Interview Questions for the Searching Pastor

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.lauras-logo

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?


A Failure of Imagination

On the same day when my article appeared on New Sacred about how a progressive faith isn’t defined by issues, Susan Jacoby was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air.

It was in fact just yesterday. Just yesterday, on my way home from the gym, I caught the end of Terry Gross’s interview with Jacoby. She’s the author of the new book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion which I’d only heard of because I read an article she’d recently written for the New York Times but it wasn’t the article or even her book publicity that grabbed my attention. It was when she said this on the radio:

I can’t imagine falling in love with a devoutly religious person. Now, that I will fully acknowledge, many could call that a failure of imagination on my part. But, it is important to me. To me, it would be like falling in love with someone who thinks a woman’s place is in the home. <She laughs.> And I know that women have fallen in love with men like that but it’s something fundamental to me. Human rights. That people are equal under law simply because they are human beings.

Jacoby had been asked if she could ever possibly fall in love with someone who just so happened to be a person of faith. This was her response. She couldn’t imagine it.

It’s something that Jacoby had repeated earlier in the conversation. She could never imagine raising children or sharing a life together with someone who didn’t agree with her on the issues. It seems that human rights is at the heart of those issues that concern Jacoby most and that obviously a person of faith wouldn’t share this perspective.

I have feared the same thing. I have wondered if it could or would ever be possible to share a life with a man who didn’t share my progressive Christian faith, but then I fell in love.

I fell in love with an atheist.

I’m a progressive Christian and I fell in love with an atheist.

It was a failure of my own imagination, to borrow Jacoby’s words, to believe that we had to agree on every single issue. We agree on human rights. We agree that my place isn’t in the kitchen but we don’t agree on everything. I would love to meet the couple that does. I don’t believe it’s possible. And it is makes it more interesting.

How boring to love someone who agrees with everything you believe to be important! Where’s the challenge? Where’s the learning? Where’s the opportunity to grow and change within that loving relationship?

No thank you.

I would prefer the struggle. I’ll complain about it. I’ll bemoan that it’s hard especially when it comes to raising children together but love is more powerful than when or how that child gets baptized. It’s bigger than how we choose to tell our children that Mommy and Daddy believe different things, but you’re still going to church. (That was a deal breaker for me.) He doesn’t have to agree. He certainly doesn’t have to convert but he does have to be supportive of me and what’s important to me just as much as I have to listen to what’s important to him.

We both need to support each other. That’s what’s important, not the tenets of faith. Not the issues which we bring to the ballot box. It is the support that we give each other that changes things. It changes everything. That’s what I could never really imagine. I never really believed it was possible.

I was too strong willed, too hotheaded, too opinionated. I wasn’t going to balk and I sure as hell wasn’t going to change, but I met my match.

It was my own failure of imagination to assume that wasn’t possible.


Interviewing Tips for the Pastor Who Has Never Used Skype

An earlier version of this article appeared on Fidelia’s Sisters under the title Meet the Search Committee. An updated version follows.

social-media-419944_1280I admit that I miss the days of the phone interview. When I first began in ministry, I never had to worry about what I was wearing for the first interview with a church I hoped I might serve. I had to prepare in other ways but I never had to figure out the right way to angle my computer. I never had to do my hair. I just had to pick up the phone. Those days — it seems — are gone. The very first meeting that many clergy have with the churches they might hope to serve happen face-to-face through the magic of their internet connections.

This is new and daunting territory for clergy — especially those that don’t consider themselves and those who don’t have grandchildren. Grandparents, I have found, know lots about Skype. They say goodnight to their grandchildren on the other side of the country by Skype. They find out about report cards and ballet recitals by Skype. It’s as easy as picking up the phone. I don’t have grandchildren. And though I do a lot on the internet, I don’t consider myself particularly tech savvy. If anything, I’m particularly gifted at hunting all over the internet to figure out how to do the thing that I’m trying to do. Sometimes I can’t follow the directions. That’s another problem entirely. But, I have learned a few basic skills about how to interview though my internet connection which I hope to share with you in a few simple steps.

Create accounts on both Skype and FaceTime. The first time I went through the search process, no one knew how to video chat. Interviews were done on the phone where a search committee would never know if you were in pajamas or hadn’t brushed your hair. (I will repeat this several times apparently.) Those days are over. You will need to know how to use Skype and FaceTime. I encourage you to become familiar with both. Or you will run into the frightening horror of trying to figure out how to use FaceTime for the very first time when Skype isn’t working for the search committee. This happened to me — and so I advise creating accounts for both before your first interview.

Create an account on Skype. You can join Skype here. As with so many things, you have the option of signing in using your Facebook account. The church will probably find your profile on their own so there’s no harm in doing so. But, if you are like me and have a personal account that you use separately from your professional Facebook account, do be sure which sign in you are using. If you do not choose to use Facebook, I advise creating a Skype Name that reflects your professional ministry. Choose something that sings your particular talents in ministry or be boring and choose something like revelsaanderspeters. After you create an account, you will need to download Skype to one or all of your devices. I refer to use Skype on my computer and so I have only downloaded it there.

Open the FaceTime app. The good people at Apple make this incredibly simple. They provide instructions for how to use FaceTime here, but of course, you’ll need an iPhone or an iPad or an iPodTouch.

Practice on Skype. As with all things, it’s wise to practice with friends and family. I had a dear friend who would welcome the opportunity to evaluate my possible interview outfits before my first Skype interview. We did so over wine. It was like a virtual cocktail hour in pajama pants. (I warned you I wouldn’t let this go.) When you practice, here are the things that you should confirm with your friend.

Time of Day. This might be obvious but you’re going to want to practice at about the same time you would be interviewing so the same light will be in your home.

Location. I have heard friends say that you should sit in front of an unadorned white wall. I don’t agree. I sat in front of my yellow wall where a piece of my own artwork hangs – and you bet every search committee member asked about that painting. It’s a subtle way to say something about myself that words can’t express.

Height. You are going to want to get three or four of your thickest seminary textbooks to prop under your laptop computer. Your computer should be eye-level so no one is being looked down upon. On a recent IKEA trip before all of my seminary books were unpacked, I also learned that this shelf is the perfect height for me.

Lighting. You want to look like you really are the light of the world but try to avoid having a spotlight on you. Overhead lights don’t tend to be enough for evening interviews. You will probably want to grab a lamp to place beside your computer. This often required taking the lampshade off for me. Try several things and trust your friend’s wisdom.

Styling. Try several different outfits to see what looks best on camera. Consider it a fashion show and have good fun with it.

Look at the camera. This was the hardest part to practice, but you should definitely practice looking straight into the camera. The temptation will be to look at the screen. Don’t do it. Look at the camera so it appears that you are making eye contact, even though you’re actually doing the exact opposite.

I have used these practice sessions as an opportunity to catch up with old friends — especially since it took me a long time to feel comfortable using Skype. I recommend calling several people and especially ask them for help with what feels strangest to you. For me, it was the whole looking at the camera bit.

Practice on FaceTime. I became much more familiar with FaceTime after my boyfriend deployed. It was the primary mode of communication we shared during those 9 months — which I find is true for most military families. If you know someone who loves someone in the military, make that person your first call to practice FaceTime.

The tricky thing about FaceTime is that it is a technology that isn’t meant to be formal. It’s supposed to be a way to video chat when you are out and about in the world, not when you are trying to create a professional environment for an interview. Still, I recommend using the same tips as Skype. You’ll need to prop up a lot more books and play with the angle of how your iPhone or iPad is placed. (Most cases seem to angle the thing so it’s looking right up your nose. This is not professional and not advised.) Once again, practice with a bunch of friends and family as you did with Skype. It might not be the mode of communication the search committee chose for your interview, but it’s best to be familiar with in case the other doesn’t work.

In addition to preparing for this new technology, there are other important ways to prepare for an interview. Search Committees or Pastor Seeking Committees or whatever they might be called in your tradition have most likely never done this before. They are a group of people that love their church, including at least one member that has been a member for more than 20 years and one that has been roped into serving on this committee after they’ve just joined the church. They have absolutely no experience in human resources but they are so excited about their next pastor. It’s your job to get to know them — and the church — as best as you can. Here are a few additional tips.

Be patient. You are a local church pastor. (Or you hope to be.) Either way, you should know that committees are slow. Remember that. Remind yourself of this fact because you are going to completely forget this reality in the midst of your search. You have done a bunch of work to get your resume or ministerial profile or personal information file submitted to this committee. It feels like things should fall into place very quickly, but they don’t. Search committees spend a lot of their time talking together about the future direction of the church. Those conversations take time – and a good committee will commit to that time so that they have a clear picture of their interests and needs. So, try not to lose your head when they take forever. I’ll say it again because I was no good at it: Be patient.

Pray. Don’t you hate when someone tells you to be patient and then follows up that wisdom with talking about prayer? It’s OK. You can tell me to get over myself, but I mean this honestly. Pray. While the search committee is doing all of that good work talking about the future of the church, it’s a good idea if you spend some time talking to God about what your future hopes are.

Prepare for the interview. When you are lucky enough to get an interview with a search committee, make sure that you prepare by reading all of the material that they have sent you along with everything on their website. I prepare further by reading the local news online and exploring the demographics within the community using the US Census FactFinder. I also request from the search committee a short bio of each search committee member. This helps me to know something more about them. Your preparations should also include creating a series of really good questions to ask the search committee. My favorites include:

  • How do you take care of each other?
  • What is it like to be a child in your church?
  • What does worship do in your community? What should it do?
  • What have you learned during the interim that has been most transformative?
  • What do you most want to learn together?

Have good manners. After every single interview, send a thank you note that expresses your gratitude and repeats something important about your conversation. Address that note to every single member of the search committee. I can’t tell you the number of times search committees told me that they had never received a thank you note for an interview. That should not happen. Write a nice note on good stationary. If you’re as dorky as I am, use denominational stationary.

Ask for more information. If the search committee likes you, they will have no qualms about asking for more information about you. They will ask for samples of sermons and curricula. They will Google you. Be warned. Clean up that Internet presence, if you haven’t already. Here’s how. They will want to see what you have done in your ministry – and you shouldn’t have any hesitation to ask for more information about them. Ask for annual reports, budgets, worship bulletins and anything else that might help you discern if God is leading you into ministry with this particular body of Christ.

Think creatively about your Internet presence. Sure. it’s important to clean up if there are things that you don’t want anyone to see — but more and more, search committees are looking for illustrations of your ministry online. Give yourself a boost. Look at creative ways to tell the story of your ministry. Consider these possibilities.

  • Upload videos of your sermons and the best stewardship appeals from your last church on you own channel on YouTube.
  • Post thoughtful and inspiring articles about the future of the church on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Reflect about your ministry and your call on your very own blog.
  • Post pictures of the people you are visiting on Instagram. (Ask for their permission first.)
  • Update your resume on LinkedIn. Ask for church members to write recommendations and even use the opportunity to upload files that illustrate the work you have done within the congregations you have served.

May God bless you in your search.