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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ask the Matriarch—It's Interview Season

Ah, yes. Actually, it's graduation season, and we anticipate many recent seminary grads might be facing this exact question.

Dear Matriarchs,

Sometime this fall/winter, I will be officially "in the call process." In my denomination, my name will be given to several congregations and I will interview. If the congregation and I agree that we are a good match, they issue a call. I can accept or decline. I have a series of related questions—read on.

For what types of things should I be on the lookout?
PPB: Sheesh, it seems like I'd have an answer to this. My bottom line advice is this: if something feels funny, it probably is. If something feels right, it probably is. Pay attention to who is and is not on the interview team. Do you meet any youth? Any senior citizens? Any fairly new members? If not, why?

Google the church. Go back more than the front page. What are they known for in the community? If it's an associate position, google the pastor. Pick up some local papers on your way out of town. What can you tell about the community? Most call systems list references for the church. Check them.

Ask what they hope to be doing in 5 years, 10. If they have no idea, or if they want to be doing the exact same thing as they're doing today, note that. If they want to be a mega church with a staff of 300, note that, too. Be a sponge.

Interviewing is a wild ride,and it will eventually leave you to two things: a bunch of really great war stories and a fabulous job!

Jan: You don't want to go to serve a church you are not called to serve. Be yourself and enjoy. Remember our RevGal sister: You've really got to love your people. Try to discern if you could love them.

Any super big red flags?
Singing Owl: See my story, below.
Jan (and this ties back to last week's question): One of the best questions I've heard asked by a candidate is this: "Can you tell me about the skeletons in the congregation's closet?" (Just their reaction alone will be worth asking this. You can catch a glimpse of their ease in talking about conflict. Or you'll see their sense of humor.)

How many interviews should I expect?
PPB: This is very largely denominationally based. I probably did 10-15 phone interviews and 5 fly-outs before I got my first job, but I'm not necessarily typical. Some people get lucky with just one. Some spend a long time on the market.

Can I/should I bring my spouse to meet the call committee/congregation?

Singing Owl: Bring the spouse, if at all possible. And then listen to his opinion afterwards. He may have a "red flag" or a green one, for that matter, that you missed in the nervousness of the moment.

On the other hand, PPB: No. Not unless you are specifically invited to, and even then, I'd tend to hold off until you've been offered a call. By doing this, you're setting up the expectation that the church is "getting" your spouse, too. And unless your spouse hopes to be the unpaid associate, I'd avoid this. BUT this is denominationally contingent. In the Presbyterian tradition, for example, there is usually an in-person interview, followed by a weekend where the congregation hears you preach and then votes. That second weekend might be a perfectly fine time to bring the spouse. The first one: not so much IMHO.

What should I wear?

PPB:I would opt for a suit in most cases, especially if you are young. No one will ever fault you for over-dressing by wearing a suit. It need not be a skirt-suit (trousers are fine), and it need not be a blue or black suit (pick a color you like), but that's my vote.

You might check out this blog post out of Yale Divinity School's Career Office for some denomination specific advice (not all denominations are represented, but you can estimate).

Singing Owl: As for what to wear, I suggest dressing as you would for a secular job interview. Not too flashy, not loaded with jewelry, but also not too casual, no cleavage ;-) ! No flip flops for shoes, but maybe not a suit and heels, unless you know the congregation is that kind of place. Professional, but comfortable. You want to look like you are not to be trifled with, but you also want to be reasonably relaxed and comfortable.

Can the matriarchs share any funny stories about interviewing?

PPB: Oh, let me count the ways. We can start with the college in a very rural area where a small group of students picketed my interview with "No girl preachers!" Once, I brought one blue shoe and one black one. Another time, I forgot an iron and tried to de-wrinklify my clothes by "steaming" them with scalding hot water in the bath-tub—and then ending up scalding my hand while I tested the water. I was so embarrassed that I told people it was a rash. I've been asked a slew of crazy questions.

Jan: When my husband and I were interviewing to be co-pastors, the first question was about our names. (We have different last names.) Search Committee Member: Have you noticed that you have different last names? (Yes, she really asked this.) My husband: Oh my gosh! That must be why the mail's so screwed up. (Good-natured laughter, but then serious again) Search Committee: Will you (meaning me the wife) be changing your name if you are called to be our pastor? Me: No. They still called us.

Singing Owl:
My husband, not I, was the prospective pastor at that time. The interview took place about six hours from where we were still living in our little campus housing mobile home. We had been hoping and waiting for "the call" for some time and were getting a bit desperate to get moved somewhere and start bringing in a paycheck. We were broke, idealistic, fresh-faced innocents, and we were VERY nervous. Summer was turning into fall and we would soon be forced to move—but where?

The interview was to take place at the church. A parsonage was next door, and the board had mailed us a key, telling us we would be sleeping there that evening after the interview and dinner. They suggested we let ourselves into the parsonage and unpack and clean up and then meet them next door at the church at 5 p.m. A little odd, but okay. We drove an ancient Ford Falcon (air conditioning? What is that?), with our two kids in the back. Someone was going to watch them while we interviewed. They were sweaty and irritable, and so were we. We were wearing tee shirts and shorts; our suitcases with appropriate attire were in the trunk. We left with plenty of time to spare, we thought.

But a flat tire, a horrendous accident involving cars backed up for two hours, and one car sick child took care of that. We stopped to call and say we would be delayed and could the interview be postponed one hour? The board chairman agreed, but either forgot or neglected to pass that message along. So we arrived in town, hot, miserable, nervous—but consoling ourselves that a quick but cool shower awaited. After more delay getting lost following the truly terrible directions we had been given, we pulled up to the glass doors of the church.

To our horror, on the other side of the doors were five men lined up watching for us, dressed in suits and ties, two with arms crossed and all wearing expressions of irritation. We piled out, straightening our rumpled clothes and glancing at each other with dismay. The babysitter had left. We had the interview on straight-backed chairs in the office, them in suits and ties and us in rumpled shorts, our kids noisily playing across the hall in the nursery. They actually extended a call, and we accepted. It turned out that we wished we hadn't.

When I started typing this story I did not realize it would be about red flags. Was there a red flag? Looking back, yes. They should have seen our distress and urged us to "freshen up" and they would meet with us in 30 minutes or something. Perhaps the shower was out, but it would have been nice to wash my face! Their disregard for our comfort and for courtesy did extend into our time there. So perhaps a suggestion would be to note how they treat you. Is there kindness, humor, flexibility? How they treat you in the interview will likely be how they treat you later.


  1. I love Jan's name story! I also admire her husband's quick since of humor!
    I agree with the Matriarch's if there seems to be soemthing "not quite right" about it, then it is wise to back away.
    It was not until a couple of year's later that I heard about a situaion in a church where i had been a potential candidate.
    Let's just say it would have been horrendous.
    Two things I have learend in my first call that are imporat to ask:
    1. How does your congrgation deal with conflict. This makes most squirm at first, but let teh question hang in the air and work with it. This is kind of like the skeltons in the closet question.
    2. Find out about follow-up care, support and contact through your denomiantion (presbytery, synod, diocese, whatever it happens to be).
    I could have benefited from a mentor and also from having a commmittee to met with me monthly to see how I am doing. This is usually some folks that were on the PNC.
    Did y'all read terri's post? Her APNC had a 6 month party for her !
    Basically, find out what support is there, locally for you as a new pastor. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, support, etc.
    The committtee should also give you an idea of the area you will be serving. What are schools like (if you have kids), what is there to do recreationally? How is the healthcare/doctors, etc.
    I actually ask, "What are teh negatives of living here?
    I benefit so muc hform this post!! Thanks to our Matries

  2. This helped me so much I'm printing it out and putting it in my save folder

  3. I agree that it's good to have the spouse visit, though later in the process. How they treat him/her will reveal some hidden expectations they might have of a "free associate" or whatever. A healthy level of interest in them (not pouncing on him/her, but not ignoring either) indicates that they care about you as a "whole" person, not just for what you can do for them.

    In our case, it was clear that our search committee wanted to get to know my spouse and for him to feel comfortable, but there were no hidden agendas beyond that.

    Then there was my friend whose wife came with him for the weekend visit, and they presented her with flowers and a cookbook. A lovely gesture in the committee's eyes, and just right for a different kind of couple perhaps. But it was just the clue my friends needed that this, uh, wasn't the right fit for them!

  4. I always ask the call (search committtee, etc) what they hope for in their new pastor. (And I preface it by saying, "I've read what your profile says you want, but what is it that YOU want?). Some folks can be very articulate, others don't really seem to's interesting.

    I also ask them what they think is the passion of the congregation - is there something they are particularly passionate about. Many congregations do lots and lots but is there something that they think of as their primary passion? For some this might be the music director (red flag???) for others they may not have any one thing. Or maybe it will clearly be feeding the hungry, etc...Regardless, this let's me say, well, hospitality might be your primary passion, or worship. That's something we can look at together....

    I like the questions on conflict, always good to see what they say and how they talk about it.

  5. PPB and I seem to be on opposite sides. ;-) Ideally, perhaps it should, as RM said, be a bit later before the spouse is introduced, but their life is going to change significantly as well. PPB is right on about being careful of the "two for one" expectations.

  6. And I would add, be honest. I don;t mean brutally honest, but...

    I knew my then-husband would not be spending much time in the community where the church was located (we had a house elsewhere; I had to live in the parsonage; he was planning to commute on weekends). I knew our marriage was rocky. But when the committee asked me how the distance from our home and the separation would affect me (or words to that effect), I tried to gloss it over, saying he was behind me and we would work it out.

    Predictably, it did not work, and when we did divorce, people in the congregation felt I had not been honest with them.

    Obviously, I wouldn't have said that things were terrible, but I could have said something along the lines of "It will be a challenge, we'll need the support of the congregation," etc.

  7. May or may not help, here's a corporate view:

    I would add, do research. Google the church in the town's newspapers to read any articles written and the tone. You've probably already checked out their website.

    Network with other pastors with questions of "do you know anything about this church?".

    You might want to ask how the position comes to be open? And the circumstances of the last pastor. Also the staff. What's the turnover.

  8. THis was a VERY VERY helpful. you Matri's ROCK

  9. I bopped over to the YDS link, and I thought it was helpful advice, but geez, some of the stuff directed to Episcopal women was annoying. "Women should be aware that some of the more conservative Southern churches will frown on pants for an interview"... I'm guessing that if they frown on pants, they're probably going to frown on a female priest, too... Also this tidbit: "Should you try to mimic a collar with a high white or black shirt? Ladies, we see right through that one. Just wear a regular blouse." Why are we assuming the women are the ones doing that?

    Oy. Maybe I'm feeling touchy this morning.

  10. Good job, Matriarchs!

    Blessings to all who read this and are searching for a first call.

  11. Thanks Matriarchs and those who chimed in with your thoughts. This is very helpful for an almost finished seminarian. I think I'll write some of these questions down to jump start my preparation later!

  12. LOL! Did you know you had different names?!!!! And, Singing Owl nailed THE ONE most important red flag ... how they treat you in an interview is indicative ... in one of my sitations the brutal interview was kind compared to the treatment I received while serving as pastor!

  13. I'd have to STRONGLY disagree about not bringing the spouse until the candidating weekend. In the PCUSA if you agree to a candidating weekend, you're basically saying, "I'm yours if you want me." It would be NUTS to make that commitment before your spouse has had a chance to visit the community, meet the folks and get his/her own sense of whether that community and congregation is a place where he/she could thrive. Now, having said that, the spouse doesn't need to be part of everything that happens on an interview visit. My last time around, the spouse of the PNC chair took my husband out sightseeing while the "intense" part of the interview was going on.

  14. My spouse went on two "first look" visits. Both were disastrous. On one, the chair of the PNC used our overheard "lively banter" (nothing untoward was said, just two people who had known each other for 20 years talking in shorthand) as one of the reasons that we were not only not a good match, but that in her opinion I was unfit for ministry! (Obviously there's more to the story.)

    When I came for the first visit at St Stoic, we were returning to an area we had live in on and off for 20+ years, so he stayed home. It was fine.

  15. Boy oh boy do I wish I'd read this before we went to this weekends interview. But nothing terrible happened, but the first time we met them they did ask me if I sing soprano, apparently, they're short on sopranos! But your questions! Skeletons!


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