There’s one place a church in transition is likely to fall in a hole or step on a landmine.

But a skilled interim pastor can protect the client church.

Here’s how.


Train the pastor search team to conduct a quality interview using “best practices.”

If you’re an experienced interim pastor, you know why this is so important. You know that if the transition process is going to fail, it’s most likely going to fail at this point. It will fail here for any number of reasons:

  1. The church has tired of the transition process and just want to move on. This sentiment is usually expressed by the 80% who either don’t have the time or can’t be bothered to engage as an active participant in the process.
  2. The members of the search team haven’t truly embraced the mission and vision that has been developed during the transition. This often happens because the interim pastor has not given the congregation – or at least the 20% of early adopters – enough time to immerse themselves in the emerging DNA.
  3. The interim pastor has failed to train the search team in best practices. This is usually seen when members of the search team fall in love with a particularly attractive candidate (usually the candidate’s preaching) and loses sight of the fact that this attractive candidate may not be a good fit for the church.

You also know that you should not participate in the search process as a voting member of the search team, nor should you sit in on the interview.

Your job is to train the search team in best practices for the pastor search process.

  • Selecting and training the interview panel
  • Using the structured interview
  • Consider hiring a professional to lead the interview
  • Watch for impression management
  • Beware of the primacy effect

Select and Train the Interview Panel

You want to select people for the search team who meet several important criteria.

  1. They have demonstrated ability to think “big picture” and “details” and can move between these two views of things with ease.
  2. They have demonstrated long term loyalty to the church. They’ve been there through thick and thin.
  3. They have passion for God’s mission in the world and are willing to push forward in that direction in spite of what it may cost the church.
  4. They are willing to put in the hours and do the work (make no mistake, this part of the transition process is the most grueling).
  5. They have strong opinions but are willing to listen to what the Spirit says through the group (this is not the place for soap boxes).

Once you’ve prayerfully and carefully selected the search team, you need to teach them best interview practices. This isn’t the whole of their training, but it’s a major piece!

Best Interview Practices for Pastor Search Teams

Caveat: I approach this process from a background as a retained recruiter (“headhunter”) who spent quite a bit of time conducting talent searches for top electronics firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

  • Structured Interviews

A structured interview will help the pastor search team assess and compare candidates impartially. It requires the interviewer to stick to a list of pre-determined questions that are asked in the same sequence for each interviewee. The questions focus exactly on the skills the church seeks in its next pastor. Structured interviews increase the likelihood that the church will be able to select the best candidate based on qualifications rather than on other factors like personality.

A structured interview may include future-oriented “situational” questions (“What would you do if…?”) or behavioral questions (“What did you do when…?”) or perhaps an even mixture of both. Bear in mind, however, that behavioral questions focus on past performance, which is not an infallible predictor of future behavior. After all, we all learn from our mistakes!

  • Hire a professional to lead the interview

If the search team members don’t seem capable of conducting a productive interview, then in your role as the interim pastor you should raise the issue of hiring a professional. The client church could hire an experienced HR recruiter with a large firm, a commission recruiter that places people in jobs for a fee, or a local business owner who employs several dozen people in a service industry to conduct the interview. This outside agent will have no stake in the outcome of the interview so she is far more likely to conduct an even-handed, structured interview than are any members of the search team.

If you go this route you should have the paid interviewer participate in developing the questions to be used. He should be capable of spotting leading questions and may offer counsel on how to refine your queries to zero in on the specific skills and behaviors the church will be looking for in its next pastor.

  • Watch for impression management behaviors

Skilled interviewees significantly enhance their interview performance with acts of ingratiation and self-promotion. These are not disqualifying behaviors, but the interview panel must carefully note how the interviewee’s impression management is affecting the interview process. They should also monitor their internal response by asking, “How is this candidate’s behavior swaying may focus away from the job description and creating a favorable impression even though he may not be the best fit?”

As the lead interviewer and candidate work through the pre-planned interview questions, the interview panel should include in their written notes what was happening when they found themselves liking the candidate. What was his posture? What were his words? Was he responding to a question or expanding an answer?

The panel should discuss their observations of impression management during the debrief, which should happen immediately after the interview is complete.

  • Beware of the “primacy effect”

Information obtained prior to the interview or gathered early in the interview largely determine the interviewer’s conclusions about the candidate. “Research has shown that on average, interviewers reach final decisions about applicants after only 4 min of a 30-min interview.” (The Employer Interview, p. 384) If members of the interview panel knew the interviewee prior to the beginning of the search process it may be very difficult for them to view the interviewee candidly.

Workflow in developing a structural interview

The structured interview is simple. It flows out of the job description the search team is trying to fill. You simply read each verb in the job description and ask yourself, “What does this person need to know, to do, or to be in order to satisfy this particular requirement or job function?”

  • Ask several experts to help you refine the job description, e.g., lead pastors in your area, in your denomination; denominational executives
  • Determine what specific skills and qualifications the candidate must possess
  • Write each skill or qualification in a list.
  • Develop questions that will help identify whether a candidate possesses those skills or qualifications.
  • Include the “soft skills” questions that aren’t reflected in a resume. (These are often the sorts of questions that will be used for the behavioral questions)
  • Categorize and prioritize the questions. Chances are you won’t be able to ask all of them so be sure you hit the most important!

Interviews require careful analysis

There are many factors involved that diminish the interview’s reliability and validity.

It may not be too much of an overstatement to conclude that interviews are a bit of an illusion – the evident purpose is the exchange of factual information, but the social dynamics are what really matter (make the interview distinctive). Given the social nature of the interview and that applicants typically are motivated to impress the interviewer, the inclination of applicants to manage impressions in the interview cannot be denied. (The Employment Interview: A Review of Recent Research and Recommendations for Further Research) Human Resource Management Review Winter 2000 (10:4), 390-391.

Let me suggest that the search team not make a decision on a candidate, based on the interview, until some time has passed. Allow the warmth and positive feelings about the candidate to fade a bit, just to make sure that the search team isn’t reacting to hormones.

A week in prayer, followed by a sober discussion that once again focuses around the job description needs to happen before making the decision of pushing forward with this candidate.

Additional Resources