Check Yes or No: 7 Questions Not to 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.)

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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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...


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