Congregational Interviewing 101 (Or What You Should Know About Parish Interviewing but No One Tells You… Or What I Wish I had Known a Few Years Ago)


Ah, the call process. What an idyllic, prayerful time, characterized by
careful consideration of congregations and clergy alike, with everyone putting aside worldly concerns
to discern the will of the Triune God. Sound familiar?

No? What’s that? You
experienced stress, anxiety, or confusion while looking for a position as an ordained
minister? Blasphemy, blasphemy! Well, maybe so, but, given a choice, I’d rather be a blasphemer than
a prevaricator.

When I was looking for my first ordained call, I
thought I would have no problem. I am an attractive candidate… on
paper, that is. I
had degrees with Latin honors from two prestigious universities,
internships in
fairly diverse places, and some pretty good sample sermons. I was the
ideal
candidate in my own mind if nowhere else. What congregation wouldn’t want to issue a call to me?
I can’t believe I was so naive.

My resume may have gotten me
interviews, but that’s about it.
Once I got in the door, I had to interview well. I did fine
on my one-on-ones with the head pastor, the persons who would have been my most
direct supervisor. The committee interviews were an entirely different story. I
was interviewed—and rejected—by several parish committees before I had even written my final papers for divinity school. By the time graduation had rolled around, I had earned a few more rejections. I was freaking
out, embarrassed, and unemployed to boot. I also felt like I
was supposed to be all zen about everything, which I was not. 

Looking back on it, part of the problem was that everyone, including me, thought
that I would interview well. What I came to realize is that interviewing is
itself an acquired skill. I share with you some
of my own pitfalls, in hopes that you might seek out your own.

Know answers to questions you’re sure to be asked.

“Tell us a little about
yourself” is the classic interview opener. My knee-jerk, and completely unacceptable, response is, “Well, what do you want
to know?” I now craft an answer appropriate to the situation. When interviewing
in parishes, I purposefully highlight some of my more “grownup” features,
like talking about my husband and highlighting some of my international
experiences, since some congregations seem apprehensive about my youth.

Other examples of interview
questions worth prepping for:

  • Tell us about a time when something went wrong and how you handled it.
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • Do you like children/the elderly?

Think very concretely about your answers beforehand. Write out potential answers
if it helps.

Let me stress that you don’t have to say what you’re “supposed” to say. You just have to be able to explain yourself well. For example, instead of giving a canned response to where I see myself in five years, I’ve worked on being able to explain why I don’t currently have a five year plan (my reasons are theological, in case you’re curious).

Be your (professional) self.

I can’t believe I’m writing something so cliché, but I think there’s something
to it, particularly for clergy. Interviewing to be someone’s pastor
is different than other job interviews. The congregation needs
to be able to imagine having you around during some of their highs and lows.
That’s going to be hard to do if you tell them nothing about you on
a more personal level. Tell them what you’re reading, what your favorite movies are, or what else you
like to do in your free time (This may be fodder for the ubiquitous “tell us about yourself” described above).

Being your (professional) self
includes being aware of nervous habits that prevent you from  communicating
well. Most anxious people do something unintentionally. Some prattle on and on, while others let their inner nail biter
loose. My nervous default is to become pokerfaced. If you want to make a room of WASPs uncomfortable, don’t emote anything whatsoever. Now when I feel myself getting nervous, I make myself to smile to stop the emotional flatlining.

All that being said, be your professional self. You’re not at
home in your pajamas or at the bar with your friends.

Presentation matters.

Face it: appearances count. I had forgotten this in the parallel
universe of divinity school. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time in the library, where no one cared what I was wearing, and I was too interested in my studies to notice that my shirt sleeves were so long that I could hide my hands in them. Not too surprisingly, when I first started interviewing,
my suits didn’t fit my frame. I looked like I was playing dress
up in my mom’s clothes, which made me look even younger, which made the parishes even more nervous about my youth. Before graduation, I bought a petite
suit.

Short limbs are not the only potential pitfall. Whatever your build, ask someone you trust, preferably a  blunt yet caring someone with some fashion sense, to critique your interviewing outfit, including hair, jewelry, and
makeup. If you’re part of a tradition in which a clerical collar is expected or even acceptable, by all means, wear it as a visual cue that this young woman sitting in front of them is, in fact, ordained. That being said, whatever you wear, present yourself well.

I’m not convinced that presenting yourself well means you always have to wear a
suit for interviewing, though some may advise otherwise. Being able to read the context is important. I showed up
to one interview wearing business casual—a button-down shirt, a pair of
slacks, and boots. The rector was wearing jeans and a
T-shirt. If the interview would have gone well, I don’t think the incongruity would have mattered. However, the interview did not go well, and somehow the mismatched clothing
didn’t help. When in doubt, though, go for overdressed.

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with your interviewing skills, and you still won’t get the job.

Most clergy have anecdotes that fall in this category. One place supposedly didn’t hire me because their rector was smart and they
didn’t need another intellectual clergy person (God forbid). Another said I was too young and
then proceeded to hire a guy my age a year later, leading me to ponder the
little known developmental chasm between a 27 and a 28 year old. Sometimes the
search committee already has someone else in mind
.

We all get turned down for odd, fake reasons, no matter how much interview advice you’ve read, marked, and inwardly digested. Sometimes it’s not your interviewing skills. Sometimes it’s the congregation and its own
history, prejudices, blind spots, what have you. There’s nothing you can do about that except move on.

I’m approaching my two year anniversary of a job that
sent me back to the Carolinas, where I did not
think I would be, serving in a parish to which I do feel called. I’m grateful
that I’ve ended up with a good mentor. I’m equally grateful to be in a place
where my partner has been able to pursue his own vocational dreams more fully. I guess all that stuff I talk to other people about how Jesus Christ reveals a God who continually subverts our expectations
applies to facets of my own life, too, including employment.


3 replies
  1. Sarah K.
    Sarah K. says:

    I’ve almost commented on this article about ten times. I wonder if the low number of comments reflects our collective terror at having to interview ever again!!! It’s such a drag and wondering where you’re going to end up is so scary. I know I’ve avoided commenting just because I want to avoid ever having to think about this whole process. . .but when I DO have to face the music, I will be sure to refer to this excellent article. It’s amazing how little things can really make a difference.

    Reply
  2. ann
    ann says:

    Thanks, y’all.
    I’ve thought that
    a) perhaps others are better about seeing that it’ll work out in some form or fashion at some point than I.
    b) maybe others don’t want to seem (or to publicly admit) like they’re strategizing/calculating over something like a call, though I don’t really think that’s what this is.

    Reply

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