Finding the Right Fit

How can the ministry hiring process better serve employers and job-seekers?
Finding the Right Fit

"Done," she said.

My wife had spent hours fine-tuning her resume, answering personality and skill questionnaires, and poring over web pages to research the employer. This wasn't the first ministry position she'd applied to since graduating from seminary—far from it—but this job just seemed right. She pressed "send" and prayed that this might be the one.

After the first few weeks without a response, she emailed, called, even wrote a letter to the ministry—anything to provoke some sign of life. But she might as well have been signaling Mars. So she moved on. Six months later they finally sent an email, a single line of text: "Thank you for your application, but we've decided not to consider you for this position." I'm sure whoever sent this email thought they were being considerate, but to my wife, it felt like ripping the bandage off a healing wound.

This might be our guy! Rick thought, after perusing the 35th application in a stack of over 50. The applications were starting to blur together, but this pastoral candidate stood out. So Rick picked up the phone and started calling the other committee members.

“Some committees have over 80 applications to review. It's a slow process, and very frustrating for candidates who need the process to move more quickly.”

Three weeks later, the pastor nominating committee gathered on a Wednesday night—the first time their schedules aligned, allowing enough time for a proper interview. Over the speaker phone, the candidate had a charming demeanor and answered their questions well. Finally, Rick asked, "How do you feel about pastoring our congregation of about 300?" The candidate seemed surprised: "Oh, that's much smaller than what I'm looking for." With that, the interview ended quickly, and the committee members returned home, back to their stacks of applications.

For hopeful ministry candidates, rejection is a relentless companion. To them, the job hunt represents responsibility, validation, desperation, and a chance to answer God's calling. Potential employers have different priorities to consider. With limited resources, they must serve their ministry by choosing the best employee from an ever-expanding roster of applicants. And people on both sides of the interview table must attempt to discern God's will while trusting in his providence.

To learn more about this process, I spoke with a variety of ministry aspirants—people still hunting jobs, people who had found that coveted full-time position, and the disenchanted who left the ministry job search for greener pastures. I also heard from potential employers—weary volunteer search committees, pastors who never expected to play the role of church administrator, and managers trying to keep their parachurch ministries afloat. I wanted to know, if they could say anything to the people on the other side of the application process, what would it be? The items below are the most frequent (and impassioned) answers I received.

What do job-seekers want potential employers to know?

1. Show job-seekers some empathy.

Ministry employers, try to remember what it was like when you were looking for your first job. Not a particularly cheerful memory, is it? Now consider the fact that the current ministry job market is in especially bad shape. Retired pastor Howard Childers tells this story:

Recently I visited my old dorm room at Princeton Seminary—Alexander Hall, room 404. Facing the entrance to the room is a 25-foot wall that is usually bare. But on this particular May afternoon, it was covered with a hundred or more letters. Upon closer examination, I discovered they were rejection letters from the various chairmen of Associate Pastor Nominating Committees, addressed to a cluster of that year's graduating seniors who had interviewed for positions. The students called it "the Wailing Wall."

Please try to make the process as humanizing as possible. Most job-seekers don't expect you to coddle them. Just remember that every single resume you receive represents a human being (and probably a family). Your application process will touch far more rejected applicants than accepted ones. Make sure they're treated with dignity, too.

Repeatedly I hear people say that the church is not a business. True, but when job-seekers engage your ministry, they expect your professional standards to be above those of the business world. Far too often applicants are not shown basic courtesies. This doesn't describe the majority of ministries, but every time a church is flippant, casual, or negligent in its treatment of applicants, it leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Wade Floyd, a recent seminary graduate, says this: "My 'dream job' is working for your church. I have a lot invested in this application process. Do your part to make it easier, not harder."

2. Treat job boards with respect.

High-school English teacher Luke Devlin used to dream of being a full-time youth pastor. But because of experiences like this, he decided to seek a new career path:

A staff member at a multi-campus mega-church once contacted me through my posting on YouthSpecialties.com and asked if I wanted to get lunch. We met at a restaurant, and he asked about my story and described the church he worked for. He wanted some input on how to attract college students to his ministry and invited me to come by sometime. He didn't pay for my meal. He didn't mention a job. And after parting, I never heard from him again. I can only assume he was using job board posts to siphon off ministry strategies and recruit new members.

Most job-seekers won't encounter a scenario like this one, but job boards do present their own set of expectations. If job-seekers have posted their profiles or resumes on a job board, only contact them if you have an actual job opening for which they qualify.

On the other hand, if you're the one posting an opening, try to be reasonable with job requirements. Ten hours a week are usually not enough to create and run a new ministry, yet I see posts like this all the time. Any ministry position of substance will undoubtedly require unpaid overtime, but job posts should be as forthcoming as possible when describing a position. And please don't require seven years of experience for entry-level positions. It's an employer's market, but don't take undue advantage. The "on-ramp" can't start five feet off the ground.

Also, try to be specific in your job descriptions. "Part-time" can mean anything from 5 hours a week to 30. You'll save both of us a lot of grief by specifying exactly what you're looking for. Finally, please remove job posts as soon as the position is filled. It's an easy step to forget, but from the tone of their voices, employers seem to enjoy receiving applications for already-filled positions as much as job-seekers enjoy applying for them.

3. Be sensitive when crafting unpaid internships.

It's safe to assume that most candidates applying for your ministry position have training of some sort from a Bible college, seminary, or other source. It's likely they've accrued significant debt in hopes of working at a ministry like yours. According to an ongoing study by Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for the Study of Theological Education, 62 percent of seminary students graduate with debt—an average of $22,260 per student, and the top 10 percent in excess of $72,000.

Unfortunately, you're probably in a bad financial situation, too. Across the US, ministry giving is down. Few seminary graduates expect to make a killing in ministry. But make sure your full-time positions offer a living wage for your area. And avoid playing the suffering servant card: "We'd love to offer you more compensation, but in ministry we're called to suffer." Passionate job-seekers would serve in ministry with or without pay, but they also have responsibilities to their families, their landlords, and their lenders.

Some ministries may have to offer unpaid internships. Many of the job-seekers I spoke with resent these unpaid positions—and with good reason. Imagine you're a new seminary graduate who has invested significant time and money qualifying for a ministry job. But now the job boards you're searching are filled with unpaid internships. These job-hunters feel devalued and deceived; their investments didn't offer the return they expected.

"I spent months talking with representatives from a ministry, interviewed in person, and was told I was a shoe-in for the position. But all I received at the end of the process was a form rejection email."

If you can't offer financial compensation right now, resist the temptation to advertise that your unpaid internship will turn full-time in the future. I talked to one ministry intern who was lured into a bad situation by that particular promise. Month after month, the carrot was pulled back: "We'll start paying you in January." "It'll happen in March, we promise." Eventually, his six month unpaid internship stretched into two years. He had to ask himself, Why would they start paying me now when they've seen the work done for free for so long?

Instead, focus on what you can offer an intern now. What will the intern take away from the experience? What would look really good on a resume when the internship is over? Yes, she can organize closets and set up classrooms, but compliment that by occasionally putting her in places of responsibility and offering her opportunities she can't get elsewhere.

And remember, while the interns are working for you, their debt isn't going anywhere. Are you setting them up to succeed post-internship, or are you only focusing on cheap ways to run your ministry now? If you're just looking for free labor, seek volunteers, not interns.

4. Be courteous when responding to applications.

I heard this story from nearly every job-seeker I talked to: "I sent the church an application, but I never heard back from them." Or "I spent months talking with representatives from a ministry, interviewed in person, and was told I was a shoe-in for the position. But all I received at the end of the process was a form rejection email."

Your time is valuable, and you don't have to bend over backwards to personalize your communication with all 100-plus applicants. But there are a few simple things you can do to make the process more pleasant for everyone:

  • Respond to all resumes and applications with an automated or form email acknowledging receipt. When job-seekers don't hear anything back from you, they're more likely to pester you with unnecessary follow-up emails and letters and phone calls.
  • When you decide not to move forward with applicants, notify them immediately. Don't string them along. Let them know of your decision as soon as you can so they can move their job hunt in another direction.
  • If a candidate interviewed with you, you owe them a personalized response. If you interviewed a large number of candidates, a personal email will do. But if you only interviewed a few people, they expect a short phone call. By this point, they've invested considerable time and energy in you. A two-minute phone call is the least you can offer in return.
  • If at all possible, be specific about why you decided not to go with an applicant. They can't grow without knowing why they were rejected. In some cases this is inappropriate or unnecessary, but if there's something job-seekers can take from this experience to better themselves, please don't hold back. Hurt feelings are usually better than unknowingly repeating the same mistakes in future interviews.

What do potential employers want job-seekers to know?

1. Show us some empathy, too.

While potential employers are remembering what it's like to be in the job hunt, they deserve some empathy in return. Tim Nichols, Steward at Headwaters Christian Resources, helps support his ministry by driving a bus for his local school district. He says, "I know what it's like to be you—I've been there more than once—but you've never been on my side of the table. Show a little grace, please."

Ann Robertson has served on multiple pastor nominating committees (PNCs) at her church. She speaks of the unique difficulties of these positions:

PNC members are volunteers who can only meet for a few hours once a week. If members of the committee take the necessary time to review each candidate, the process can take 18 months or longer. Some committees have over 80 applications to review. It's a slow process, and very frustrating for candidates who need the process to move more quickly.

These volunteers are often caught between the desire to give every candidate a fair chance and their responsibility to the church. Sometimes the only way to get through a mountain of applications is to reject all applicants below a certain qualification level. They know they're probably losing a few excellent candidates, but they just don't have the time to search for the few needles in a haystack of less-qualified applicants they're passing over. The employers I spoke with wish they could give every applicant the same amount of time and attention, but they also have to be good stewards of their ministries' time and resources.

2. Do your homework before applying.

With that said, there are a few things you can do to make potential employers' jobs easier and to increase your chances of moving forward in the application process. That starts with getting the "easy stuff" right on your application. Nichols says, "If you can't get the easy stuff on the application right, I won't look at you twice. That includes reading the qualifications in the want ad and only applying if you meet them. If you can't follow those simple directions, you're probably not right for my ministry."

"If he wasn't interested in moving to Texas, he could have told us from the beginning. What a waste of time!"

Robertson told me about the application her PNC crafted to find candidates for a senior pastor position in Texas. It included a section asking candidates to list "outstanding accomplishments" from their previous experience. Some applicants listed "preaching," "hospital visitation," and other basic pastoral responsibilities—not a good sign. Others indicated that they didn't want to live west of the Mississippi, and one candidate waited until he'd progressed to a serious interview to mention this to the committee. "If he wasn't interested in moving to Texas, he could have told us from the beginning. What a waste of time!"

Once you've gotten the "easy stuff" right, what can you do to stand out from the pack? Try to convey your personality and uniqueness wherever appropriate. Those applications that read like textbooks get lost in the others. After reading dozens of applications, they all start looking alike unless there's something to make yours shine through.

If the process leads to an interview, be prepared to ask a few questions of the interviewer. A candidate who has no questions comes across as someone who hasn't studied the ministry or the area. A little bit of homework will show your commitment and investment to the ministry.

3. Hiring a new employee is always a risk.

Every time a ministry hires new staff, they're taking a risk. A resume and an interview are hardly enough to tell if you're a good fit. Some positions lend themselves to additional trial scenarios or test assignments—ministry jobs usually don't. How can a church know before hand if you'll be a good team-leader, a dedicated servant, or a humble shepherd? Usually, ministry employers have nothing more to go on than a piece of paper, a short interview, handpicked references (usually close friends of the candidate), and a well-crafted but atypical sample sermon.

More and more, churches and other ministries are hiring from within. If a candidate has already spent substantial time with the ministry, it's easier to tell what they'll bring to the position—there's far less risk involved. Hiring from the inside also cuts down on training time. This isn't to discourage you from applying to outside ministries. But it would be a good idea to develop relationships with ministries you admire, whether or not they have open positions at this time.

And about those unpaid internships: they might be worth more than you think. They're great if you're planning on staying with the same organization, if you're interning under a reputable person who will vouch for you, or if it provides you with a tangible body of work that adds significant value to your resume. All of these things help minimize the risk of hiring you. But beware of unpaid positions lacking these benefits. Not all internships are created equal.

4. Try to learn from this experience, because ministry gets tougher.

This may sound harsh, but it's meant as an encouragement. The job hunt is brutal, but so is ministry. Nichols says this:

Getting rejected for a long string of ministry positions is one of the easier trials you will face in ministry. How will you handle getting falsely accused, gossiped about, or betrayed by a partner? So count it all joy—use it as an opportunity to practice what you may one day be preaching.

Pixar, an animation studio with a track record of quality, has a unique hiring philosophy. They hire only those who would hone their craft even if they weren't paid—the writers who can't stop writing, the artists who can't put down their sketchbooks. They only want people with passion for their work. Ministries are looking for the same thing. Do you feel called so strongly that you're engaged in ministry even if you haven't found a paid position yet? That's who employers want working for their ministries.

Believe it or not, potential employers are looking at how you endure the rigors of the job hunt. Are you able to roll with the punches, shake off the disappointments, and approach each new position with a grounded optimism? Keep fighting! You're exercising the muscles you'll need in full-time ministry.

Although the job hunt nightmares are discouraging, there are also stories of the process done right. Wade Floyd told me that his wife was recently hired on staff at a church: "During the hiring process, their communication was amazing throughout. She always knew where she stood, and they paid for all our expenses on the trip out to interview with them. They blew us away with the amount of generosity they extended to us." The ministry job hunt will always be a trial, but by stepping into each other's shoes, job-seekers and potential employers can make the process edifying for everyone involved.

Kyle Rohane is managing editor of CTPastors.com.

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