29 Questions a Pastoral Candidate Should Ask

29 Questions to Ask the Pulpit Committee

By Ginger McFarland

One pastor recently said, "I would rather ride a bucking bronco of a church than try to prop up a dead mule." It's helpful to know if you're going to get either of those beasts before you mount up.

Just as the search committee is going to be thorough, the candidate needs to be thorough, as well. Asking is critical. Here is a list of strategic questions to help you discern any potential problems when you're seeking that "perfect" church.

1. How would you describe your church?

Does the committee tend to define itself by its past, or is it excited about dreams for the future? Do the core values look inward or outward? Rick Ezell, pastor of Naperville (Illinois) Baptist Church, believes it's similar to describing an individual: "I can say, 'I'm tall, but I'd like to be taller. I'm growing, but I'm not growing like I should.' I'm listing a lot of negative inflections." That may point to some past conflict or a negative spirit.

2. Why was the church started?

Was the church born out of a split? "Even if it's 100 years old," says Leroy Armstrong, pastor of Greater Good Hope Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, "there's a good possibility that through the generations since the split, that spirit of fighting might still be in the church."

3. What is this church's purpose?

Have they defined its mission? Does it have a well-thought-out strategy?

4. What is your unique role in this community?

What sets this church apart from other churches in terms of character, culture, staff? What specific people groups does it reach out to, or what specific ministries does it operate that no other church in this community does?

5. How would a neighbor around the church portray this congregation?

"When I asked this of one search committee, a couple of guys looked at me like, 'Why would you want to know that?'" said John Beukema of the Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois. "That told me a bundle about them. They were not thinking about outreach."

6. What is this church's theology?

Does the church have a commitment to follow Jesus Christ as head?

7. How would you describe the atmosphere of

  • worship

  • small group Bible studies

  • board meetings

  • business meetings

  • special events.

Do members of the committee agree or do they give opposite answers?

8. What are the three areas you feel must be changed in this church? What three areas definitely should not be changed?

The answers should tell you how the church perceives its greatest needs and greatest strengths.

9. How many strong ministries does your church have?

The number of ministries will indicate how involved the membership is.

10. What new ministry initiatives has the church launched in the last five years?

If none, you may encounter the we've-never-done-it-that-way-before syndrome.

11. If you knew you couldn't fail, what would your dreams be for this church?

Leroy Armstrong recognizes that "invariably the pulpit search committee is made up of influential, respected people. If they don't have any dreams, it's not likely that many in the congregation will have any."

12a. What are the statistics on church membership for the last five years?

With these you can get clues to past conflicts or splits, or if the general momentum is up or down. If membership is declining, the key question is:

12b. Why do you think there has been a membership decline?

Churches that are declining or in a plateau may still be healthy. Perhaps the general population in that area is receding.

13. Do you have a plan for growth?

How open are they to a new pastor's plan? Are you willing to pay the price of change that's going to be necessary for this church to grow?

14. What is the single biggest obstacle to growth in this church?

John Beukema observes: "If they all agree on one single biggest obstacle, then you probably know the thing you need to tackle. If they list a bunch of obstacles, all of which may be true, then your work will be harder." Either you need align their perceptions, or the situation is complicated.

15. What role do you feel laypersons should play in the development of a strong, growing congregation?

Everyone will affirm the role of laity, but assumptions about hospital visitation, decision making, budgeting, and vision will vary.

16. When did your last new members join?

What would they say was the factor that attracted them to your church? If the last new members joined three years ago, there could be some stale ministries at work.

17. Is there any conflict in the church now?

How did the church resolve conflict in the past? Conflict shouldn't surprise anyone, but major conflict, especially in the last year or two will have a great bearing on the immediate ministry.

18. What issues have regularly caused friction in this church?

Consider whether these are the real issues or symptoms of something else.

19. What is it that sparked your interest in me as a candidate?

Why do you think I will help this church? The answers should shed light on their expectations.

20. What were the strengths and weaknesses of your previous pastor?

if he or she was a short-term pastor, ask about his or her predecessor. Do they speak of the pastor critically or appreciatively?

Churches often react to the weaknesses of their previous pastor by looking for an opposite, but their expectations have probably been shaped significantly by the previous pastor.

21. What has been the tenure of previous pastors/staff members?

If the church has a pattern of short pastorates, the trend will likely continue. Chris Zorn, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian (Florida) says, "It's like a divorce. Statistics show a 60 percent divorce rate among remarriages. People get used to breaking off relationships. It becomes easier to do."

If the pastor retired, will he remain a member of the church? "It's good to know that that pastor will not continue to run the church without the title," says Leroy Armstrong. "You'll put forth proposals and the people won't look to you; they'll look to the previous pastor."

If the pastor was involved in a scandal, then, says Armstrong, "I better be prepared to walk a very tight integrity rope."

22. How does this church view its staff?

Are they viewed as professionals, as ministers who've been trained and called of God? Or are they viewed more like hired help? Are they understaffed, overstaffed, properly staffed? Are there some staff members the board wants to get rid of? Are they going to ask you to fire anyone?

23. What is the structure for responsibility in staff positions?

To whom do I answer? And who answers to me? What is the supervisory chain? What are your expectations of a staff member? Discuss your leadership style and they expect differences to be resolved.

24. Has the interim period been redemptive and healing?

Was there an interim pastor or did the existing staff fill that capacity? One pastor who inherited a staff warns that when existing staff shoulder the interim responsibilities, "attachments will be made and responsibilities owned by associate staff that they may be reluctant to let go of when the new senior pastor comes in."

25. What is the role of the senior pastor?

Sometimes that is assumed, but not always defined in candidating situations. What are the expectations in terms of preaching, teaching, counseling, relationship with the governing board, office hours, administration, visitation? Do staff members report to the pastor, to the board, or to the congregation? What is the relationship between staff and elected church leaders' responsibilities?

26. Will the pastor be given freedom to shape a ministry team that is sympathetic to his or her vision?

In some situations it's understood that with the arrival of a new pastor, staff members tender their resignations to let him or her determine who to keep. In other situations, nobody tenders a resignation and the pastor can't ask for it.

27. What are your expectations of my family?

Do they expect my spouse to be at every church event? Has the pastor's spouse traditionally taken on certain responsibilities? If my children attend a youth group at a neighboring church, would that be a problem?

28. Does the congregation have a policy of reviewing the pastor's salary package each year?

An adjustment, at least for cost-of-living increases, is standard.

29. Does the call committee represent and overlap with the lay leadership?

One candidating pastor discovered that the search committee had only one member from the church council. "Each committee was operating off of different pages," he said. "Only at the end of the interview process was there cross pollination of ideas or identification of issues. That became a foundation for conflict."

Once you're farther into the process, you may consider asking to see other pieces of information: newsletters, church bulletins, financial statements, meeting minutes.

Newsletters will show what kinds of activities are important to them. Financial records will tell if the total church revenue has declined over a course of years.

Even board meeting minutes can be educational. As one pastor said, "If you see a few names constantly documented as the ones who put forth a motion, that may tell you whom you'll be dealing with as pastor." And maybe you should direct further questions to them.

Ginger E. McFarland is editorial coordinator of Leadership.