In the last few years, I’ve found myself sitting in a number of interviews as our church — First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C. — has sought and called several new ministers, including me. With seminarians counting down to graduation and other ministers in times of transition, résumés are being polished and cover letters written, building toward potential phone, Skype or in-person interviews. After opening jokes, introductions, and extended Q&A (What are your strengths and weaknesses?), the inevitable statement will come from the search committee: “That’s about it. Do you have any questions for us?”
It’s a critical moment. A candidate’s questions can demonstrate analytical skills, an eye for details, familiarity with the organization and enthusiasm for the job. Questions can be occasions to display pastoral sensibility and insight, helping a search committee to recognize things they had not before. But more than that, thoughtful questions can articulate yet unspoken values, or uncover dynamics within the life of a church. Ultimately, the questions a candidate asks in an interview might be as important as the answers they give. Let me suggest a few:
What’s the best thing you’re doing in the interim? A committee’s answer to this question could reveal its church’s openness to growth, capacity for vision and strength of its lay leadership. A successful interim ought to accomplish some work that would be particularly challenging for an incoming minister. What has the interim leadership done that an incoming minister won’t be asked to do?
Who are your closest partners within the community? Consider the company a congregation keeps. Is their understanding of ecumenism consistent with your own? Do they have close relationships with community partners whose values would undermine those they claim and, if so, can they talk about how they negotiate those differences? Do they have meaningful relationships of mutuality and trust with partners from across town and across boundaries?
Where’s the flag? If on-site for a meeting, notice the place — if any — of the U.S. flag within the church. If you feel comfortable, ask the committee or an individual committee member about how it came to rest there. What does the answer reveal? An often-contentious subject in churches, this question might help a candidate measure if there is any existing conflict that they will encounter. The placement of the flag, or the committee’s interpretation of it, could reveal something about the church’s sense of patriotism, nationalism or lack thereof. It’s worth considering how these values align with a candidate’s own convictions about the relationship between church and state.
What are we drinking? If out to the casual post-interview meal, consider measuring what the reaction would be if a minister were seen drinking socially. Some churches have stated expectations about alcohol use; others have unwritten rules. Could you meet a parishioner out at a bar? What if you call it a “pub”? Some clergy who choose to drink can hold their heads up in a wine aisle, while others keep a secret box in the basement. Whether you drink socially or not, consider the characteristics of the community you hope to serve. A committee’s reaction can reveal much about the church’s scope of understanding of morality and ethics, its expectations of its ministers, and its assumptions about its ministers’ private and public lives.
What was it like here in the ’50s and ’60s? What is the congregation’s understanding of its place in the struggle for civil rights and human rights? Was the church a forerunner, advocating for integration and equity? Was the church among the silent and polite “moderates” that Dr. King addressed in that “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? Was the church resistant to change? A congregation’s interpretation of its conduct throughout the African-American civil rights movement is, perhaps, the clearest evidence of its ethical DNA and capacity to commit to such work moving forward. Whatever the history — whether positive or wanting — the ability to understand and interpret that history is a strong indicator of how a church will engage critical issues of justice here and now.
Has your church discussed human sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion? With the Supreme Court decision on marriage last June and subsequent legislative conflicts, sexuality has become an interview topic even among previously reluctant churches. A search committee member at one church recently expressed that while their congregation once avoided the topic in personnel interviews, or asked vague questions about diversity, sexuality is now the subject of the first two questions on the interview script. Some search committees will look less for a specific point of view, and more for a candidate’s ability to articulate their own position while simultaneously demonstrating skills for dialogue.
If a candidate turns the question to the committee, the candidate can measure the same thing. What does “faithfulness” mean for the church in response to persons who are LGBTQ? Do you want to be in a place where all is resolved, or do you want to participate in response? Will the church understand the place from which you will respond to questions of sexuality? While a precise match is not always possible — and not always desirable — hopefully such a discussion can allow you to determine whether or not space exists for you.
What is your family leave policy? Rather than asking about the congregation’s support of your family, conception of the role of a parent or how they value leadership across lines of gender, measure these things practically by inviting discussion of the church’s family leave policy. Has it been updated in recent years, reflecting adaptability within the congregation? If the policies seem dated or lacking, does the committee appear open to additional work in order to meet the needs of a candidate?
When’s the last time you did something hard? Church can be hard, and a minister’s leadership will certainly encounter challenges. What does the church define as “hard,” and does it match your definition? Does the church defer challenges, or are they proud of their ability to do hard things?
When’s the last time you fought? Do eyes cast downward at the mere mention, or does the congregation have a healthy sense of how to approach conflict? If they have had a recent conflict, what was the content of the conflict? Is it the kind of conflict to which you can offer energy and insight? What residual issues exist, and what dynamics do they create for an incoming minister? Ultimately, can the church be open-eyed and confident about inevitable conflict and recognize it as an essential part of growth?
What would be missing if your church weren’t here? Committees reflect the ideals and identity of a congregation, including the church’s understanding of its place within the community and its wider world. Does the committee’s answer reflect what you perceive to be accurate self-understanding? Are they stable and settled, or does the committee display the congregation’s willingness to grow and change with the gifts a new minister will bring?
The right questions can be answers in themselves. It might be standard protocol, but the invitation for spontaneous questions and unscripted answers can also be a telling moment in a search and call process. In addition to selecting a font for the résumé or perfecting lighting for the video chat, consider the questions on your list. The single most important thing a minister says in an interview might very well be, “Yes, I do have some questions for you.”