Reducing the Number of Pastor-Congregation Mismatches

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Perhaps the most impactful task for bishops and superintendents is matching pastors and congregations through the appointive process. Despite their best efforts, some matches do not work. Lovett Weems suggests one way to learn from these situations to reduce the number of such mismatches.


Bishops and cabinets are now in that crucial time of matching the gifts of pastors with the needs and opportunities of congregations. They know that countless lives are affected by these decisions and, most importantly, the mission of the church will be helped or hindered based on their work.

There are other ramifications. Cabinets know how much of their time and emotional energy is drained when the matches don’t fit. Congregations grow frustrated when a system that should serve them well doesn’t appear to do so. And we know from recent research the toll of mismatches on the health of pastors and their families.

A denominational task force and subsequent work by Wespath have identified several factors that are highly correlated with clergy health, differentiating those who are healthy from those who are unhealthy. Four relate to placement issues.

  • Job satisfaction — appointments that are not good matches
  • Relationship with congregation — disconnect over expectations and roles
  • Stressors of the appointment process — feeling disconnected and resentful
  • Appointment changes and relocation — frequency, social and emotional disruption

Bishops and cabinets are well aware of the challenges of accomplishing good matches with the array of competing values in the mix, as well as the circumstances of the clergy and churches. Guaranteed appointments for clergy and the expectation that every church will receive a pastor do not help. Appointment-making is far more challenging than it was a generation ago. Practices that once were sufficient are no longer adequate for the range of considerations that contemporary bishops and superintendents must consider, for example:

  • Employment, educational, or personal needs of spouse
  • Desire to live in a particular place (Young adults today will often choose where they want to live before looking for a job.)
  • Needs and circumstances of children

The introduction of mandatory consultation into the appointive process formalized what the wisest bishops and superintendents had practiced for years, even in times when the formal process was hidden and authoritarian. The best appointments have always been made when the gifts of clergy and the needs of congregations were known and applied. But even the best efforts of cabinets sometimes yield unforeseen results.

Tracking and learning from mismatches

Some of the most effective bishops and cabinets do the best job of paying close attention to a range of indicators. Almost all cabinets have a member who would be good at organizing an annual review of clergy-congregation matches that are not working out as hoped. That process might include:

  • Select a time to review the previous round of placements (probably between six months and one year after the new pastor begins).
  • Each superintendent would identify a list of matches within the district that do not seem to be working–including for each the factors and examples of why the match is not working for pastor and congregation. One criterion for inclusion on the list would be if the superintendent is clear that, based on what they know now, the appointment should not have been made.

This gives the cabinet an informational base for their study. The cabinet review of these apparent mismatches would have two goals:

  • Are there patterns from which we can learn? Are there clues that will help lower the number of mismatches in the coming year?
  • Do any of these circumstances require some type of intervention in terms of assistance or a pastoral change?

No need for blame

As with any tracking system, the goal is to learn. There is no need to spend precious energy on judgment and blame. It is rare for a pastor to avoid at least one appointment where the match just did not work. Often mismatches come to a pastor who has been well-received and fruitful in a previous setting. I remember once in Mississippi when three pastors moved one year after each had served six to eight years at their previous churches and could have stayed longer. All three struggled in their new assignments due to a variety of factors. They were gifted enough to work through the issues and serve effectively, but it was hard to face such challenging struggles for the first time in their ministries.

Context matters. It is not enough to say that someone is a good pastoral leader. The appropriate question is whether good pastoral leadership is taking place where they are now. Winston Churchill was a great leader but not always. There were times when Churchill exercised great leadership and times when he did not. Clergy and congregation mismatches are inevitable because no one pastor can be effective in all settings or in a particular chapter of their ministries. There is a place for grace and understanding, but there is also the need to learn all we can about the signs that might inform appointment-making to reduce the frequency of such mismatches.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.