Interim pastors see their share of pastor search team failures.

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In spite of everything an interim pastor teaches a search committee, danger lurks in the interview: a skilled interviewee dazzles the search team. Questions about competence go unanswered but the call is issued nonetheless.

In time those questions will be answered, often in the fires of conflict, with dreadful consequences.

I am not a fan of the typical interview process used by most pastor search teams. They are fraught with subjective influences that render judgment about future job performance highly unreliable.

Besides, most of what the search team needs to know can be gathered elsewhere. A knowledgeable interim pastor can teach them how to gather most of what they need to know by other means.

  • Ask the candidate to review and signal agreement with the church’s doctrinal position
  • Send “secret shoppers” to see how the candidate relates in the current ministry position (this addresses the “likability” issue
  • Careful analysis of recorded sermons answers the preaching question
  • Critical review of the resume will give insight into career strengths
  • Ask the candidate to complete a personality profile test and forward the results to the committee

But churches will forego the interview with the same alacrity with which they surrendered the pipe organ. As I’ve written elsewhere, if they must interview then it is the interim pastor’s job to teach them how to minimize the damage an interview is likely to inflict.

That’s the purpose of a structured interview. Here’s  how to do it.

Workflow to set up a structured interview

  • Start with the pastor’s job description

Ideally the interim pastor has helped the pastor search team develop a job description. It should include:

  1. Job summary – A short synthesis of the job description.
  2. Key responsibilities – Identify the essential work, beginning each statement with an action verb.
  3. Essential duties – enumerate duties that are “mission critical” and integral to performing the basic job duties.
  4. Accountability – identify the person(s) or group(s) to whom the pastor is accountable.
  5. Qualifications – detail the credentials, experience, skills and competencies required for the position.
  •  Evaluate the resumes you receive

(Finding resumes is another matter entirely. As a former retained headhunter for Silicon Valley I think there are far better ways to find good candidates than throwing a job posting up on a website or contacting seminary/college Alumni offices)

A skilled recruiter knows how to screen resumes, a task that the automated systems now popular in large corporations have yet to “learn”. When a recruiter is clear on the job description she can tell within 60 seconds if a resume represents a “fit” for the position.
Training the search team to screen the resumes is part of your job as the interim pastor. Teach them to look for green flags and red flags.
  1. Resumes laden with “verbs of ownership”
  2. Resumes filled with fluff (no accomplishments stated) and acronyms
  3. Accomplishments related to the job description
  4. The meaning of the various degrees they’ll likely see (M. Div., Th. M., MABS, MA, Ph. D., Th. D., D. Min.)
  5. Longevity (many short tenures is a red flag)
Once the resumes have been sorted assign the search team’s secretary to send thank you notes to the candidates that will not be considered. It’s a matter of professional courtesy that most churches fail in, which interim pastors know painfully well.
  • Drill down into the referrals
  1. If the candidates have provided references, let each of them know you’ll be contacting their references.
  2. Those candidates that have not provided references should be contacted and asked to supply them.
  3. Phone each of the referrals for a candidate
  4. Ask each referral for a brief statement of their estimation of the candidate’s suitability to the job
  5. Then ask each referral for the names of two to three others who know the candidate
  6. Set a phone appointment with these secondary referrals
  7. Send them the job description and ask that it be read prior to the phone appointment
  8. Ask the referral to rate the candidate’s competency for each of the key responsibilities and essential duties using a Likert scale
  • Prioritize the candidates
Information gathered from the resumes and the referrals will help the pastor search team identify the top candidates.

Write structured interview questions

Remember, the purpose of the interview is to gauge competence. You want to know if the candidate will be able to successfully fill the position.

Begin by writing questions that address the key responsibilities and essential duties written in the job description. Follow this formula:

  • Describe a specific task, situation or problem you were involved in
  • Give details about the actions you performed or the steps you took
  • What were the results of your actions?
For example, if one of the key responsibilities in the job description is “create and maintain a sustainable leadership development system that produces a pool of qualified lay leaders to head the ministries of the church” you might ask:
  • “Tell us about how you responded to the lack of qualified lay leadership in one of your previous ministries.”
  • “How did you go about solving that problem? Explain to us, step-by-step, how you found a solution.”
  • “What were the results of your actions?”

Prepare evaluation forms for the interview panel

  • Each member of the pastor search team will sit in on the interview as observers
  • The interview questions are printed out for them
  • Under each question is a Likert scale that records each team member’s satisfaction with the candidate’s answer
  • Space is also provided for the team members to record their observations about the metacommunication within the interview (e.g., impression management, acts of ingratiation, primacy effect).

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