Your palms are sweaty, you're tapping your foot, you've made your 4th cup of coffee. And the phone rings. It's a number you've expected. It's a search committee from a church that wants to talk to you. And thanks to the miracles of modern technology, you can video chat easily.
One thing that far too many ministry candidates fail to do is ask good questions of the committee. They've come armed with a list of questions for you about theology, testimony, family, background, experience, vision, strengths/weaknesses, personality, worship style, etc. Failing to have any good questions for them is both a red flag an an invitation to get into a dumpster fire.
As much as a committee is interviewing you, you need to interview them. You need to get to know who they are, what their church is like, how their community works, and more. Can I propose 10 questions to ask?
1. How did the position come open? - That's the better way of asking "what happened to the last guy?" You want to know if it was a resignation, termination, retirement, or something else. You need to know why the previous leader left. Talk about the impact that had on the church, and find out if they've had a history of short tenures. If it was a termination, ask how they made it gracious.
2. Does your church reflect your community? - Sometimes churches stick out like sore thumbs in their community because they don't reflect their neighbors. Every situation is different, so you need to ask the questions of the community and the church's demographics. If it's a largely Anglo church in a minority community, ask why. If it's a church of Millennials in the middle of a massive retirement community, ask why.
3. How was the last major conflict handled? - Churches will have areas of conflict, it's inevitable. The issue is how that conflict was handled. Was it swept under the rug, did it lead to a blowup in a business meeting, or was it handled well through lay leadership and humble repentance? Conflict left unresolved by a previous tenure isn't their problem anymore, it could become your problem.
4. Does the church have debt? - I don't believe necessarily that church debt is bad. It's sometimes essential for a church to incur debt for a campus expansion, renovation, or to accommodate growth. But with debt must come a plan to pay it off. One time in an interview I asked about debt and if they had a plan, and the answer was "Oh yes, we have a balloon note and pay the minimum each month and refinance before the balloon pops." It's also important to find out if their debt retirement is affecting their ability to do ministry.
5. What was your church's most recent major victory? - Find out what the church has been able to celebrate in the last year or two. Maybe they had a huge turnout for VBS or a Block Party, or maybe they had a note burning. Find what they've been able to cheer about and rejoice.
6. What is your church actively doing to engage your neighbors? - This is where you find out where/if they have boots on the ground. Sending checks to mission agencies is great. So are sending postcards to families who move in your area. But what are you doing to actively engage your neighbors?
7. What is your church's view on marriage and gender? - Typically the spectrum on gender will range from egalitarian (men & women are equally competent and capable of serving in ministry leadership) to complementarian (men & women are equal but with distinct roles in the church). It's not wise to go to a church outside of your viewpoint. Also, what is the congruence between the church's view on marriage, divorce, sexuality, etc. and yours?
8. How many people has your church baptized in the last few years? - Church growth is great, but not always when it comes by transfers. Healthy church growth happens when people are added through baptism, when they come to faith in Christ and are nurtured in the church. Along with this question, you need to know the demographics of the baptisms. If a church is only baptizing the children of its adult members, something might be off. But if people are being baptized who've been invited as teenagers, young adults, or senior citizens, that's a sign of a church's intentionality to reach its neighbors.
9. How does your church make decisions? - This is always a fun one to ask. Churches have to make decisions, and they have a way of making them, whether it's written or assumed. Find out what has to be voted on by the whole church, who has the ability to make decisions, where does the locus of leadership come from, and what do the staff and lay leadership have as their area of responsibility. Typically decisions in most churches can be decided by: the Pastor, the Staff, the Deacons, some form of Leadership Team/Church Council/Strategic Leadership, or Board.
10. What are the staff dynamics? - A friend of mine took an interview with a search committee which led to a staff lunch. After leaving the lunch he called and said "Dude, they don't like each other. And it's awkwardly obvious." If you're interviewing with a search team for a lead/senior pastoral role, you need to know what kind of staff you're inheriting. Is it a healthy staff? Is it divided? Is it an exhausted staff? What kind of personalities are there? Are they good as a team?
If you're talking with a search committee, drop me a line and I'd be glad to chat about navigating the process well and getting a good feel for the church as a potential fit!
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.