As I coach pastors around New England, I hear many stories about their naiveté during the interview process and what they learned the hard way, only after accepting a call. I can relate because I myself accepted a call too quickly, to the church I served briefly in retirement. I failed to ask about unhealed conflicts in the church and an inward focus that kept the church dysfunctional. And even when I did ask questions and get answers, I didn’t listen carefully enough. I didn’t hear what was really being expressed: that this was a church that was content with its unhealth and was prepared to fight to keep it that way. I lasted one year and then resigned in frustration.
Here are some of the questions I wished I had asked. If you’re considering a call, you might want to ask them, too. Now, don’t attempt to ask all these questions in the first interview. Many can be asked in an indirect way in conversations with church leaders in other settings. Then, listen carefully. Don’t gloss over or misinterpret their answers in your desire to land a position. Be careful not to hear what you want to hear. Be prayerful and clear-headed.
- Why did the previous pastor or pastors leave? If the pastoral tenures have been brief, you might want to go back several pastors and find out the circumstances of their departures. Were there amicable separations, or bitter ones? Was any scandal involved? Ask the leaders to be as honest as they can without revealing confidential information. Their answers may reveal a lot about how long they expect you to stay.
- Is the church still grieving the departure of the previous pastor, or have they been able to move on? If the grieving is ongoing, you may be endlessly compared to the previous, beloved pastor.
- How long has the church been without a pastor? Whom have they interviewed, and why were these candidates rejected, or why did they decide not to accept the call? You may find out you are a compromise candidate, their second or third choice.
- What is the authority structure in the church? Who are the power brokers, the “tribal chiefs” as Lyle Schaller calls them? Who has to give their permission to get things done? Ask this in a positive way, as in “Who are the real leaders as opposed to the committee heads?” Ask the committee chairs to describe their committee meetings in one word. Where does the pastor fit into the overall leadership structure? Many small churches consider the pastor to be “just one more vote,” or the “hired hand,” and have little respect for pastoral authority. If a church had an authoritarian or even abusive pastor, the congregation may err on the side of limiting pastoral authority. Are the bylaws clear and helpful in this area?
- Is the previous pastor still in the community or in the congregation? If the answer to either of these is yes, then red flags should go up. In my experience, it is extremely difficult to pastor a church when the previous pastor is still in the picture. The congregation may use him or her as a “complaint department” where they can vent every grievance. Also, it will be nearly impossible for the previous pastor to stay silent as you begin to make changes and put your stamp on the church culture. In my first pastorate, my predecessor moved 3,000 miles away and was never a problem. In my second pastorate, my predecessor stayed in the congregation, and he and his wife became a huge problem; it ended badly. If the pastor wants to stay in the church, then ask the leadership to insist on a one-year, and preferably a two-year, absence. Then, establish strict boundaries. If these clear boundaries are not agreed to, you should reconsider the call.
- Similarly, are there other staff whom you will inherit? Will they submit to your leadership? Do not assume that the church secretary, music director, or Sunday school superintendent will support your leadership. Get some assurances in writing that this will be the case. Ask for some clear guidelines if the bylaws do not establish them. Many a pastor has been forced to resign because a secretary, organist, or associate pastor has had more authority.
- Ask about the theological, doctrinal views of the church. Are there enough similarities between your views and the stated or understood views of the congregation that this will be a good fit? Would your ministry mark too great a shift in the theology of the church? Realize, of course, that most congregations are neither as conservative or as liberal as the pastor. And in many churches the biblical and theological ignorance of the congregation is appalling, perhaps a legacy of bad teaching in the past.
- What are the financial resources of the church? Can they afford a full-time pastor, or is this a part-time position? Remember, there are no part-time ministries, only part-time salaries. Can they afford benefits such as health insurance, a retirement package, an expense account? Do they provide housing, or can they help you buy a home? Can you afford to live in the community where the church is located? This is often very important in leading the church in its mission to the town. Will you want your children to attend the local schools? These are not necessarily deal breakers. Many a pastor has had to start with part-time ministry compensation and little else. Realistically, ask yourself if you can live on the salary package the church is offering. Do not assume the package will increase over time. You do not want to put your family in jeopardy of beginning to resent your congregation when the financial struggle comes. Go into the interview knowing what your family needs.
- What are the church’s expectations? Thom Rainer suggests handing out index cards to the search committee and asking each person to write his or her top three expectations for a pastor. Then, prayerfully consider if these align with your expectations of your role. If not, then it may not be a good match. If they do match, then have a frank discussion and record everything in writing; the day may come when you need to recall what you and the church agreed on.
- Ask about the church’s founding vision. Often, historical churches were founded for very noble and godly reasons—perhaps to evangelize a segment of the community, or to serve the poor, or to equip and send missionaries. That history may be leveraged to move the church forward. What has been the church’s relationship with the outside community and with other local churches? If possible, meet with other pastors in the area to get a sense of how the church has been perceived. Does the church reflect the demography of the community, or is it out of synch with the people you hope to reach?
- In addition to asking about the past, ask about the future. What are the hopes and dreams of the people? What do they long to see their church become? What do they see as the church’s greatest strengths or weaknesses in accomplishing these goals? If the church is in decline, is there a recognition that the church needs to change its ways to have a vital future? Is there a sense of urgency about doing something to reverse the decline?
- What is the age demographic of the church? Accept that it’s very difficult for people in their 70s and 80s to change. Younger pastors should imagine how their parents or grandparents would react to the kinds of changes they are envisioning. In an older congregation, where the leadership is weary, the pastor may have to provide most of the leadership with the congregation’s approval. What is the cultural, socioeconomic, and/or ethnic makeup of the church? Is it a good fit for both parties?
Even if all the signs indicate otherwise, God may still be calling you to accept the call if it is offered. God knows you, your gifts and passions, better than anyone. And He knows completely the needs of this particular congregation. I can speak from experience in this regard. Before I began my first pastorate, which lasted 35 years, I was being considered for another pastoral position. It was a small but vibrant evangelical church with a population of college students and young families. I really liked the church and felt certain we were well suited. Evidently, the church wasn’t so sure because they were taking their time deciding. The process dragged on through several interviews. In the meantime, I was contacted by another church that, on paper, had several strikes against it. First, the church had had much conflict under the two previous pastors, with many young families leaving. Second, the congregation that was left was mostly elderly. Third, there were three other congregations of the same denomination in a town of 30,000, and consequently there had been discussion of merging the church with one or more of the others. Fourth, they were facing a 25 percent deficit in their budget. Fifth, the two previous pastors had been significantly more liberal theologically than me.
Still hoping that I would receive a call from the first church, I decided to meet with the search committee of the second church. Even after that first interview, I felt uncertain. I vividly remember driving home from that meeting and asking my wife what she thought. She said without hesitation that she believed God was calling us to this church. When I asked her why, she said, “Because these people want us.” In that moment, I knew that God had spoken, and the issue was settled. The first church ended up taking many more months to decide and the pastor they chose resigned suddenly after a short ministry. The college students left en mass and began worshipping at another church. The church then went to a part-time pastor and to this day, more than 40 years later, is a very small church with a part-time pastor. Meanwhile, I served the other church for 35 years, and though it was not always easy, it was a wonderful fit, and the church through God’s powerful working is one of the healthiest churches in New England. We treasure our years there, as do all three of our children, who came to know the Lord there, were baptized there, confirmed there, and married there.
Against all my human understanding, God knew the plans that He had for this church and me, and when the time was right He spoke clearly. So look before you leap, by asking good questions, listening to the answers, then waiting for the Lord’s confirmation.
—Adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, by Jack L. Daniel, Overseed Press, 2018.