Spring is in the air and change seems to be sprouting in every which direction. Colleagues are quietly talking about their discernment. Questions are being asked about how to leave a ministry well and I admit I don’t have solid answers. I have left two churches and I’m still not sure I have done it well. I only know that I miss them both. And now, I’m preparing to leave another.
My last Sunday isn’t until October but with only four months of our shared work ahead, I’m starting to think about what’s next. I’m looking at listings. I’m beginning to network as I wonder if there might be an interim opportunity in the next year. At the same time, my colleagues seem to be hungry for questions to ask of search committees. It is a question that keeps appearing and it’s one that I think I can answer. I have, after all, interviewed a lot. I haven’t always gotten the gig but I have been told I ask good questions.
Last year, I wrote another post with interview tips for pastors which includes some techie pointers and a few questions to inspire your conversation with the search committee. This is all about the questions. These questions are all geared toward pastors who are trying to learn as much as they can about the congregations with whom they’re interviewing.
Let’s start with mood. Every congregation has a particular mood. Some are hopeful. Some are despairing. Some think the sky is falling. Some think that there is endless possibility. Still others are just confused. They want it all, but then again, so do I. It should be possible to read the mood of the church in the paperwork they provide about themselves. But, even if it is not apparent, these mood questions are my favorite for the simple fact that they reveal the church’s heart.
- What gives you joy?
- What do you most want to learn as a congregation?
- As Barbara Brown Taylor asks, what is saving your life right now?
- How is your church living in Easter/Pentecost/Christmas/Epiphany right now? (This will only work with the liturgically minded.)
- How do you experience the peace that surpasses all understanding together?
- What do you do for fun?
- As I just heard Krista Tippet ask: As you look around at the world now, what makes you despair, and what gives you hope?
The temptation in answering these questions is to answer for yourself rather than for the congregation. Try to nudge toward the congregation’s perspective rather than the personal. When I ask these questions, I request hearing an answer from everyone on the committee. I don’t want to hear their rote answers or even from the one guy that is most comfortable speaking. I want to hear them talk to each other. I want to hear their deepest truth. Bizarrely, this works best on the phone. When I interviewed for my current interim, I asked the joy question while on the phone. I couldn’t see their faces but they concluded by saying, “I wish you were here to see what just happened. I don’t think we just got closer.” Alleluia!
The next set of questions are adapted from the United Church of Christ’s A Pilgrimage Through Transitions and New Beginnings. The questions in the packet of materials (it was actually once a binder) provided by my denomination are all geared toward churches. I’ve tweaked them for pastors to ask of churches. You can find the original list found in both Resource 11B and Resource 11C here.
- What is most exciting about your church’s mission? (This assumes that the church actually has a clearly stated mission. If not, it’s worth asking what they think their mission might be. I’d let everyone answer that too.)
- What does worship do for your community? What should it do?
- How do you take care of each other? Who is responsible and how is this labor of love shared by your community?
- What is your understanding of “good news”?
- What motivates you to invite your friends to church? Why do you think they should want to join your fellowship? What are you doing to help with that outreach?
- The role of the pastor is changing fast. How would you define that role?
- What experiences have contributed most to your growth as a church in the past five years? Have you read books together? Do you go on retreats? Is your adult Sunday School picking some awesome topics?
- How would you describe God? What is your favorite image of God in scripture?
- What is your church’s weakness? What is the most difficult thing for you to do together?
Each church interviews a little bit differently in my tradition. The norm was once two phone interviews and then an in-person interview. That seems to be changing. Still, I tend to save all of my big questions for the in-person interview. To me, that’s when it’s really serious. In the phone interview, I typically only ask two or three questions but after I hang up the phone, I write down all of the questions I still have.
If you are interviewing right now, or attend a church that is going through a search process, I really hope that you’ll complete this survey compiled by my friend Laura Stephens-Reed. Laura has wisely identified that there are some huge challenges that have arisen in churches that have all started with a bad search. (I am serving one of those churches as an interim right now.) Laura also happens to be the one that convinced me that I could do interim ministry. I am eternally grateful as I love it so I hope that you’ll add your thought to this survey. You can read more about the project here.
Before you go, please share your best questions. What are your favorite interview questions?