The Compatibility Question: Churches Make Better Aquariums than Pantries

by Sean Nolan September 2, 2022

“Do you think you’re a good fit for this church?”

Nat’s heart rate increased and it became harder to swallow. Self-preservation kicks in at questions like this. The honest answer was, “No. No, he didn’t think he was a good fit for this church.”

But an honest answer might mean no way to pay his mortgage.

He’d relocated his wife and young children to be a part of this church. His wife was pregnant with his third child and they’d left a healthy church 300 miles away so he could begin his first full-time ministry role as a youth pastor.


We’re trying to integrate homeschooling with grocery shopping in our house. We haven’t figured it out quite yet, but in theory our kids will learn math while simultaneously putting it in practice in the real world.

Did someone eat the last of the Cheerios? Let’s replace them. The Triscuits are stale? “We don’t like Triscuits, dad.” Great, we’ll throw them out and their spot on the pantry shelf will be filled by Goldfish instead. After all, “kids loves the fishes ‘cause they’re so delicious.”

A similar philosophy was driving the church that brought Nat on staff.

We need a youth pastor. Our former youth pastor “had to be let go” leaving an empty slot on the pantry shelf. Let’s try and fill it with someone new. Take out the Triscuits replace them with Goldfish.

It works well for perishables that will be consumed, why wouldn’t it work for people in the church?


The problem is, the Church exists so people don’t perish, and consumption of people is a damnable offense (Gal. 5:15).

This is a great model for organizing a pantry of items to be consumed, but an awful model for organizing a population of people in the church.

On the front end of hiring a staff member a church tends to ask questions revolving around the candidate’s character (is he godly?), calling (does she have a clear sense of direction from the Lord?), competency (can he get the job done with excellence?), and coachability (is she teachable?). Questions are asked to quantify whether they meet expectations in each of these areas, and likely some Bible verses are cited to show where each of these qualifications can be found in Scripture.

But are we missing a bigger piece of the puzzle? The intuitive (and as such, much less quantifiable) sense of whether or not the candidate is a “good fit” for the existing people within the church body?

The church is, after all, much more akin to an aquarium than it is a pantry.

The Cheerios don’t have to get along with the Triscuits because their shelf life is short-lived and they exist merely for consumption. Never the case with the souls of our people.


Thankfully, in Nat’s case, it all worked out (Rom. 8:28). But to quote the popular political trope: “mistakes were made.”

In retrospect the hiring committee would’ve served him—and, more importantly, their people —better if they’d taken more time to get to know him and ask more questions.

Introducing new people to a growing community—especially if they’ll be tasked with leading that community—requires patience, prayer, and personal investment. We’re not just replacing one item on a shelf for another, we’re cultivating ecosystems. While the church, like a pantry, requires organization, it is always an organism before an organization (1 Cor. 12:18). Before placing someone on the pedestal of leadership, proper time should be invested in making sure the candidate is a good fit.

Even a novice fishkeeper knows a lot of thought and intentionality goes into introducing new fish into an aquarium. Is it salt water or fresh water? Is it a predatory species? Aggressive and territorial? What temperature is required for the fish to thrive? These are just a sampling of the sort of questions asked when a fishkeeper increases the population in their aquarium. Disaster ensues if a predator is introduced.

Nat was no predator, but the process of bringing him on board didn’t properly safeguard its people from the possibility that he was. A few communal conversations and the congregation as a whole would’ve had an opportunity to get to know him on the front end instead of chewing up and spitting out one more well-intentioned young leader.


So what does this look like in the real world? It looks like wise shepherding (1 Pet. 5:2). The wise shepherd knows his sheep and knows how to care for them (John 10:27). By all means inspect the character (1 Tim. 3), the calling (1 Tim. 6:12), the competency (Deut. 1:13), and the coachability (2 Tim. 2:2) of your candidates. But go one step further and explore their compatibility with your current church culture.

Ask questions about their philosophy of ministry. Will he micromanage? Is she legalistic? Will he seek to prioritize people and relationships or programs and events? Which of these methods best describes your current church community?

In many cases, a church may be making a new hire because a previous staff person left a void. Are you hoping to see the ministry maintained and continue as is? Or are you hoping to see a change in direction? If the latter, slow way down, communicate to the new candidate exactly where you came from, where you are now, and where you’re hoping to see the ministry go in the future.

Like most situations involving people, Nat’s transition was messy and, at times, confusing. He felt like he failed to meet their expectations. Thanks to vulnerable relationships with others in ministry he was reminded that he was clear and upfront about his goals and vision for the ministry from the beginning. In other words, it wasn’t his failure to deliver, as much as it was their failure to communicate their own expectations and needs.

Let me repeat one last time: patience and prayer is invaluable in hiring outside staff. For their sake and the sake of your congregation. Just like an aquarium, consider giving them (and your people) ample time to acclimate to the water. I know of one pastor who waited eight months from his hire date to relocate to his new church, and as lead pastor, he didn’t preach until two months later! That slow process is much better suited to the aquarium like ecosystems of real people than the stale stock of a pantry. Over a decade later, he’s still serving the same church and both are thriving. If only these stories were more common.

For those on both ends of the church hiring process this sort of deliberate slowing down and open communication is sure to pay huge dividends in the end. Take the time to encourage the folks on both ends to make sure the water is just right before introducing a new species.

Perhaps the greatest irony with Nat’s story is that the analogy of church compatibility that borrows from the world of aquariums as opposed to pantries is one he first heard from the pastor that ultimately ended up terminating him. He could be bitter about this, but instead chose to believe God was teaching him how not to repeat the same mistakes.

There’s a real danger that in treating our churches like pantries we stock the shelves too quickly and end up with some junk food—or worse yet, we mix the metaphor, and introduce a predator—and someone gets consumed.