Check Yes or No: 7 Things Churches Should Not Ask In a Pastoral Search Interview

I was on the phone with a pastoral search committee a couple weeks ago—no, I was not being interviewed for a job (cause dang, that would be awkward). I was serving as a reference. I’ve done that quite a bit lately, and I usually feel like the person on the other end of the phone is going through a bullet list of things that 1) a denominational entity has given them or 2) they pulled from the employment handbook of the YMCA. Circa 1954. (Friendly? Clean? Christian? Check.)  shaking hands

The conversation went something like this:

“What were some of the duties assigned to this candidate, and how well did he complete these tasks?”

I stammered something about ‘this candidate’ being sufficiently self-motivated and entirely adequate in meeting deadlines, and also that he usually had clean ears. And then I said, ‘this young man is one of the most visionary leaders in the Church right now.’ But, you know, that wasn’t on the list.

Another congregation asked me the same ‘duties’ and ‘tasks’ kind of questions about an entirely different candidate. In both cases, I tried to steer the ship towards a more meaningful discussion, and in both cases, the committee was clearly looking for a more quantifiable yes/no, good/bad kind of answer.

What I want to say in those phone calls is, “folks, you are looking for a prophetic voice, a creative visionary, and a compassionate pastor. Not a summer office intern. Think beyond the rubric of professional conduct here.”

I don’t fault the search committees. Lord knows, these people are giving their valuable time to the Church, serving in one of the most daunting roles. They are keeping secrets and shielding confidences. They are trying to give vague but hopeful reports to the congregation, and they are being cornered after coffee hour by every member of every other committee, all of whom are SURE they know exactly what this church needs in a new pastor… So I’m not criticizing the people. Bless them, and when the search thing is over, give their family a free vacation. It isn’t their fault that institutional systems often lead the search process down a rabbit hole.

Here’s the truth about most congregations who are seeking a new pastor. They have either 1) just been through a big lot of ugliness and conflict; or 2)they’ve just said a heartbreaking good-bye, or bid a happy retirement, to a much beloved pastor (who of course, takes on messianic qualities in his/her absence that no successor will ever be able to match).

Which is to say, expectations are high, folks are vulnerable, they’re ready/not ready to move on…and they’ve got their checklist. That’s understandable, but also unfortunate.

Beyond asking short-sighted, uninspired questions of references, the folks tasked with finding a new pastor might also ask truly unfortunate questions of the actual pastoral candidates. Having just been on the other end of THAT conversation—in the fairly recent past—I had a refreshing experience. The folks who interviewed me asked questions that were thoughtful, challenging, and most importantly, revealed the identity and mission priorities of the community they were representing.

So I had to mine the experience of my clergy friends for this list of THOU SHALT NOTS for search committees. Sadly, I didn’t have to dig far. Well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) church folks ask this stuff all the time. I don’t often get into prescriptive writing, but for today, how about just… DON’T ask:

1.    Of the young-ish pastor: “Are you planning to have children?” I realize it is mostly the women who get asked this, but churches have been known to ask the young men, as well. Whether it is a grandmotherly type trying to break the ice; a finance person sweating what happens to the healthcare package with the addition of small people; or the children’s ministry leader who’s genuinely hoping for a new crop of PK’s in the nursery… The ONLY thing that needs to be said about babies in this context is, “Here is what we can offer you in the way of family leave time.” (note: it should be at least 8 weeks).

2.    Of the single pastor, Are you planning to get married?”   ‘Um…like, ever? To the person I haven’t met yet, who may or may not live in this town?’  A mysterious awkwardness hangs in the air when churches interview a single person… Like folks feel the need to somehow acknowledge and comment upon the fact that said-pastor is single. Perhaps an indicator that church wants to set said-pastor up with single niece/nephew/neighbor? I dunno, but #redflag. Because #boundaries.

3.    What role will your wife/husband take on in the church?”  (Sigh). This one is mostly for the fellas. The preacher’s wife still lives under a ridiculous set of expectations that, thankfully, have not quite caught up with the growing sea of preacher’s husbands. However, I do know women who’ve been asked this question as well… And while it is certainly understandable for a church to be hopeful about said-spouse bringing added gifts to the church—musician? Sunday School teacher? Great pitcher for the interfaith softball league? EPIC BROWNIE BAKER??– that hope should live as a quiet hope, and not a spoken expectation. You are hiring ONE person for the payroll.

4.    Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? (or a physical resurrection? Or a literal Hell?) –or anything else that requires a yes/no sort of answer… to which the committee already knows the answer they wish to hear. A single point of theological disagreement (or agreement, for that matter) cannot possibly determine a person’s right-ness for a ministry role.

5.    “Where do you stand on the gay issue?” Oh, honey…Ok, I did have a search committee ask me this once. I was pretty open about it, but it was, like, 10 years ago. I wasn’t shy about my affirmingness, figuring that if a church was scared off by it, I didn’t want to go there anyway. But now… now I think if a church asked me that, I’d say, “There is no gay ‘issue;’ only people who have not yet evolved, still calling it an issue.’ And I would be done with that business, and they’d either love me or run screaming.

6.    “Why do you want to come and be our pastor?” Um…do I? The interview process is a two-way discernment street. (At least, in most denominations. Unless that scary word ‘placement’ is involved. Which I think is a dying fashion). At this point in a process, the pastor still has as many questions about the congregation as they do about him/her. Too many churches (especially “Flagship” churches—ugh) go into this process thinking that wonderful preachers will be lining up ‘round the block to take this pulpit and well…maybe they will. But possibly not. This is why it is so important for church leaders to ask the kinds of thoughtful, engaging questions that will reveal not only their expectations of a pastor—but also, the core of their shared mission and values.

 7.    Would you come for less money? That is, now that you’ve met us, and seen how wonderful we are…and toured our beautiful historic property and played with our lovely children and eaten our award winning chili… Could we see that folder back a minute and show you our ‘plan B’ salary package? Yeah, true story. Not mine, but somebody’s. I suspect this happens to women a lot, whether they know it’s just happened to them or not. (Note to churches: you get what you pay for.)

 It is no secret that the ChurchAsWeKnowIt is at a turning point right now. Everywhere you go, there are stories of decline; buildings sold and doors closed forever. But there are also stories of life and hope; of inspired congregations letting go of their ‘stuff,’ shaking out the dust, and learning to serve more broadly, love more deeply, and turn a creative eye to their means of living out the gospel. Churches that are truly seeking a leader to help them live into that hope… well, those churches ask good questions. Of themselves, and of pastoral candidates. Here are a few:

How does God continue to call you to ministry?

What is the biggest challenge facing the Church in our time? And where do you see hope?

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

Let us tell you some of our church’s story… [Church should be able to articulate *something about its past; *something about the neighbors; *something about the gifts of the congregation; and *a challenge they’re currently facing]. Now, what can you tell us about the gifts you would bring to our community?

I am really just scratching the surface of this conversation. At least in my denomination (and probably yours) the search process is broken. It’s great IN THEORY, and it plays out well in certain areas. Meanwhile, there are gatekeepers; there are old boys’ clubs; there are miles of red tape and drama; there are gifted pastors who struggle to find placement, for any number of unjust reasons; and there are churches with tremendous gifts for living out the gospel, struggling to find the right pastor because they’re asking all the wrong questions—not just of candidates, but of themselves.

So I realize that this tongue-in-cheek list is not going to fix all the things, ever. But I do hope it will shine a light on some of the ways of thinking that keep churches small and stuck; and maybe spare some of my colleagues some awkward conversations, while we’re at it.

Ok, now it’s your turn: What are some things that pastoral candidates shouldn’t say to a search committee?  (Stay tuned for Part 2)

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  • Adrienne

    Thanks! I’ve been waiting for this one!

  • Ted_Pack

    Your comment about the old minister hit a chord. Our now retired minister and I had both been Peace Corps Volunteers, in different countries and different years, but both secondary school teachers. When there has been a Peace Corps volunteer at your post before you, inevitably he has been able to speak the local language(s) better, drink more homemade rice whiskey before passing out, dance more deftly, plan lessons better, explain things more clearly, and he gave more of his living allowance to students who needed a subsidy on their school fees. After you leave, they say the same things about you to the volunteer who takes your place.

    By the same token, I told our minister, at a potluck, that the ministers that preceded her spent 40 hours a week comforting the sick and the sick at heart, another 40 on committee meetings and church work, another 40 working for social justice; their sermons were a combination of a fascinating talk by an expert, a stirring call to action, a conversation with an old and trusted friend, and a monologue from “a Prairie Home Companion”; and their personal lives were examples of moral integrity, intellectual curiosity, and a sincere commitment to our principles. Then I laughed uproariously, poured myself a second glass of wine, and told her not to worry; when she had retired we say the same thing about her to the next minister.

  • a woman

    Theology IS important. A pastor who cannot affirm the virgin birth or God’s call for holy living which includes chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman, as well as many other important basic theological issues, is someone who is not fit to the teaching elder and leader of the flock. Theology is not the only important consideration in finding a new pastor, but an otherwise “ideal” candidate who is not theologically sound is unacceptable. See Matthew 18:6 Please keep our PNC in prayer. – A member of a church seeking a new pastor.

    • Marsha McFadden

      This is YOUR theology. Bear in mind that it is not everyone’s. Some of us are more progressive in our thinking.

      • a woman

        Exactly. That is why it is important to know the theology of those seeking pastoral calls.

        • Marsha McFadden

          Absolutely! I am glad we agree on that. I have respect for people who are more conservative theologically and hope that they have the same for me.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      I don’t mean to say that a candidate’s theology is unimportant. Just that theological questions are not black and white. A committee that’s liking for a yes/no sort of answer has already decided what they want to hear. That kind of rigidity does not allow for much discernment or real dialogue.

  • Linda Siegwald

    You were dead-on! I actually was on a search committee that asked a male candidate if his wife would be teaching Sunday school. Bless him, he quickly reminded them that he was the candidate, not his wife! The committee should probably not ask the youngish candidates how comfortable they feel with visiting the sick, conducting funerals etc. There is no good answer for that. If you feel comfortable, you sound unfeeling; if you don’t, you come across as unprepared. In practice, we all do things that make us stretch our comfort zones and most young pastors have the compassion to carry them through those crises with grace and wisdom.

  • Pat68

    Churches can only stop asking those questions, and similar ones, when they stop being issue-based rather than gospel-based.

  • Connie Clark

    How about this one: After hearing me preach in the chapel of a state psychiatric hospital, where many residents were learning-disabled or otherwise cognitively impaired, and where my preaching was simplified accordingly, the search committee person asked, “Are you capable of preaching in a more sophisticated manner?” Which was quickly followed by a question for my husband: “Have you ever felt called to ordination?”

  • Becky Euler Duncan

    Less than a year ago I finished heading up a Search & Call for my church in Kansas. After reading this, I feel pretty good. We really did not ask anything close to the questions listed, and we did talk about spiritual growth both for the pastor and the congregation. I will say, that a previous Search & Call committee at our church, had a candidate ask them how the congregation felt about gays. They were pretty flummoxed about how to answer, as I would be too. I can’t say what the congregation as a whole thinks about ANYTHING, not even what color Jello should be served, let alone such an enormous question.

  • Josh Jinno

    Some of those questions and answers are illegal in my state. Age, marital status, any negative reference – or anything that could be construed as a negative reference. Gearing questions to short yes or no, to be within the scope of what is legal helps limit liability especially if the candidate finds out something you said cost them the job.

  • Mark

    Is there a part 2 to this article? If so, I want to read it. I’m a pastor, and I want to hear the answer to the question.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      I hope write one…after Easter!

  • Bob Fugate

    A group of candidates should be picked out by the search committee and then offered the opportunity to preach at their church. After the church body hears all of their sermons. The church a one whole body should vote on the one they think would be better. The search committee should not be able to choose for the church. It should only be able to choose potential candidates for the body of the church to vote on. No matter what questions you ask you will not be able to determine by questions alone who will be best for your church. If we continue to select out pastors as we currently do then there will always be unrest in the church, for a few have chosen what they think is best for all. We will then continue to have attendance decreasing and groups of folks leaving our churches, because they did not have a choice in the operation of a church or the selection of the most important person the pastor.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      I know hearing many pastors and’voting’ may seem like a good idea, but that gets so messy…and is very unfair to candidates, on many levels. Also, preaching alone is not always the best indicator of who will be the best fit. That’s why a search committee, ideally, is a diverse representation of the community… and there has to be a level of trust placed in that team, by the congregation. They are doing a very tough job.

      • Bob Fugate

        Having heard a variety of chaplains preach and been a member
        of several different churches. I have also acted in the capacity of Elder in three of the churches. I feel that the Presbyterians have the best managerial system, because it is more representative of the will of the congregation.

        Blessings upon you, you were a bright spot for a short time
        in my life. I care for you and will always remember you fondly.

        I love and care for the people at my current church and will
        stay here and endure the management structure and be happy in it.

  • Linnea912

    Agreed. Questions #1 and #2 are illegal to ask in most workplaces, and they shouldn’t be asked by churches, either. Also, #6 is one that most workplaces ask, and is one that always strikes me as lazy. It’s like they’re saying, “well, instead of telling you about us and seeing if it’s the right fit, we’re putting all the burden on you.”