Chicago’s Moody Church Is Using a Search Firm to Find a Successor for Pastor Erwin Lutzer and Many Other Churches Are Doing the Same

Moody Church senior pastor Erwin Lutzer to retire
Moody Church senior pastor Erwin Lutzer to retire

On a Sunday in September, Winnetka Congregational Church is scheduled to affirm its new senior pastor, Jeffrey Braun, who is expected to begin leading the 141-year-old institution a few weeks later.

Braun came from a church about 900 miles away in Connecticut, and he wasn’t looking for a job when the North Shore church went searching.

A minister headhunter delivered him.

“It became clear to me that he really knew what he was doing,” said LeAnn Pope, who helped lead the church’s search committee, about William Vanderbloemen, CEO of the pastoral search firm that bears his name. “We’re ecstatic about Pastor Braun. I think he’s going to be a fabulous fit.”

In a trend that reflects the rising popularity of nondenominational churches, an increasing number of Christian institutions are embracing minister search firms, which borrow from the corporate executive-search model but must navigate a decidedly different landscape.

When Minister Search, considered the first pastoral headhunting firm, began in 2001, founder David Lyons didn’t land a single client his first year. In recent years, he said, his firm places 30 to 50 ministers annually.

Vanderbloemen said his firm, which launched in 2010, has experienced annual growth of 50 percent in placements and revenue in recent years and has completed 753 successful job searches in that time. Other search firms report similarly brisk business.

Logical approach

“It makes sense,” said Scott Thumma, director of Hartford Institute for Religion Research, who has written extensively about nondenominational congregations. He said pastor search firms are particularly logical approaches for nondenominational churches, which typically lack a hierarchical organization to assign pastors or help with vacancies.

It is a practice that has taken hold among nondenominational churches in the Chicago area and elsewhere. Moody Church in Chicago is using a search firm to find a successor for its senior pastor, Erwin Lutzer, who is retiring. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington found a campus pastor through a search firm. And Grace Baptist Church in east-central Mahomet, Ill., used one to find its senior pastor, who later tapped the same firm to find a youth pastor.

Placing ministers with churches involves “a ton more variables” than corporate recruiting, said Greg Allen, president of the Shepherd’s Staff, based in Dallas. Candidate and church must align theologically and on issues such as politics, homosexuality, even alcohol consumption, search executives say.

For recruiters, it’s lower-paying than corporate work but also more fulfilling for many.

“I really believe that my role isn’t to be a headhunter but to be a heart hunter,” said Rob Lauer, president of Agora, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is working with Moody Church to find its senior pastor.

Winnetka Congregational is a “lay-led, nondenominational Protestant church” with about 800 “very pragmatic” members that was established in 1874, Pope said. When its pastor, Joseph Shank, retired in June 2014 after more than two decades, search committee members thought they might find a corporate recruiter who could help fill the position, Pope said.

Committee members had no idea minister search firms existed, she said. Then they found Vanderbloemen, who had served as a minister for about 15 years and worked in executive recruiting. He combined those experiences to form Houston-based Vanderbloemen Search Group. One of his previous clients is Willow Creek Community Church.

His company signed a contract with Winnetka Congregational Church in October and delivered a final slate of candidates to the search committee in March, Pope said. Braun signed a contract in late July, she added.

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SOURCE: Tribune News Service

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