate the principle for any staff position.

Succession planning is leadership reproduction. You hired your staff because you saw potential in them. Now, take advantage of that by grooming them for their next step in God’s plan. Ask yourself this question: Am I creating new leaders or just cycling through followers?

A leadership pipeline is essential for successful succession. Does your structure allow team members to stretch beyond their current roles? Are you matching up younger members with mentors to guide them? These are just two steps in starting that pipeline.

It’s not about creating a ladder for your staff to climb but developing a pathway for them to progress along. Begin with younger staff and key volunteers. Have open conversations about personal goals and ministry ambitions. Invest in their lives through training and partnership to help achieve their dreams.

A leadership pipeline will ensure you retain the leaders you already have. It’s much easier to develop existing staff who are already on board with the vision of the church than to hire from outside and hope they fit into your model. Oftentimes, that’s like trying to push a square peg through a round hole.

Succession planning is also leadership replacement. Good leaders raise up other leaders, but great leaders raise up their replacements. Having someone in the wings ready to take the reins makes for a smooth transition, no matter the post. It can also alleviate stress in the event staff members leave without notice.

When filling a position, always search for the best candidate. But make sure your first look is within; the person you are looking for may already be there.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 edition of Influence magazine.


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