Superheroes need not apply:

Finding a pastor for your church

Want to know the secret to finding the best match for a pastor and congregation?

Not keeping secrets.

There is no one perfect pastor that fits every congregation, researchers Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce say in their new book, "Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation."

The best spiritual leader for your church could be a woman or a man, older or younger, married or single, a lifelong clergyperson or a second-career minister.

What may matter most is that both the congregation and the prospective church leader share their strengths, weaknesses and desires as openly as possible.

If a congregation gives into the temptation to mislead prospective pastors about the strength of its finances, hide conflict or declare church growth is a priority but is unwilling to make changes to welcome new people, the unrealistic expectations could lead to conflicts and dissatisfaction down the road. The same thing could happen if clergy are not open about their expectations for the job and their own strengths and weaknesses.

What works is when congregational leaders and pastors are honest with one another, the research shows.

"When the pastor and congregational leaders explicitly state and agree on reasonable expectations, the groundwork for a good match is laid," Woolever and Bruce state. "Working toward common goals unites everyone in the congregation."

It doesn't take Superman or Superwoman. A cartoon in the leadership book shows a man in a superhero outfit declaring, "I'd like to apply for the position of church pastor." The response from a lay leader: "I'm afraid you're over-qualified. We need a leader who is mediocre and non-challenging."

Forget even about the difficult-to-break image of the ideal pastor as a man in his 30s with three or four children to pad the church school.

Every church has different needs, and being willing to deal with unstated assumptions about preferences based on factors from gender to marital status will help open up the congregation to make the best decision, Woolever and Bruce state.

Consider these findings from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey:

Gender: Only 28 percent of mainline Protestant pastors are women, but almost two in five pastors of growing churches are female.

Age: In examining predictors of 10 congregational strengths from growing spiritually to empowering leadership, the age of the pastor was only relevant in one case. Pastors younger than 50 more often lead churches where many worshippers are excited about the congregation’s future.

Marital status: Single Protestant pastors express more satisfaction with their current ministry than married pastors.

Woolever said the process of pastors and congregations deciding whether they would make a good fit can be compared in part to the marriage counseling engaged couples go through to learn more about one another's goals and desires. "It's finding out whether they are on the same page," she said.

The good news about pastoral transitions: Many congregations seem to get it right. About half of worshippers in the congregational survey strongly agreed that, in general, there is a good match between their congregation and their minister, pastor or priest. Just 15 percent said the pastor and congregation were not a good match, or were neutral or unsure.

If the process of finding the right fit among spiritual leaders and churches still seems daunting, Woolever and Bruce offer additional reassurance to prospective pastors and congregational leaders: You are not alone.

"All places belong to God," they write. "Only for a time are they entrusted to us."