December 14, 2016

Interviewing Potential Clergy and Staff

Tim Shapiro by Tim Shapiro

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It doesn’t matter if the workplace is a hospital or a grocery store, finding the right people is key to effectiveness. This is true for congregations too.

How does your congregation find staff?
Many congregations spend much energy selecting the best clergyperson. Sometimes the match is wonderful. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. A lay leader told me not too long ago, “Our congregation is just one step away from closing. Everything depends on who our next pastor is.”

Additional staff
Many congregations have staff in addition to the pastor. According to the National Congregations Study, about 65% of United States congregations have two or more full time staff persons.

Behavioral interview
A behavioral interview is one kind of interview process that helps a congregation find the right person. A behavioral interview process is based on the reality that past performance best predicts future effectiveness. It is also based on the assertion that gathering stories about past performance that relate to what your congregation most needs is a helpful interview approach. It helps you see beyond a person’s assertions that they have a gift or ability while providing no data to support such claims.

We use this approach at the Center for Congregations. I think it is helpful to any workplace including congregations. Below is a summary of a behavioral interview approach, with thanks to Sandra Herron from Middledge.

A recommended approach
1. Start with naming the purpose you are seeking to achieve. For example, we seek to hire a _______________in order to ____________________. You might have multiple, primary purposes, but you shouldn’t have more than two or three.

2. List the roles and functions involved in this position. These roles and functions should relate directly to the purpose or purposes noted above. They should be able to fit on a page. For example, 1) Serve as head of staff. 2) Function as the primary preacher.

3. Guided by the roles and functions list, describe what it looks like when this person effectively accomplishes the tasks in your setting. Do this for the top six or so roles and functions. Think in terms of watching this person in action. Think in terms of a video that can be observed or a story that can be told. What is this person doing when he or she is succeeding? How might this role or function be complicated by a challenge. Be as specific as possible. Like this: Our head of staff will be able to handle two conflicting requests from other staff persons in a way that honors both even while disappointing both.

4. Then move it to a trait. What trait is this person demonstrating when fulfilling the function described. In the example above, a potential head of staff is displaying the traits of wisdom and willingness to disappoint honorably.

5. So, now you have a behavior oriented inquiry. Tell us about a time when you needed to manage two opposing requests with wisdom while disappointing honorably.

The questions
When constructing interview questions, you want the behavior question to relate to a predictive trait that relates to a role that serves the greater purpose. This is the logic model behind behavioral interviews.

The behavior questions can be framed about three to one positively. In other words, frame a few negatively, but not too many, to hear how the person learned on the job.

You will probably end up with eight to 12 behavior type questions.

Gathering information
This kind of process doesn’t guarantee a great clergy selection or great hire. But it minimizes the potential for a hiring mistake. One can’t predict the future, but one can interpret the past. And a trait/behavioral interview helps give you enough past information to interpret. Interviews based only on roles, resume experience, education and ability are easier to do but don’t provide rich enough data.

A few more things
Sometimes candidates need a little help in constructing good stories. It is okay to prompt a better story with an open ended question or two. Especially early on in an interview. But if you have to prompt too much to get a rich story, that itself is a sign. The stories you receive should have depth. They should have conflict. They should demonstrate that the candidate has a comprehensive understanding of the situation and insight into his or her behavior.

You can’t do traits/behavioral interview with everyone in the process. This process has the most value when it is used with the top or finalist candidates.

Staffing is key to congregational vitality. A behavioral interview model has worked well for many congregations.

Recommended resources
Here is a resource that helps you think through other issues related to finding the best pastor for your congregation: Leadership that Fits Your Church.

You can also take a look at the book When Moses Met Aaron. This book was written with the large church in mind, but much of it is helpful in many settings. In concert with this blog, I recommend the chapter “Hiring Right to Manage Easier.”