Churches, Search Committees, and Questionnaires: Rethinking the Process

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Pastor search committees often send candidates questionnaires. Maybe it's time to rethink how churches and minister candidates get to know each other.

Anyone who has gone or is going on the journey of finding a ministry position is familiar with the process. The seeker submits his or her résumé to the church either directly or through a third party (e.g., denomination, school, or other source). Then they await a reply, often receiving none.

The committee reviews the résumés and chooses a smaller number they wish to consider further, and those individuals are then contacted. From here, the process follows one of a few various paths. Regardless of the path taken, the candidate will be asked to answer a list of questions, often via a formal questionnaire. Those whom the committee wishes to pursue further are sometimes given a second, more detailed, questionnaire.

Questionnaires for the Candidates

Search committees will often ask between five and twenty questions (though I’ve seen up to thirty on a single document). The questions are intended to help the committee members learn more about each candidate so that they can decide whom to include and exclude from consideration.

Whether intended or not, the questions asked often reveal as much or more about the church than the answers do about the candidate. Observant candidates can glean things such as previous issues of contention (often with the former minister), the church’s theology, it’s personality, what type of minister it actually desires (which sometimes is different than the one claimed), possible future problems, “red flag” issues, and much more. This is not a bad thing. Rather, it helps the candidate learn about the church and can contribute to a better relationship.

The candidate, though, often has specific questions regarding the church. Information gleaned from questions provide limited answers and may lead to further questions. So, what are the options available to the candidate to help them discover more about the church?

Questionnaires for the Churches

There is only so much one can learn about a church from the questions it asks. Many candidates have specific issues they wish to address, and the questionnaires the search committees send may lead to additional questions in the candidate’s mind. Candidates have three options to obtain answers: online, interviews, and questionnaires.

Candidates can go online, especially to the church website (which many do not have). This, however, often leaves many questions unanswered. Some sites provide very limited or even outdated information. Some sites are difficult to navigate, especially on smart phones or tablets (personally, I strongly dislike the feel, look, and usability of Flash-based sites used by many churches, but I digress). Regardless, candidates often learn little from a church’s website.

The candidate can ask questions during the interview. Again, there are a few weaknesses to this approach. First, not all churches offer the candidate opportunities to ask their own questions during interviews. Second, if more than a handful of questions are asked, the committee may look less favorably on the person, viewing them as too probing. Third, some questions require thought and elaboration that are more conducive to a written questionnaire.

The final option—and I believe the best one—is for the candidate to submit his or her own questionnaire to the church. This idea comes with its own issues, such as who should be able to send questionnaires to churches, how long should they be, and what types of questions can be asked.

Candidates Who Can Submit Questionnaires

Who should be eligible to submit a questionnaire to a church? Should anyone who sent a résumé be eligible? The answer to the second question is ‘no.’ Rather, two groups if candidates should be free to submit questionnaires to churches: anyone who received a questionnaire and anyone who is a finalist. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if a church asks a candidate to answer a questionnaire, then that person should be free to submit his or her own list of questions.

Length of the Questionnaire

How long should the questionnaire be that the candidate submits? There should not be an iron-clad rule, though common sense and decorum should have much influence. I would say no more than twenty to twenty-five questions (the length of many questionnaires churches send). The candidate should not be restricted to length, but they should be respectful of the committee’s time. They should ask the questions that address vital matters or allow for answers that simultaneously address multiple issues .

Types of Questions to be Asked

What types of questions should the candidate be free to ask the committee? Again, there should be no iron-clad rules. Candidates should be free to ask whatever they want. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended that the candidate search for answers online and within the questions the church asked. Only those questions that are not already answered or those that seek further elaboration need be asked.

Search Committees’ Apprehensions to Receiving Questionnaires

Some committees may object to receiving questionnaires from candidates. They may fear receiving too many questionnaires, some may simply not like answering them, or they may feel the candidate is too probing or getting too personal.

Churches often receive hundreds of résumés, and it is absolutely unreasonable to expect them to answer hundreds of questionnaires. The best solution is for search committees to send questionnaires only to those whom they are strongly considering. Search committees should also consider viewing the process from the candidate’s perspective. Ministry job seekers often answer many countless questionnaires during their journey, so it is not unreasonable to ask churches to answer a dozen or fewer questionnaires. Remember the rule of thumb I mentioned earlier: if the search committee expects a candidate to answer a questionnaire, then the search committee should be willing to do likewise.

There are some churches and search committees who simply do not like answering questionnaires. Whatever their objection, search committees should remember that just like they have questions about the candidate, the candidate has questions about the church. Just as the committee members want to get to know the candidate, the candidate wants to get to know the church. Asking questions helps build relationships.

Sadly, some churches may think candidates who ask lots of questions are too probing. I have only three responses. First, is the candidate any less probing for asking lots of questions than a church is for doing the same? Second, the purpose of the interviews and questionnaires is to help the parties get to know each other; “probing” questions help this process. Third, and I can’t think of a more diplomatic approach, these types of churches need to relax. The candidate isn’t being nosy, rude, or intrusive. Rather, he or she wants to get to know you just like you want to get to know them.

When a Church Does Not Answer the Questionnaire

What should a candidate do if a church chooses not to answer a questionnaire? One need only ask what a church does when a candidate fails to answer a questionnaire: the candidate is excluded from consideration. Likewise, if a church decides not to answer a questionnaire, then the candidate should exclude that church.

Why? Because the questionnaire is intended to help the candidate learn more about the church. When an individual or church declines to answer questions (aside from matters of confidentiality), then they are conveying some level of resistance to helping the other learn about them.

Final Thoughts on Questionnaires

Ministerial candidates answer many questions, often through formal questionnaires. Some questions are generic, almost to the point of being redundant or being straight out of a book. Some questions are probing. Nevertheless, the questionnaire reveals information about both the one asking and the one answering. Thus, they help in the decision making process and in building relationships. Churches should be free to submit questionnaires to candidates, and candidates should be free to submit questionnaires to churches.

About John L. Rothra
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