A (Humorous) Look at Human Resources for Churches
The following article comes to us from a minister we love and respect, who wished to share candid and anonymous insights gleaned from many years of interviewing with churches.
“So … exactly how little do we have to pay you?”
While that might often be the meaning behind many questions about compensation, it wasn't until one interesting interview with a church in the south that I heard the question phrased quite so unapologetically. On one hand, the bluntness was refreshing. On the other, it reminded me once again that churches do a terrible job when it comes to hiring, firing, and supporting their ministers and pastors.
I have talked with a lot of churches throughout the United States (and overseas), and they all have one thing in common: churches are lousy at human resources! So I’d like to share some of my experiences interviewing with churches. Names and locations have been changed in the writing of this article, but the stories are (sadly) true. They only represent this singular author’s lived experiences in ministry, so take it for what it’s worth. But if this is my experience in fewer than 15 years in the “business,” I imagine others have some doozies as well! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
I hope this article is both humorous and constructive. And I hope to channel some of the frankness of questions like “how little do we have to pay you?” without causing insult or offense. So without any further ado, here are some other questions you might want to consider avoiding the next time you interview a potential minister.
“We were wondering, would you be willing to live in this tiny apartment that we built onto the campus ministry, now that it has housed students for the past 15 years without even being repainted?”
My answer out loud: “While I am willing to sacrifice for the sake of budgetary constraints, I also believe that boundaries are important. If my family lived in this apartment, we would always be on call and would never feel like we were truly at home.”
The answer running in my head: “No! This place is gross!!! What is wrong with you people?!?”
“Do you and your spouse plan on having children?”
There’s no good way of answering this, and it is a terrible question to ask. One in eight couples (12.5%) have issues stemming from infertility, and yet it remains a taboo topic in many circles. Additionally, some couples choose not to have children for various reasons, none of which are anyone else’s business. Churches may want a minister whose family can serve as an example to the congregation, but this question doesn’t fly in the corporate world and shouldn’t in congregational work either.
Similar questions that also fall in this category: “Do you plan on getting married?” “How well-behaved are your children?” “Man, you guys have a lot of kids. Don’t you know how that happens?”
“Tell us why you think you are a good fit for this position.”
Isn’t that your job?
“Tell us why you want to work here at ______ church.”
This isn’t a terrible question, but there are times when there can’t be a good response. It seems like pandering to answer, “I like how your church does _____.” An honest answer might be, “I need to get out of my current job,” but you can’t actually say that out loud! But my favorite is when I didn’t make the initial contact with a particular church: “Actually, you guys called me out of the blue and asked me to consider the role. So how about you tell me why you want ME?”
“Tell us about one of your worst moments in ministry.”
If you are looking for a time in which a minister overcame obstacles or dealt with disappointment, conflict, leadership issues, etc., then please ask the question with specificity. Otherwise, I might just respond with, “Hasn’t happened yet; what do you have in mind for my future?”
The questions a seeking church chooses to ask communicate as much about the church as the candidate’s answers say about him or her. You have a very short window in which to ascertain whether or not someone is a viable candidate, so ask good questions. The minister also is trying to discern whether or not your congregation is a good fit for their future, because you are asking them to uproot themselves and/or their family (again) and move to a new location (again) in which they will have to build new friendships and a new sense of home (again).
Once you decide to continue the conversation with a candidate, the possibility becomes more real. You need to realize that the candidate has now invested time, energy, and excitement into the possibility. They have researched your church and the area in which it is located. They’ve thought about cost of living, housing, schools, activities for their kids, and accessibility for what their family needs.
So if you choose to bring them in for an interview weekend, please don’t say or do the following:
“What are your housing needs while you are here? We hope you can stay with one of our families so they can get to know you better.”
Sometimes this is true, but it comes across as a church being cheap. You’ve paid for the tickets, you’ve asked us to take the time off and travel without letting slip we are looking at another job. The least you can do is spring for a Holiday Inn!
And in all honesty, interviewing for a ministry role is hard. You are always on, always having to put your best foot forward, always smiling and laughing and trying to remember names. It is exhausting! Please, for all that is holy, let the candidate and their family have a few hours to themselves so they aren’t having to make small talk before their first cup of coffee or a shower!
“We would really like you to meet with every subgroup, ministry team, Awana group, and Bible class in the two days you are here.”
I once had an interview with a large church that brought us in for a multi-day interview marathon that spanned far more days than a typical interview weekend and they filled our schedules from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day. Fourteen-hour days, people?! This tells me there would never be any downtime during my tenure on staff. No downtime, but an uptick in my blood pressure for sure!
Finally, if the candidate has invested their time and energy—speaking with church staff on the phone and in person, and to search committees and subgroups and elders or leadership boards for hours on end—then please do more than send them a letter in the mail telling them they didn’t get the job. Yes, it is a difficult phone call to make. But you’re an adult, and the head of the search team. Grow up and have difficult conversations! Nothing says “good riddance” like a “Dear John” letter to a rejected ministerial candidate.
Searching for a ministry job is a lot like dating—for the minister and for the church. You are on your best behavior, you are trying to put your best foot forward, and you are trying to decide whether the other person likes you or not (and vice versa). So think ahead! Ask good questions. Delve deeper. Enjoy the experience. And try not to act like a jerk.