20 Questions a Pastoral Candidate Should Ask a Search Committee
by Joe McKeever
Here’s the situation. You, the pastoral candidate, are sitting in a room with a committee of anywhere from 6 to 20 people. They have spent the evening tossing questions, real and theoretical, at you. You are drained and everyone is ready for the evening to end.
But not yet. Finally, the chair says, “And pastor, is there anything you would like to ask us?”
You bring out your list.
Now, if everyone has been sitting for an hour or more, you might want to suggest a stand-up break before you start. That signals them that this is important too, just as critical as what went before, and that they should not be expecting to (ahem) get out early. (After all, there is no guarantee you will ever have another visit with these folks. Even if nothing comes from this interview, your questions could help them learn how pastors see this process.)
In most cases, this is a briefer period than their interview with you, usually no more than 30 minutes. Make the questions clear and ask for clarifications on responses you do not understand. Always remember that open-ended questions, those that allow for thoughtful responses, are always best.
Your questions for the PSC will fall into two categories: Those to be asked of the chairman/leadership in private and those laid before the entire committee.
What questions would you ask the chairman in private? Answer: Things that might be considered embarrassing or presumptuous or of a private nature. If the church has come through a split or if they fired the previous pastor, this is better dealt with in a one-on-one with the chair than in the entire group. By asking it to the entire committee, you run the risk of opening an old wound or reviving a previous division. Ask it in private.
If the pastor candidate has something in his life that might be considered a deal-breaker (“I’m divorced” or “One of my children is gay” or “Our son is in prison”), these are better shared in private. Then, when he/she thinks it’s appropriate, the chair can inform the full committee.
I suggest everyone keep notes. The minister in particular should scribble quick notes on what is said and transcribe them into longer, fuller reports on returning to his room. No one should trust their memory on these matters. So much is said, much serious and some in jest, some implied and some explicit, which will be forgotten within hours. Write it down.
Possible questions the minister will want to put before the pastor search committee include….
1) What are the 3 most important things you want from your pastor?
Get ready for their answers to be all over the map. Most committees have not talked this out, and their expectations are as scattered as the congregation’s are. Nevertheless, jot down their answers. Then, consider pointing out to them the wide variety of their answers and how this is typical of congregations and they should never forget this. Then, make whatever point you wish about this, if any.
2) What is your church’s position on (fill in the blank; some issue important to you personally)?
This could be a question on doctrine, a denominational controversy, some issue in their community, divorced deacons, divorce itself, homosexuality, entrenched leadership (i.e., treasurer or deacon chairman who has held the same position for 30 years), the pastor knowing how much people are contributing and who is tithing, and such. You could go anywhere with this question, but should limit it to one or two issues of great weight to you.
3) Does your church provide (blank) for the minister and his family?
This might be a housing allowance or health care, expenses for the wife to accompany the pastor to the annual denominational conference, a pastorium (manse), etc. In most cases, this will have already been made clear to you.
4) Which translation of the Bible does your church use?
You’re looking for stumps in this field you may be asked to plow. If you are KJV only and the people are using many modern translations–or if the opposite is the case–you need to know this going in. What you do with the information is up to you.
5) Has the church ever given a pastor a sabbatical (a few weeks off to rest or study or travel or visit other churches)?
Over a ministry of a half-century, I received this twice and the benefits continue to this day. I recommend it strongly, both for the church (in many cases, they will get a new pastor for their investment) and for the minister, who needs the break. The church should continue all salary and benefits and cover expenses for ministers who fill in during the preacher’s absence. A visionary congregation will do this. Churches that do not do this have usually never been asked to do so or shown the reasons for the practice.
6) How does your church expect the pastor to dress, both for Sunday services and during the week?
When I began pastoring in the early 1960s, ministers wore suits and ties 6 days a week. These days, in most of the churches where I preach, almost no one is wearing a tie. A new pastor needs to know the expectations of the members.
7) Has your church ever had to discipline a member? If so, I’d like to hear about it. If not, why not?
This is a big deal with many ministers and not so much with others. In either case, you would like to know the answer to this question.
8) How is your church different from the others in your city?
You would like to hear that they know precisely the role the Holy Spirit has called them for and that they are filling it. How they answer this question will say volumes about themselves.
9) Is your church open to change? Can you give me an instance one way or the other?
10) What would be my biggest challenge as your pastor?
11) How are decisions made around here?
This is a loaded question. Few things will affect your ministry more than knowing how this church does its work and makes crucial decisions. Pay close attention to responses. If possible, after someone answers it, ask, “Does everyone agree with that?” and wait for responses.
You need to know what you are walking into.
12) What in particular made you interested in me as a candidate? What is your biggest concern about me?
This concerns their expectations and will reveal how much or how little they know you.
13) Is the pastor free to make mistakes? Or are the expectations through the roof?
In college football, if the new coach follows a fellow who had not won a game in five years, the expectations are low and he is free to try different things. If, however, he is following Nick Saban at Alabama, the expectations are sky high and almost no allowance for failure is given. They expect to go undefeated and win the national championship every yerar. In the same way, a new pastor will want to know if he has time and be given the latitude to try things, some of which will not work out.
14) Does your church work with others in the community? Give me an instance or two.
A negative answer to this is not a deal-breaker but will reveal how much work the new pastor has if he is to lead the members to become team members with others of the Lord’s family. When the Lord said we would be known by our love, He was not referring only to the members of our particular flock. No church can win a city alone.
15) How are newcomers assimilated into your church family?
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16) Would you describe your church as more “risk taking” (daring) or “care taking” (cautious)?
17) A question about “fit.” What kind of pastor do you tell friends your church needs?
This is a great question. The answers you receive will tell you what expectations you are up against.
18) What challenges is this congregation facing at the moment? In the next 5 to 10 years?
You’re trying to uncover hidden agendas. Until now, the snow job the committee has done on you (I say with the greatest of admiration–lol) would have made the chamber of commerce proud. But now, you will find that a huge plant in the city has announced plans to move to Mexico and many church members will find themselves unemployed. Or, you may learn that the Air Force Base near the church is closing next year. Or, that the church is located on a toxic land field and needs to relocate. (These are actual things we have heard in such situations.)
19) What is the best thing this church has done in the last five years?
You should get several answers to this. After the first enthusiastic response, say, “Anyone else?” And wait for it.
The answers will reveal the heart of these people and may tell you volumes about what makes the congregation tick.
20) Finally, consider making your last question some version of this: “What question did you expect from me tonight that I did not ask?”
This is a variation of a technique used by Bill Cosby and Art Linkletter in their (old) television work with children. At some point during the program, they would sidle up to the kids and say, “Hey, what did your mother tell you not to say on television?” The answers were often hilarious.
You certainly will not want to ask all those questions, but just the few that seem more appropriate. I suggest taking your complete list of questions into the meeting with you, and through the evening, mark off those that are answered earlier while circling the ones you definitely intend to ask when given the opportunity.
Never forget that asking questions is an art.
When you ask something, phrase it succinctly and shut up. Do not continue talking and offer alternatives and explanations and end up answering it yourself. The ability to ask a good question is a wonderful talent to possess.
God bless you. I hope things work out for you.
Used with permission by Joe McKeever. Joe is a Pastor, Preacher, Author, Professor, Cartoonist, Jesus Lover, Friend.