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August 8, 2011

Before You Hire, Pick Up the Phone

How one pastor could have easily avoided a hiring mistake.


Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from What They Didn't Teach You in Seminary, a new book by James Emery White (Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011):

I saw him at a church conference. He lit up the stage. He was one of the most electric worship leaders I had ever seen. Young, handsome, talented. I went after him. I had to be a bit discreet—it felt a bit like stealing. He was, after all, serving at another church. But that just added value to his stock, particularly considering the church he was at. So the covert seduction began.

In the end, I got him. I was elated. Buckle your seat belts, church growth world—it’s time for warp speed! I had just nabbed the up-and-coming worship leader at one of the nation’s most prestigious megachurches.

In less than twenty-four months, he had been removed from ministry and placed under church discipline. He eventually left the ministry, and to the best of my knowledge, he has never served in a church since.

Not long afterward, I interacted with the senior pastor of the church from which I had procured my wunderkind. He graciously asked how my new hire had worked out, and I had to sheepishly tell him that, well, he didn’t.

I told him the whole story. After I was done, he said, “I’m not surprised. We had been having issues with him for months. Just before he left, I had entered into some pretty serious conversations with him attempting to confront the very kinds of things you have had to deal with. I was deeply concerned that he went to another church before we could work through anything.”

And then he said words that have haunted me and instructed me ever since:

“Why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?”

Good question. Why didn’t I? It would have saved me so much grief. I didn’t like my answers:

  • Because I thought I was pulling off a coup on another church and getting some top-notch talent, and I didn’t want my effort botched.
  • Because I had quietly bought into the idea of other churches being the competition, and this was just the blood and sweat of the contest.
  • Because I was blinded by the person’s talent and never really considered exploring his character the way I should have.
  • Because I wanted to bottle up that particular church’s success and add it to our own.
  • Because the person in question told me things that were derogatory about the church he was leaving and its leadership and flattered me about the differences my leadership provided in contrast.

So I didn’t call. And no one calls me either.

I have seen individuals at Mecklenburg Community Church who were confronted with character issues and subsequently removed from leadership simply flee to another church.

Within weeks, they are platformed or placed into leadership. I have seen staff who were within a hairsbreadth of being let go for incompetence quickly leverage Meck’s reputation and lobby themselves into a new position at another church.

Why does this happen? Sadly, because other pastors may wrestle with the same dark junk I do. And it’s a darkness akin to generational sin, being passed on to others. A single poor staff hire can devastate most churches, squandering kingdom resources and setting back progress for months if not years. And if the issue at hand is sexual, such as someone engaged in serial affairs, then the damage in allowing them to move to another church is unthinkable. […]

Somebody needs to say it, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how out of synch it is with the culture of church world: pastors and leaders of churches, please call the pastors and leaders of other churches.

When you want to hire one of their staff, call the pastor first. No, they don’t want to lose their key players, but most will tend to be honest about those who aren’t. And most will also welcome a true God-calling of someone away from their church, knowing that it means God has something in store for them as well. And if they work hard to have the person stay and they stay, well, maybe they were supposed to stay! Let’s just openly welcome God into the process and trust him with its outcome.

Call other pastors and leaders when new members come your way—particularly those who spew venom or criticism on their previous church situation—before you fast-track them into leadership or put them on a platform. The other pastor may very well say, “We tried very hard to work with them on some very difficult issues, but in the end, they just fled. The issues remain unresolved. You may be able to serve them and redeem them in ways we could not, but you need to know the cloud under which they left.”

Or they may simply say, to your relief, “Great folks. Hated to see them go. You’ve got some real winners there—you should feel comfortable moving forward with them in any way needed.”

I know the rules about what you can and cannot say regarding employee reference calls, such as things related to background checks and credit history. This isn’t about violating federal guidelines.

Yet the point remains: we must talk to each other.

Why? Because the church matters. Not just your church but every church. If what we are leading truly is the hope of the world, then let’s treat it that way. I think that means it’s worth at least a phone call.

Excerpted from What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary by James Emery White (Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011). Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, White is the author of several books, including Rethinking the Church.

Related Tags: background checks, employment, firing, hiring, office, pastors, staff, Teamwork, volunteers


Another good hiring tip might be that "young" and "handsome" are not job qualifications.

This is precisely why we need an evangelical version of American Idol: to find undiscovered worship leaders with rockin’ talent so pastors won’t be tempted to steal worship leaders from other churches (yes, I’m being facetious). As an aside, we in the pew inevitably experience the disappointing realization that many of our pastors are as competitive as Mac and PC or AT&T and Verizon. Yep, the unseemly turf wars continue to rage behind the scenes of many churches. Competition between pastors is disappointing, but those of us in the pew don’t have to play along. Sure, there’s probably nothing inappropriate with cultural and doctrinal differences between the various flavors of Christianity, but a spirit of outright competition crosses the line into something unhealthy. From my perspective, the church has some serious problems with the way it recruits and fills positions. Mr. White’s lament for failing to pick up the phone for a reference check is a lesson well advised for all in ministry leadership. But I’d be very interested to know how the young, handsome, and talented worship leader landed the job at the megachurch before he was recruited to White’s church; I’ll bet that would be an eye-opener. This is what happens when blinded by stars in our eyes.

I would add that if a person in leadership has exhibited problem behavior, giving that person "a fresh start" at anohter church without proper counseling is an unwise (read: stupid)idea, also.

Excellent advice... and not just for paid staff hires. Any time someone from the outside of your church family is put in a position of leadership, it would be wise for the pastor to do some sanity checking :)

Having said that, some churches really ARE unhealthy and those pastors/leaders would react very badly to this sort of phone call. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be made. At the very least, you can verify the length of the person's tenure in their previous position. (Someone who has never spent more than a year at a previous post will leave you quickly, too.)

While this type of conversation between former and future employers would be ideal, the reality is they may violate privacy laws and may expose the former employer to lawsuits. Churches should have policies and guidelines for responding to queries like this, and no pastor or staff member should reveal details about a former employee without approval from an HR expert and without the church board's knowledge.

Amen Jenni! Churches should have a policy about what kind of information will be provided to an inquirer (not much) and stick to it no matter who the employee is.

How easy is it to chat about others behind their backs under the guise of "background checks." Realize that when a staff member has problems at one church, they may be a function of the person who's telling you the story rather than the star of the story he's telling. People often tell stories of problems in a way that shows themselves as innocent and others as culpable. You may miss a good hire because the pastor you call will tell you things not quite true as he covers his own contributions to the problem.

Why was the superstar still provided an opportunity to showcase in front of a large conference? If his behavior or character was in question did that warrant a step back from the limelight?

Interesting that comments critical of the author and his background are deleted, yet he is celebrated for publishing slander both in print and via this blog. The Truth always is revealed, no matter how hard we try to cover it up.


Your prior comment is posted and live. I'm not sure why it went down--in fact, a comment I posted earlier today pointing another reader to some resources on a different post also went down. But I can most certainly assure you that critical comments aren't automatically deleted or dismissed.

To your follow-up point, I believe we haven't celebrated slander (actually, in this case, it would be libel, since it involves the printed word) by using this writer's piece (libel requires the specific naming of an individual and the use of accusations or claims known to be untrue about that individual. Neither have happened here).



Matt, sorry for the misuse of slander vs. libel. You indeed are above board when it comes to legalities. My question should have been: are you above reproach when it comes to the reality that this section of this author's book and your using it as blog post serves to defame a person's character?


Thanks for these follow-up thoughts.

I do believe we're above reproach here because I presume you don't know the identity of this person. I don't know it. And about 99.9% of our readers don't. How can an individual's character be defamed if no one knows who it is? In fact, I'll turn the tables: Do you feel your first comment was above reproach, given that every person who reads it will already know the identity and background of the author?

Beyond that, the overarching objective of the post isn't to solely focus on this anonymous individual's apparent flaws and problems; instead, it explains the situation for context and then spends the remainder focusing on what the author believes is a helpful lesson other ministry leaders can learn from. As you can see from the prior comments, some ministry leaders think it's a helpful lesson, while others aren't as certain. For a blog focused on timely, helpful information and conversation on matters related to church management, that tells me it hit the mark.



Matt, we'll have to agree to disagree. But I do leave you with a fitting tweet by @RickWarren today: "Do not pass along false reports about others" Exodus 23:1
(and yes, I stand corrected about my first comment ... please delete it at my request)

Thanks, Joaquin. The Rick Warren tweet is spot-on in situations when false reports are made and spread. What the author shared in this post really happened, so there was nothing false about it.

I'll pull your first comment down, as you requested.



Matt, I wish it were as simple as you make it out to be. My main point all along is that there are two sides to this story. The author, the publisher, and CT have chosen to highlight the author's version. The real person that was used as a teaching illustration would say this is a false (and malicious) report even if 99.9 percent of the people who read it don't know who he is.

May be its time the christain start praying for their pastors and worships team. If we all remember them in our prayer everyday , everytime then such issues would not be very common. lets not forget that they are humans just as we are exposed to tempation so are they. its only the blood of Jesus that can cover them/us.

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