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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Getting to Know You Edition

Spring is here, and so is first call interview season. This week's question comes from a candidate who is anticipating a few of the questions that call committees will ask her:

I am in the call (first) process for my denomination. Invariably with the first phone conference call the question comes, in various forms. Tell us a bit more about yourself and your family. I realize the desire to know about this potential person seeking a call in the church. And I also realize there is "their need" to know about marital status etc. If I have a need to know about schools in the area, I can ask. If I have a need to know if there are options for a spouse/partner to obtain employment...I can ask.

Does my gender and marital status make a difference on my ability to pastor a potential church?

I am single and have always been single. I have found this raises two questions. The first is sexual lifestyle and the second is how can you be effective in counseling couples with marital problems since you have lack "experience" in that area or with families with children who come to you for pastoral counseling. (note: my short answer was that I knew my limitations and would not hesitate to refer someone to a more specialized person...and that I was more than capable of dealing with the God-aspects of the people coming to see me).

In answering the "tell me more about" question, part of me wants to ignore giving them my marital status is not part of my call to the church. I also value being transparent...but resist feeling the urge to have to "explain" my status all the time.

Are other single women finding some of the same sexism? Wanting the male pastor with wife and 2.5 kids...or at least a married female pastor. Ministry is my second career and I am quite comfortable in my singleness. I do not look for that to change.

Our candidate asks for some specific advice on how to respond to the interview and the pastoral counseling questions.

Call committees are charged with the task of getting to know the candidate they will ultimately recommend to the congregation. In our denomination, a judicatory staff member will clearly identify appropriate and inappropriate questions for call committees.

Sue who blogs at Inner Dorothy and hails from Canada writes...
The question "tell us a bit more about you and your family" is a loaded question. Underlying it is the question of sexual orientation, gender identity and all kinds of other things that in my country NO employer (including the church) can ask under the Charter of Human Rights. My suggestion would be to reply with any answer that doesn't answer the question. In other words, talk about your family of origin, where they live, how often you see them, how your siblings are excited for you in your new calling, etc... anything but the "ARE YOU MARRIED OR PLANNING TO GET MARRIED?" red herring that they are whacking you with.

From Jan who blogs at A Church for Starving Artists
I was single when first called (and remained single for first 5 years in professional ministry.) My first interview after marriage and first child - going into the interview with baby spit up literally on my shoulder, I was asked if there was any way I could be a homosexual. (!) In other words - married or single - committees ask ridiculous questions as well as good questions.

Mompriest who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice points out:
Unlike what may be possible in the secular world, as clergy we are not really able to have a private life that is completely removed from the congregation. Churches are community and clergy are part of that community, even as we lead the community. Also, unlike the secular world the family members of clergy often become part of the congregation.Therefore, like it or not, who we are as clergy persons in our professional and personal lives becomes important information for congregations.

From Jan:
The best advice I was given as a single person seeking a first call in professional ministry was this: when the committee asks if you have questions or comments for them, let them know that, as a single person, you will have friends visit you. This will be essential for your own emotional well-being. Sometimes they will be male and sometimes they will be female. Sometimes they will be married and sometimes they will be single. Some will visit from out of town. Some visitors will be family. It will be important for you to have a personal life - just as it is important for them to have a personal life.

Jan also addresses the questions that may arise about counseling:
It sounds like your imagined answers are sound. Pastoral care is not about experiencing every possible life situation and then sharing and comparing your own personal life experiences. It's about listening well and having authentic compassion. And as you said, you will consult others as necessary. In fact, a healthy congregation might engage experienced married couples to assist with pre-marital counseling as part of their ministry. Healthy, faithful, experienced parents might be tasked to lead parenting groups to support other young parents. Ministry is a team effort in a healthy church, and you job - as pastor - would be to ensure that such leaders are equipped. You are not the sole minister in the congregation if we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers. And being single/married/dating/gay/straight - none of those things matter when it comes to real care for each other in the church

From RevAbi who blogs at Rev Abi's Long and Winding Road
As far as doing Marital Counseling, you can get more training, or take CEU classes if you want to know more. I have counseled couples when I was not married and counseled families before I had children. Those things don't necessarily make for a better counselor or for a "fit" with the counselor. There is enough material out there to help with your counseling, and even if you knew how to do it; you would need to refer at a certain point anyway. The referral would happen at 6 sessions or less. It is harder to be Pastor and Counselor to a congregation. You are applying for a Pastor's job not a Counselor's job, and you can share you see yourself as the Pastor who does short term counseling as proscribed by your denominational structure.

Some final words from Mompriest
I think the most important thing is to be comfortable with who you are, answer their questions to the degree you feel you can with confidence and integrity. Find out who this community is, where their values are, and if you think it is a good fit over all, rehearse your answers to questions like these so that they reveal as much as you'd like in the way that reflects who you are, saying nothing more than necessary to be both transparent to the degree you desire and reveal your comfortableness with who you are.

Most of all, trust yourself and God, a good call is waiting to find you!

Do you have first hand experience or insights that would help our candidate prepare for the interview process? Are sexism or other -isms still rearing their ugly heads in your vicinity?
Please add your thoughts by way of the comment function.

And please send more questions our way at

May you live in God's amazing grace+

image courtesy of


  1. Yesterday I attended a statewide gathering for Interim Pastors serving in my denomination. We checked in about our churches and ministry in general. I was shocked to hear two of the pastors, men of retirement age (who perhaps not coincidentally are not UCC) sing the praises of young married men as the hope of the church. I finally said, "Well, I guess I know what I need to do. I need to find a wife and start having babies." They shut up.
    My point is, those of us serving as Interims have a responsibility to get search committees ready for asking and not asking certain kinds of questions, and frankly to get them beyond thinking so simplistically, too. This responsibility also lies with our Conference Ministers or Presbytery Execs or judicatories if they are involved in the process. Good education for the laity, particularly search committees, can help with this issue.

  2. During one of the phone interviews of my first call process, the chair of the search committee asked if his son would like to date me.
    My regret is that I was so shocked, my response was kind of lame. I said something like, "Well, I don't know, but he couldn't because I'm in a relationship."
    So many other responses came to me later, some of which might have been appropriate, some of which might not have.
    I am convinced that his goal was to discover if I was overweight or not, because it was a follow-up to asking if I could send a picture.
    I'm never sure how you deal with crap like this, but I guess it might help to think through some stuff ahead of time: if your gut tells you someone has crossed a line, do you go ahead and say the satisfying thing that will destroy your chances at the job, or do you assume the rest of the folks there aren't so obtuse?
    Practicing some possible responses is a good idea, but you never know what sort of craziness you'll be responding to!

  3. When I was interviewing with a higher education institution for chaplaincy, I met with a pastor of the church that had a long history with the institution. I was asked point blank, "are you a lesbian?"
    When I came out of that interview, two people from the college came to pick me up , and I told them what happened.
    They were aghast...and worried that I would sue, since I wasn't interviewing with the church but with an insitituion...

    in any case, sexism--of all kinds is rampant.

    can any one say, "stained glass ceiling"?

  4. I'm not a pastor, but I've been on call committees twice. We did have clues about a prospective pastor's age, marital status, etc. from the forms we were given, but not specifics. I think that some of the people wanted to share those things upfront. We did meet spouses because they came to the church with the candidates. One single man made a point to talk about his ex girlfriend, I suppose to put sexuality issues aside.

    Perhaps a candidate can bring up certain topics her/himself to beat the committee to the punch.

    But as a committee, we talked about what we could not legally ask. We also talked about the spouse this way, "We are not hiring the spouse. We won't make our decision based on the spouse. But if this pastor comes to our church, we will do everything we can to network so that person can get employment."

    However, from what I've heard elsewhere, call committees don't always know the legal boundaries and they may step over personal boundaries.

    But there is a difference between with a pastor and a secular employee because the church usually cares about the pastor and his/her family and wants to do well by those people, hence the call committee wants a good fit for all. I don't see how a candidate can easily turn aside questions that cross a line without making the people suspicious.

    With the internet, a candidate can look up lots about the community and schools, so having some of this knowledge ahead of time can help with the candidates questions to the call committee.

    Regarding counseling, etc: Your strengths and weaknesses aren't, I believe, tied to marital or parental status.

  5. This is such a tricky thing! My experience has been that church search committees do not have the sort of hiring training that employers in other fields have. They don't always know what is legal or appropriate to ask. Songbird is right that an interim should help prepare them, and any judicatory officials should be doing that as well.

    Of course that doesn't help you, as the candidate. If they ask an illegal or inappropriate question, it's not like you can simply respond "That's illegal to ask me," or "That's inappropriate." I tend to be pretty upfront about who I am. In this day and age, committees can find out a good deal about a candidate simply by searching online anyway. I would be hesitant to be cagey about my status.

    FWIW, when I was in seminary I used to hear that churches wanted their male ministers married (with kids) and their female ministers single. The operating assumption was that if a female minister was married with kids that she was going to have priorities other than the church. (How sad that the other side of that assumption is that for a married male minister his priority would be the church and his wife would be expected to carry the whole load at home). This is obviously problematic and sexist in its own right. Still, your status as a single person might be seen as a gift (as it should be - any status comes with unique gifts).

    When I was single and pastoring a church, I never encounted concerns about my ability to counsel couples or families (Catholic priests have been doing it for centuries!). Honestly, the bigger issue was that people sometimes assumed that because I didn't have a husband and kids at home I didn't have as much need to be at home or away from church. I had to draw some clear lines to preserve my own social time, even though it didnt' involve taking care of a family.

  6. I've been ordained for 15 years and married just three years ago. Most of my search committee experience occurred when I was single.

    In response to the "tell us about yourself" questions I would focus on the gifts and experience that you bring to the position for which you are interviewing. Take charge of and direct your response to what you want them to know. Ignore the family question if you choose.

    I actually found it useful to raise the matter myself as a point of strenght. "As a single person I rely on significant relationships with family and friends as part of balancing my personal and professional life. It's important to me to maintain those relationships, as well as to cultivate healthy friendships through activities unconnected to church."

    This approach often does a few things. It draws attention to boundary issues subtlely and establishes that there is a clear distinction between church life and personal life. It also reveals that you have the self-awareness to know that these are important matters, and it demonstrates that you know how to take care of yourself. Search committees may feel relieved that they don't have to "worry" about taking care of you! And, as noted above, you take charge of the subject matter in raising it, showing that you are not afraid of the subject. In my experience the committee feels satisfied with the directness and doesn't dwell on the matter.

    If you feel comfortable doing so, you may also raise the subject of sexual orientation. "I know that the atmosphere of the church is tender when it comes to sexuality, so let me address that with you." You've just spared them some awkwardness, and they will feel relieved.

    Basically I think that when you take charge of what you want them to know, you will be fine, no matter what they ask. And there is always the question that answers the question, which has the potential to open up sharing that wouldn't take place otherwise. "It sounds as though this is a concern for St. Potential. Can you tell me something about what makes you ask this question?

    Wishing you luck in the process!

  7. Weird questions don't stop when you're no longer single.
    Last year when I was discerning where God was calling me next, one of the interviews I had with a church was by telephone because of the distance.
    Because one of the members of the search committee had been to a service in my then congregation, he knew from an announcement I made that I was married to a male clergy person.
    During the phone interview, they asked what my husbands plans were if I went to said congregation. I answered, in the politest way I could, that my spouse was not their concern and they weren't responsible for finding him a call. If we as a family discerned that this was where God was leading us, we trusted that things would work out.
    Needless to say, this was a huge flag for me.
    Another one I've been asked is whether I intend to have more children (I have one). Sometimes I make light of it and joke about our busy daughter. Other times I simply respond that it is personal and leave it at that.
    I know churches care, and want to care about their ministers. But they definitely need more training about appropriate and inappropriate questions, not just in the call process, but in general!

  8. Aghast at what Songbird experienced, and appalled at the "are you a lesbian" question. Still, as others have already said, ministering in a church is not the same as working in a secular organization. I do not think some questions and answers about family are out of place. Others clearly are (would my son like to date you? ???) Share what you wish, do not share what you do not want to, but don't be surprised by the question. It is going to be asked.

  9. Go Songbird - LOVE that response! Thanks for speaking up for all of us women clergy out here.

    As for the "are you a lesbian" question - any clergy rep on a search committee has the duty to inform the interview team of what is appropriate and what is not - not to mention what is just plain against the law.

    Respectfully, if we don't stop making excuses for these search teams, the sexism will never stop. It's not a "generational" thing, it's a humanity thing.

    Women clergy have worked very hard by the time they sit at that table with the team interviewing them. They deserve, and simply MUST have, more respect than they are often shown.

    (Sorry, soap box here...)

  10. Ugh. As someone in the call process now, it is annoying to get questions about your marital status. And you are correct in saying there are questions we can ask if needed. And although our family life may have impact on our ability to serve, this comes in different forms. Someone with a young child may have childcare issues, but as a single person with aging parents, down the road, I may face issues with their care.
    Main point is, we all bring our own stuff with us to any call. it will ultimatley be our responsability, but we will need to be supported in whatever bridge we must cross.
    As far, as the counseling part, it seems pretty lame to assume we can't counsel various people (marriage always is the biggie!). I have not lost a parent, yet this does not impact my ability to minister to those who have.
    I always answer by letting them know that I typically will meet with someone 3x and then make referrals as needed to those who have training and expertise which I may not have, but will continuse contact with them to see how they are, offer prayer, and continued pastoral support.
    The questions still amaze me that I get from PNCs. I sometimes want to ask, " Is that REALLY what is most important to you?

  11. SB, LOL on your post.
    You bring a great poinnt though in terms of work we can do in ther transition process with our churches.

  12. One of my early first call interviews was for a program sized church for the position of Associate Pastor. Part of the deal for the weekend was that the Head of Staff wanted to interview me on his own, which I just thought was normal.

    A few minutes into the "interview", however, he got a phone call from his wife which sounded kind of "staged". He told his wife to 'come on over and pick up the book she was looking for at home'.

    A few minutes after that I see a woman outside his study, trying to peek in at me through the window around the branches of a tree. Several more minutes pass and she walks into the office, where he passes off a book to her after she gets a good long look at me.

    Basically: she wanted to check me out. Not to talk to me, but to see what I looked like.

    Huge. red. flag.

  13. When I interviewed for my current call, I was single. Maybe I'm naive, but when I was asked the "tell us about yourself and your family" question during the face-to-face interview, I didn't find it sexist. I saw it as a genuine desire on the committee to find out more about me and the important people in my life. And I appreciated the opportunity to talk about being close with my family, about my aging parents, because it created a more complete picture of who I am - not only a pastor, but a daughter, sister, sis-in-law, aunt.

    One of my references was my preaching prof. The person on the search committee who called her asked if she had any concerns about me being called to this church. She said, "my only concern is that when a single person pastors a small church in a small town, they can end up being married to the church. That would not be healthy for Kim or for the church." The search committee and Sesssion took that advice seriously and respected my boundaries, and also allowed me a great deal of flexibility in office hours, rhythm of work week, etc.

    During the interview weekend, I had informal time with each of the committee members, either individually or in duos. During that time I did get the marriage question, and as I always try to do, relied on God's providence - "Marriage is one of many ways in which God intends for humankind to live in community. If in God's providence I am to be married, then that will be wonderful, but if in God's providence God has something else in mind for me, that will be wonderful as well." Incidentally, with changing pronouns, that's almost the same response I gave when a few people asked if Dave & I were going to have kids. But that was a very few, and most people were very respectful of our privacy.

    As to the question of single pastors offering marriage or family counseling, the only time I got this was a year after I'd been here and an elder who is no longer at this church came up with a list a mile long of all of my failings as pastor. One of her comments - "I think you'll be better at this when you've had more life experience (I was 42 at the time, had worked in the business world for 12 years, and done a 15-month cpe residency), and getting married will help with that." My response? "Are you saying that Catholic priests and nuns cannot offer marriage and family counseling because they're not married or parents?" She was speechless, for once.

  14. Wow Cheesehead. I'm chiming in as a married clergy couple (two different denominations) to say that the guys get weird questions too. In my husband's first visit to his new appointment as a solo pastor, when I was working at another church, he had a member ask him in all seriousness when he was going to keep me home where I belong.... The current church informed me early on that I was the first pastor's wife EVER not to sing in the choir. Then I took another call and I'm not even in worship. EVER! Good advice here from the matriarchs as usual....

  15. I was single for my first five years in ordained ministry. At my first call interview, a guy in the congregation asked, "do you have a man in your life?" After a short pause, I replied, "let's just say Jesus, and leave it at that."

    I think he got the point.

    I can say from my own experience that I am not a better premarital/marital counselor now that I'm married than I was as a single person. Effective counseling does not depend on having the same experiences as the person being counseled. If that were so, I would only be able to counsel married Lutheran women in their 30's who don't have children and who have curly hair. This would limit my outreach somewhat.

    Committees will inevitably ask dumb questions. Pay attention to your gut. And blessings!

  16. Some of the questions you have brought up are insensitive and inappropriate. But others are not... The committee is trying to get to know you as a person, just a little bit. They are NOT interviewing you for a job; you would (hopefully) be offended if they were. They are considering inviting you to be a part of their community. They are deciding if a mutual trust and respect can develop between you and the members of the congregation. Just as you are trying to make the same decision. Should I be offended that our search committee asked for "intimate" family information like whether or not I'm married and if I have children in preparing an information packet for our new (female and single) pastor? Should I decide that this is a red flag and I should look for a new church home? Should I rebuff her attempts to get to know me out of concern that she's trying to determine if I'm lesbian? Or should we both be greeting one another as sisters in Christ? Sometimes the questions we are asked by search committees and by prospective employers are indeed indications that we should run screaming from the room or hang up the phone. Sometimes they are just awkward attempts to make a connection, to get to know each other.

  17. Anonymous, I think the concern you're hearing expressed is that rather than trying to get to know the candidate better, the questions are aimed at eliminating a candidate *without* discerning a match in other areas. It is ILLEGAL to ask some of the questions that churches feel free to ask in interviews. Yes, our jobs are different than other jobs. But there is an employment contract involved, and we are expected to maintain professional boundaries. We are not simply being invited to join the family. It's more layered than that. Understanding the appropriate boundaries from the beginning makes a difference for everyone.

  18. SB, I know people (and my boss thinks this to a certain degree) that would agree with the "young married men" comments. Argh...

    And I was asked just last week point blank if I was a lesbian.

    In academia, asking about orientation or marital status or family would be illegal. But those questions are asked anyway. I tried to head off family questions by talking about my family before I was asked so that I could frame the context. But I find that more difficult in church interviews.

    Ageism, sexism, racism, homophopbia--all alive and well in the church, sad to say.

  19. What RDM said.

    I am in the midst of search for my first call right now and the age/health thing has come up under the guise of "do you think you're energetic enough?" Well, dang it, if I survived three years of seminary working part-time as a lobbyist in the midst of it, managing a college-age daughter with Bipolar disorder, serving as a TA for one professor and an RA for another, doing an honors thesis and an independent study project in the Middle East...I think I can handle just about anything.

    The root of the problem here is people's underlying and mistaken assumptions. This is why there is the belief that only young men can do youth ministry, that only married people can do marriage counseling, that only parents can do family counseling.

    So perhaps there is a gentle and loving way to make these questions into teachable moments. In one case, when queried about the age/health thing, I said that I had found that one of the gifts of life experience was in prioritizing my work, so I could be most effective for those I served. In another, when they talked about youth ministry, I talked about the five children I had raised and my deep love for young people - I didn't play much guitar, but I could listen without judgment better than most, and there was very little that would surprise me.

    Search committees are often not briefed on what they can and cannot ask. SB is right - those who are interims, or those who are in the deployment business, have some work to do.

    Insofar as the dating question, I would have probably gotten myself in trouble by saying, with tongue firmly implanted in my cheek, "Why no - I'd much rather date you." I suspect that would have ended the line of questioning and the interview rather quickly.

  20. I wish I could say I've never ever heard these kinds of comments before. But I have. Present setting included.

    Unfortunately, it will continue to be an issue until the cycle or re-educating the Church on who "can" be a pastor is complete. I have high hopes that my daughters' daughters, whenever God brings them on the scene, will not be asking or be asked these questions!!


  21. mibi52 - AMEN and AMEN!!!

    another "old" seminarian!


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