[Note: A question was raised about the legality of a spouse interview. Please check your state’s applicable hiring laws on any of these questions. None of this should be construed as specific legal advice. ~Ed.]
Having a good entry process and spending time before the hiring can resolve a great deal of these issues. We can hire out of desperation and project our expectations on someone. When they interview, that is their best. They may grow in skill, but you have seen their best foot forward. Take them or leave them based on who they are, not who you wish they might become. It’s not fair to them, the church or you.
To the oft regret of many, the search and interview process is not always adequate. Even with the best of intentions, a new staff member—it may become quickly apparent—is the wrong hire. Bill Hybels long ago suggested the 3-C framework (character, competency, chemistry), while others add a fourth: calling.
The essential questions proposed below fit within the C-framework, whether three or four C’s are used.
(Note: I did not include “Did you ask for salvation testimony?” or “Do you fully believe the Bible to be God’s Word?” because if a church needs to be reminded of those, the questions are irrelevant. Detailed discussions about a candidate’s theological persuasions are assumed based on the specifics of your church’s doctrinal distinctives.)
1. Did we call their references?
“We called his references and one of them said, ‘I’d never hire him.'” That’s what a search team member at a former church told me about a candidate they did not hire. While references are supposed to be “user friendly,” they remain a good source of information if your inquiry is clear and specific. If the reference is not knowledgeable of the candidate, steer clear. A candidate who will pad a reference list with people who barely know him or her will swallow camels in other areas.
Related to this, unless the applicant is fresh-out-of-seminary and never served a church, do no hire a person who does not include at least one former church member as a reference. Church members have seen the candidate in action and are well-suited to give an evaluation.
2. Did we do a criminal background check?
Back in the old days this was rarely a consideration, but it has been now for many years. Never hire a staff member without doing a criminal background check. It is well worth the investment. (Lifeway offers a criminal background check service.)
Googling the candidate’s name with places of residence adding “arrested,” “charged,” “felony,” “child molestation,” and the like is an easy starting point.
3. Is the candidate on sound footing financially?
This may sound invasive, but part of having a “good reputation” includes whether a person can manage their money. Are they overwhelmed with debt? If the candidate is a recent seminary graduate, are student loans an issue? Has the candidate ever filed for bankruptcy?
A credit check is in order for someone who intends to lead God’s people. Being in bad shape financially does not have to be disqualifying if they agree to financial counseling. But, such an arrangement should be agreed upon in advance.
4. Does the candidate have any addictions?
This one may seem tricky since people who have addictions are not generally up front about it. However, pornography, drugs (legal or illegal), and gambling are all addictions that have ravaged the ministry. This is a question best asked in person so body language, and not merely written responses, can be gauged.
Depending on the role for which you are hiring, a past addiction may not be an issue; but, it may a stopper, so it is better to know before hiring.
5. Did we talk to the spouse separately?
The purpose here is not to pit spouse-vs-spouse, but to give the non-staff spouse the opportunity to speak openly. The wife of a potential student pastor may have concerns about time spent leading activities, or exactly how available he is expected to be after office hours. The husband of a potential children’s director may want to know how easy it is to align vacation times with his own job. Expectations need to be clear to help them make the best decision if an offer is extended.
6. How is their education related to their specific role?
This question can be dependent on the church’s leadership philosophy. Maybe a person with a BS in geology can lead your church planting ministry. Or, maybe a person with an MDiv in church planting is a better option. Maybe the recent seminary graduate is the best option to be executive pastor. Or, maybe it is the long-time successful businessman who has been faithful as a volunteer and is now sensing a call to administrative ministry.
Never allow the presence or absence of a particular degree to hinder a hire, unless the circumstances specifically dictate it. Many people who never finished college or seminary have had a deep and lasting impact on the world.
7. Did we test their chemistry with other staff members?
“Good grief. When we played Monopoly on staff retreat, we saw a side of Bob we had never seen before! He got so mad when things didn’t go his way.”
“Bob’s” name has been changed because he’s not innocent.
Social interaction is needed to test a candidate’s chemistry with the rest of the staff. Playing an intense game, going to a shooting range, watching them discussing a movie, or talking about politics are good ways to get people to peel back their own layers. (When possible, choose an activity that allows a minimum of half-a-day of interaction.)
8. Can the church provide a sufficient compensation package to support candidate and family?
Nothing brings out the worst in the hiring process than money, and not necessarily because of bad intent. A pastor recently told me, “We thought we had a good package put together, but then we found out the highest paying churches rarely respond to pastor’s salary surveys. As a result, we budgeted too little for the position.”
It is the responsibility of the church to provide for their employees. Your employees should be able to live on the “church field” without having to work three jobs. Churches may not pay like Google pays an engineer, but staff members should not be on the corner with a “Will Preach for Food” sign, either.
9. Did we provide a clear, accurate job description in advance, and did we discuss it in detail with the candidate?
This is critical. The candidate should understand thoroughly what he or she is being hired to do. Performance will go sideways in a hurry if the new staff member believes they are doing what they were hired to do, but are not. The employee and whoever is responsible for direct supervision (pastor, executive pastor, personnel team) must be on the same page.
Several years ago a church I served as lead pastor added administrative responsibilities to one of the staff pastors. I believed he was well-qualified and our personnel team agreed. After adjusting to the additional responsibilities, though, he was making decisions I did not think were his to make. As we talked it through, it became clear I was at fault. His background led him to believe supervision of other staff would be included in his administrative capacities. I had not envisioned this component shifting from me to him, but had never provided a clear description. We were able to get it resolved and he performed this other administrative tasks admirably.
10. Does the candidate share our pastor and church’s vision?
If your church is highly structured, hiring a wholly “organic growth” staff member can be problematic. If your church is actively reaching the nations, hiring a missions pastor who is loathe to travel is going to be a problem.
Hiring from within can provide a candidate who already share’s the church’s vision, but even then it should not be taken for granted.
11. Did we define important terms?
Does everyone in the process understand and agree on the terms your church uses to communicate vision, goals, mission, and theology? “Missional,” “blended worship,” “traditional,” and “incarnational” all have specific meanings, but not everyone uses them the same.
You need not implement the Scripps Spelling Bee “Can you use it in a sentence?” standard, but the hiring process is no place for sloppy language.
12. Why does the candidate want the job?
Is this just another step up the ministry ladder? Looking for a lifeline from a bad situation? Trying to relocate to sunnier climes?
“Why are you applying for the position?” is a valid question that should elicit a thoughtful answer.
13. Can the job we are asking them to do be done without an acetylene torch and two cases of dynamite?
If you expect the new staff member to blow-up a ministry and rebuild it, everyone must know this is the expectation. Do not hide a dysfunctional leadership team in the children’s ministry from the potential children’s pastor/director. The new hire should not be greeted on the first Sunday by volunteers with wagging heads, sad faces, and printed listings from CareerBuilder.com.
Churches and search teams are great at hiding reality from candidates. More sunshine drenched roses have been painted in hiring processes than have been displayed in all the florists of the Western world. Be honest. If there are problems seek the candidate who can resolve the problems, rather than bringing in more grist for the mill.
14. Has the candidate asked good questions during the interview process?
Just as in marketplace hiring, look for a candidate who has taken the time to research your church. Questions should be on point and reveal an interest in the specific position for which you are hiring.
15. Does the candidate like people? Do they like your people?
The answer to the second question will depend of whether they have met any of your people. Their Facebook page will reveal much about the first. How he or she interacts at a meet-and-greet will reveal the second.
What questions have you found essential when hiring staff members?
Feel free to print and distribute copies of this post to your personnel or HR team.