The Fake Search

at a local governing board meeting, the chair of a search committee presented
his candidate before the governing body with the words, “We really did have a
real search.” I sat
back in my pew, folded my arms, and rolled my eyes, because we all knew the
truth. It was just another sham.

you ever fallen prey to the fraudulent pastoral search? Do you know what I’m
talking about? Between my husband and me, we’ve been caught up in it. I
hate to say just how many times.

see, in our denomination, to ensure fairness, there’s a solid process, where
people are reviewed, interviewed, and selected. The pool of candidates needs to
be wide-ranging: male, female, differing ethnicities, etc. But sometimes everyone knows that the church is really
going to hire the non-ordained interim, or the pastor’s seminary buddy, or that
particular someone for whom the job description has been written. Everyone
knows it, except for the other candidates.

since we have this process, the church sets up a committee that half-heartedly
meets. The members ask around for good candidates, and the pool begins to come
together. Then the phony interviews begin.

thing that I hate about this is that I’ve been caught swimming in that pool of
candidates too many times. I’m at my church, minding my own business, not
planning on any sort of a move, when I get a call from out-of-nowhere, asking
me to apply for an exceptional position. And so I go into that excruciating
discernment process with my family. I begin to pray, asking God if I could get
some divine light on the messy decision.

When I
have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to do, then, I figure that I’ll put
together my resume. I become open to uprooting my family and moving. After a
couple of weeks of gathering all the data, sweating over essay questions,
cajoling references, buying that really
expensive resume paper, and recording a decent sermon tape, then, I hold my
breath. I hope. I imagine, a little.

prepare for phone interviews. After they go really well, I look at houses on (after all, they
contacted me). I begin to check cost
of living calculators and I let myself dream (just a little bit). I hold off my
vacation time, because I’m not sure if I’ll need it for a visit. I let the
summer slip away, without taking any days off.

a quick couple of months go by, and I don’t hear anything. When I begin to ask
around, I find out that they hired X–the person they had in their back pocket
all along. In fact, they hired him a month ago.

I figure it out. I got all caught up in a big, fat sham.

months after the hire, I get an embarrassed, apologetic “Dear John” letter.
(“All of the candidates were exceptional. We had a really hard time making a
decision. God bless you on your search.”) Usually, I’m very grown up about it.
I ceremoniously burn the letter, but I don’t even make any voodoo dolls. I
might, perhaps, mutter an imprecatory prayer upon the committee, but it’s one
from the Psalms, of course.

And in
those dark moments, I can’t help but think that this system that’s supposed to
establish fairness, really isn’t. I wish that all candidates had one of those
highlighters–you know, one of those markers that they use at the mall to
determine if a twenty is real or not–that we could use on the inquiry letters
to find out if they’re counterfeit.

course, we can have some clues when the fake search has occurred, thanks to
Susan Olson, the convener of Fidelia’s
. Susan’s worked with many students as the Director of Career
Services at Yale Divinity School, and she has become acutely aware of the fraudulent search phenomenon happening
across the denominational spectrum. She has even come up with some tips that
can help us sniff out if a  committee is not real:

(1) The job is perhaps a stretch for your
experience level.
They’re looking for two to four years, you have one, and
you can’t see anything in the job description that makes it clear why they’d
break their preferences for you.

(2) They don’t check your references and seem
to be in a hurry to get you out “there” quickly.
A good number of fake
interviews are at the end of the search because someone–a committee, bishop,
or senior pastor–noticed that the committee didn’t interview anybody who is
female, who is from a different part of the country, who is (fill in the
blank). So the committee scrambles at the end. Fake searches are almost all in
a region that is a bit away from you.

(3) During the interview, they talk a lot about
their intern, or about what’s happening at another church nearby.

(4) The questions seem pointed, and just “off.”
There are lots of questions about things that are not in the job
description, or situational questions that seem to appear out of thin air.

(6) They repeatedly call you by the wrong name,
or reference your participation in something you never participated in.
is most common with “others” in the process, not the committee. In a chaplain
interview, it happens in the student interview. In a church setting, it happens
with the spouse of the committee member who shows you around the community.

(7) An elderly lady in the church says, “Now is
she the one we want or the other one?” in front of you!

(8) The decision is going to be made about ten
seconds after you leave.
“We’ll be
in touch tomorrow,” is rarely a good sign. And then the rejection email beats
you home!

Of course, these
tips may not always help us with the anticipation at the beginning of the
process; however, they can help us to look back with more clarity, and swallow
the pain of rejection a little more easily. If you’ve been caught swimming
in the fake candidate pool, at least you can know that you’re not alone.

9 replies
  1. reverendmother
    reverendmother says:

    I don’t know whether I’ve been involved in a fake search, but I haven’t gotten inquiries on calls that, experience-wise, seem if not out of reach, at least “leaning into the wind.”
    I don’t know whether declining such invitations outright gives them fodder to say, “Hey, we considered a woman; she just wasn’t interested!” Perhaps that ship has sailed once they make the contact in the first place.
    Great article.

  2. Laura
    Laura says:

    Although Emily – there are other issues with the UMC that are often equally as destructive (like coming into a church and expecting to stay for longer than 4 years and then realizing in the first month that you have become an unintentional interim pastor). We could learn a lot from our sisters and brothers in other denominations about how to do transitions more efficiently.

  3. ann b-s
    ann b-s says:

    This is a wonderful article. I have been involved in a fake search at least once. I thought something was weird during the interview, because I realized that the person who would have been my supervisor wasn’t really trying to find out what it would be like to work with me. I called my friend who always knows all the dirt when I got home. He told me that the congregation wanted to hire their intern while the regional body wanted the congregation to interview (and hire) one of its own ordinands. Suddenly everything made a lot more sense. I think the head of staff realized that I was actually interested and not just going through the motions like the committee was, because he wrote me the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever received, so much so that I (almost) didn’t mind getting it.

  4. EmilyP-M
    EmilyP-M says:

    Laura, I hear ya. Trust me, the appointment system is a whole other monster. My husband is appointed to 2 churches 2 hours (each way) from my church (and our house)… I was just excited to feel a benefit of it through this article!

  5. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    I also have fallen prey to the “we had to interview a woman” search, which usually includes very broad questions and few or no questions about the parish particulars. Nothing like being the candidate they interviewed to meet a quota.

  6. Laura
    Laura says:

    I take it back. I had an experience this past week, where I believe that even in the United Methodist Church, we do this. And apparently it is a bad thing to not only be female – but single and young as well.


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