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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Call Process Edition

Our question this week:

In four (probably very short) weeks I have my first ever interview for a call. In our system one is "settled" (placed, sent, appointed) to their first call following ordination but from that point on it is a application, interview process.

So what should one expect in a job interview for ministry? How should one prepare? What sorts of questions should the candidate ask of the committee?

Preparation for the interview is crucial.

Rector in Hawai'i suggests:

I'd ask for the following at least a few days before the interview: Annual Reports for previous year; 3 most recent monthly newsletters; last three sets of vestry minutes and operating budget reports; membership figures for the past five years; reasons of the last two pastors for leaving.

Earthchick adds:

In terms of preparation, I would want to know as much as I could about the church I was interviewing with as possible, and how I would see my own ministry style and priorities fitting with theirs. In my experience, the interview really is a two-way street - for both you and the congregation to learn about each other. It's kind of like going on a date! So I would read their website thoroughly, and if there is crucial information missing, I would ask for that (either ahead of time or at the interview) - things like church history, a current budget, a church profile, a profile of what they are looking for, a stated mission and/or vision. Look for what might be missing as well - no youth meetings on their calendar? lots of fellowship opportunities but no opportunities for mission and service? These kinds of things might inform any questions you would want to ask.

Jan suggests that a look into the information the call committee makes available may shape the questions you want to ask:

Look for what is not said but is alluded to (e.g. "We are looking for someone with a calm presence." Did they have a former pastor with a temper? "We want a pastor with good organizational skills." Was the last pastor disorganized?)

Sally deo Gloria notes:

I like to think about what I'm hoping for in a position (for me and for the community). I like to think about what's important to me, and what gifts I bring. With clarity on all that, most questions are easy to answer. Prayer is good too.

On the question of what questions to ask, our matriarchs and friends offer the following:

Rector from Hawaii notes:

Questions might include their understanding of the relationship between pastor and leadership and pastor and congregation.

What are the pastor's specific job responsibilities and are there areas or ministries in which the pastor is not involved?

What's the relationship between the congregation and the local judicatory?

How do they feel about the pastor taking continuing ed time and retreat time?

Are there expectations of the pastor that are not written in the job description or letter of agreement?

What has the interim period been like?

Have they done some in-depth self-examination? What have they learned about themselves?

Who makes up the core leadership of the congregation and how long have they been in those positions?

How are new leaders encouraged and integrated?

What are the top two largest challenges for the congregation in the next three years?

If they say they want more young families in the parish, ask them why and who will be attracting those families. (Do they realize that young families do not bring in big bucks?)

And how will an influx of young families change the relationships among members of the congregation?

Would there be a number of members that would make the congregations too big?

Sally deo Gloria suggests that candidates ask questions reflective of what is important to them and whatever might be vitally important to the calling congregation :

Ask the "hard" questions -- whatever they are.

Do I have to live in the parsonage?

Are you willing to change the service times?

Earthchick adds:

What sorts of things is this congregation most likely to get anxious about?

Tell me about a conflict this church has dealt with in the past 10 years - how did the church handle it?

Is the church still dealing with the effects of it in any way?

What do people love about this church?

You might want to ask what the church's priorities for, in terms of what they seek from their pastor. They may want someone who can do all aspects with equal excellence, but since that's not realistic, I would press them on what ranks higher. If they are looking for exceptional preaching, what do they also expect from the minister in terms of pastoral care and visitation, or administration, etc.? They won't give you any kind of ranking (most likely), but you should be able to get a sense of how their priorities mesh with your own gifts and priorities. It might be helpful to find out what they think previous ministers excelled at, and what gaps there were.

Jan offers some questions that can yield valuable insights:

What are the sacred cows of this congregation?

What skeletons are in the closet?

(Asked of each person on the committee individually) What about this church community personally deepens your relationship with Jesus Christ?

The committee should also hear about your own vision for ministry and your commitments:

From Earthchick:

My biggest piece of advice is to be yourself, and to be honest. Just as you want a clear assessment of who they are, you want them to get a realistic idea of who you are.

Jan passes on some advice that served her well:

The best advice I was given - especially as a twenty-something single woman moving to a small town - was to say something like this when they ask if you have any questions for them:

As a single person with no family or friends living in the area, I will have people visiting me in my home from time to time. Sometimes they'll be friends and sometimes they'll be family. Sometimes they'll be women and sometimes they'll be men. I just want you to know up front that it's important for me to keep my connections with people.

This made it possible to have lots of people visit me in the manse without ever hearing gossip - even in a tiny town where everyone watched the pastor's house like a hawk. It made a huge difference.

Finally, a wise layperson writes about the unique nature of the call/hiring process:
One thing that I took away from the process is that when an individual church is responsible for the hiring/calling process all the participants are amateurs and are frequently making things up as they go along.

Another thing to realize, if you haven't been through the process in your home church as a congregant, is that the hiring process itself is frequently the last few steps of a much longer process of congregational discernment. The committee handling the hiring process may have been working together for a year or more and may be somewhere between a well-oiled-machine and people who feel that if they have to attend one more meeting they will scream.

Our matriarchs have offered some excellent advice...what would you add?

May you live in God's amazing grace+

Rev Honey


  1. All sounds like great advice. I want to offer my prayers for this person...know that you are being lifted up in the next month!

  2. Seems like all possibleanswers are already here! I'll just add my prayers!

  3. As a former deployment officer (the one in the judicatory who helps with call process) - the main thing is to be yourself - as you will have to live with the congregation a long time (hopefully) and one cannot live as a false image for very long.

  4. This is one of those "keeper" columns that I wish I could have in a book. Title it "ATM says..."

    just sayin

  5. All good advice in the column. I'll just add (or reinforce) two things: I found it really helpful to ask the committee members what each of them would like, personally, from a pastor. I found that they were so focused on thinking for the whole congregation (which is good!) that the question threw them off a little, but led to good discussion. One woman told me she would really like someone who could help her disabled daughter connect with the congregation. That never came up in the standard interview time. It also helped me catch a bit of glimpse about how people, as individuals, wanted to relate to the pastor.

    Second thing (which I should have thought about more in my first call): to remember that it is just as important for you to evaluate whether this is a good place for YOU, as it is whether you might be good for them. At least in our system, there's a bit of pressure to accept the first call, out of fear that there might not be other options out there. (I think this is largely a self-inflicted fear, but it's there.) Give yourself permission to go with your gut. Don't feel pressured to say 'yes' just because they really want you and your student loan deadline is coming. I mean, I get that, but it won't be good in the long run. Be confident in yourself.

    And much peace to you.

  6. Great set of questions. You may also like to ask about the mission of the congregation, How are they engaged in their community? How are they regarded? Relationship with media and with civic bodies? What ways are they addressing issues like global warming? If you have a partner be prepared for the possibility of questions about their role. I was pre-warned when I accompanied my husband on a trip for such an interview. My stock answer was "I will be a member of the congregation alongside each of you" I agree it is not really an appropriate question - but I think people generally are asking from a sincere desire to help a household or family make a smooth transition. For me it was helpful to also firmly dispell any "minister's wife" expectations.

  7. A couple of questions that I would ask:

    Are you willing to have an external audit prior to me accepting this call?

    Is the church council willing to go to offsite planning meetings 2 times a year?

    In a congregation with paid staff... who do they take direction from and who has hire/fire authority?

  8. Oh yeah... one more thing... do they have a child safe policy and are they following it?

  9. Two questions that always got interesting responses when I was interviewing with churches: If there was a fire and you could only save one item from the building, what would it be? Gets at their values really quickly. One person told me, and others agreed, it would be the mural in the hall outside the sanctuary that the children had made through the years. Told me a lot about how they valued their children. The other question that got at their core values was this: What event in the life of the church involves the most people in the congregation and where would you see me participating in that event? One church committee was very quiet for a long time and lots of glances were exchanged before they were willing to admit their significant event was the Annual Men's Fish Fry and they would want me to just come and enjoy myself. Again, told me a lot about the church culture very quickly. I would "Amen!" the comments about trusting your instincts. My husband does not participate in the church at all. I would usually skip over any mention of that until at least the second interview, but at one church, it felt like I needed to bring it up in our initial meeting. I was very honest and open about how he is supportive of what I do and who I am, but they needed to know they were not getting a "package deal." We would be living 60 miles apart if I took the call and, after 30 years of marriage, we were OK with that. The women my age got it and were very supportive. It took 3 more meetings before the younger man on the committee would believe we weren't getting a divorce and this was our way of splitting up! Trust your gut, relax, and enjoy yourself. God has already chosen your next position. You are just going through the process of finding it.

  10. The committee handling the hiring process may have been working together for a year or more and may be somewhere between a well-oiled-machine and people who feel that if they have to attend one more meeting they will scream.

    that rang so true for me - we methodists have way too many meetings!!!!!

  11. From a friend ---
    First of all, let me applaud and affirm your intuition that you need to prepare yourself spiritually and intellectually for this interview. Good for you for having the courage to ask the questions.

    So, begin with prayer and ask your family, friends and colleagues to pray for you as you prepare.

    Acquaint yourself with the congregation's web page and/or newsletter. Take a close look at what's there but more importantly what - and who - isn't. See if you know any of the previous rectors or those who have been in your position. Call them and ask them for their perspective and advice.

    Check out the past five entries of their parochial report for information pertaining to what you will have in your portfolio. Notice any patterns in increase or decrease.

    When you interview, applaud them on what appears to you like progress or risk or innovation. Only ask the questions about problem areas that pertain to your scope of work. Frame those questions very carefully, giving lots of wiggle room for answers. And then, note whether or not they took advantage of that wiggle room. Ask yourself what they might be trying to hide - what might embarrass them - what they don't want to discuss with you and why.

    If you've noticed a pattern in financial decline or increase, you may consider asking them about that and ask to what they would attribute that. Or, depending on your own confidence and the sense you get from the interview team, you might want to save what might be the more uncomfortable questions for your bishop and the rector. Remember: there are other sources of information other than the interview.

    Pay close attention to metaphors and then, explore those metaphors with them, like, "What do you mean when they say, 'We are a family church'? Can you fill that out for me?"

    Or, "You say in your mission statement that you are a 'community of prayer'. Can you tell me how that is lived out in this community?"

    Or, "What was the worst thing to happen in/to this community of faith and how did you respond?"

    Remember to SMILE and be GRACIOUS when you ask these questions. Remember to BREATHE. Let your statements and questions flow from the "inquiring and discerning heart" which was prayed for you at your baptism. Remember: it's not an inquisition; it's an interview - for you and for them. Be "naturally, positively curious" about this new community and let that frame your posture and attitude toward them.

    When I interviewed for the position I'm in now, I got the sense in the room that there was something no one was willing to say out loud. I had read their financial reports, so I had a sense of what it might be. So, when the inevitable "last thing" was said (with all of 5 minutes left on the clock): "Do you have any questions you want to ask of us?" I took a risk and said:

    "Yes. You know almost everything about me. You know almost all of my secrets, and I have to admit to a little anxiety that, now that you know, you may not want me here. Is there a secret you have that, if I found out about it, you'd be afraid I wouldn't want to come."

    Well! I hadn't planned on asking that question, and clearly, neither had they anticipated being asked. It got very, very quiet until one brave soul said, "I'm sure everyone thinks we are an affluent community. We're not. We have had to struggle to bring our budget in balance every year I've been here. So, you should know that you are not coming into great wealth where you can have anything you want. You're going to have to work as hard as the rest of us. We'll work hard with you, because we love this church, but it won't be as easy as you might think."

    I thanked him profusely for his honesty and then used the opportunity to talk about my theology of abundance vs. scarcity.

    Turns out, that question and that answer did it. I was called by a unanimous first vote two days later. Some of the search committee and vestry members still remember that moment in the interview almost 7 years later. It was very powerful.

    So, my last piece of advice: Make room for the Holy Spirit - but only if you have courage to face what She might bring to your interview. Even if that is the message that this is not the church for you and/or you are not the minister for them. That's not a bad thing. Indeed, like an engagement or marriage, it's better to know this before you make your vows to each other.

    Oh, and my best wishes to you as you move into this very exciting time in your life.


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