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I recently served on the pastoral search committee at my church. An initial task for our team was to determine what kind of person the congregation wanted as a pastor. The questions on past congregational surveys surprised me. Our congregation had been asked about their comfort level with different scenarios in categories such as marital status, age, first language, and disability. There was no ill intent in these questions, but what the congregation didn’t know was that you simply can’t discriminate against potential employees based on any of these categories without a very good reason.

As churches consider selection criteria for leadership candidates, they should consider the value of having a diverse leadership team. Many churches look for candidates who are squeaky-clean, middle-aged or older, and married (preferably with children). They also seem to favor those who speak English well and understand the congregational culture. A quick review of biblical examples, though, shows us that God didn’t use the same criteria to choose leaders. When considering the 8-year-old king (2 Chron. 34:1) and the fierce female judge (Judges 4:4), it’s safe to say that the church often has much more stringent standards for leaders than God did. Churches should take a close look at their leaders and ask themselves: Are we as diverse and inclusive as we can be, allowing us to draw and retain a diverse congregation? Or do we keep hiring the same kinds of people because it’s familiar and comfortable?

Still, there might be times when you have to be selective. Is there a way for a congregation to legally and ethically rule out candidates based on certain demographics? Absolutely. Allow me to give you three strategies.

  1. You must determine what candidate criteria are actually required for a pastor to effectively do their job. Because a pastor will minister to a Christian Reformed congregation, your church has every right to hire only pastors ordained in the Christian Reformed Church. And because the position involves preaching, pastoring, and mentorship, ability and language requirements should be among the selection criteria.
  2. You must clearly state legitimate selection criteria when advertising a position. Legitimate criteria are called BFORs, or “bona fide occupational reasons,” and they’re just what they sound like. If you have a genuine reason to be selective based on the requirements of the role, the law protects your ability to do so. A church can’t just “know” it has reasons. The job description needs to provide a clear explanation of the selection criteria and the required tasks that explain their purpose.
  3. You must be up front and transparent about the job description and BFORs before candidates apply. This is of particular importance when considering the denomination’s recent human sexuality report and its impact on your leadership criteria. While it might be somewhat painful for a candidate to realize they don’t qualify based on their beliefs, identity, ability, or some other status, it’s much easier for everyone if the candidates determine this on their own rather than being told they don’t qualify after they’ve applied.

If the application and hiring process isn’t done well, churches are at risk of consequences such as negative press and discrimination lawsuits. More importantly, churches might be hurting interested candidates. Churches must demonstrate that they are safe, caring, and inclusive places for the wonderfully diverse people that God created. When we must exclude, we must also demonstrate sensitivity, both to protect the church and those who are thinking about joining us.

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