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)

Post Author: Ann Bonner-Stewart

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.

Ann Bonner-Stewart, the managing editor of Fidelia, is a graduate of Duke University and Yale Divinity School. She serves as the associate rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, North Carolina. Her ability to deadpan, so deadly in interviews, is ironically sometimes handy in this line of work, but that's an entirely different article. 

Image by: Daniel McCullough
Used with permission
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.

  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.


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