The hiring process of a new pastor or ministry director is like going to a school dance. When you know the candidate, the process is like a high school dance; if you don’t, then the process is like a junior high dance. Okay, that is an overstatement as I am being so unfair to junior high school students and their dances. You might laugh at that, but the stories of our failures and mishaps are horrifying.
Let’s look at the church hiring process from the perspective of the candidate, not from the perspective of the church. The best way to hire great people is to get into their dance shoes and think about life from their perspective.
At the junior high dance, everyone is awkward. This is a big deal in the social life of the kids and the consequences are enormous. Success or failure will set the narrative arc of their lives for the next several years (hmm, this does sound like church?) At arrival, the girls group together at one side of the gym and the boys at the other. To break the ice, a brave soul might text or tweet someone on the other side, then the party can begin.
In the church hiring process, things can be equally awkward. Consider some of the real life examples—where the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
1. Reply with a Form Letter
A friend wanted to be considered as a candidate and so sent in his resume and cover letter. He received back a letter that kept referring to the church as “our business” and full of phrases like “companies in our line of work.” The entire letter was off-key and full of business jargon. Someone must have copied a generic letter out of the big and yellow book, Corporate Form Letters for Dummies. This reply stepped on his toes and he determined that this church didn’t know how to dance.
The concepts behind a form letter are positive. As a church, you have a lot to say to candidates and don’t want to leave anything out. Consider how you would respond to people applying for a Care Pastor position. Your response letter should contain the core issues that you need to express to each candidate—appreciation for contacting you, acknowledgement of receipt of their resume, a brief explanation of the hiring process for the Care Pastor position and appreciation for their serving Christ in vocational Christian ministry.
It can be challenging to respond to 60-100 people who apply for a job. But these candidates are created in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity.
Lesson: Carefully draft a letter, sharing the unique DNA of your church. Write the letter specific to the position that you are seeking to fill.
2. Use a Fill-in-the-Blank Letter
This issue is a subset of the one above, but so common that it deserves special mention …
A friend received a letter addressed to “Dear Candidate.” Apparently the church couldn’t decipher his name from his one page resume or couldn’t be bothered to type it into the letter. The music ended for this candidate.
I received what seemed to be a personal note from a well respected secular search firm. The man complimented me on my credentials and experience and thought I would be a great fit for a position at his church. I was impressed—until I hit reply. Computers are sneaky things when you hit reply. My Mac showed that most of the email was in one text style, but both my name and his salutation and name was “fill in the blank.” Gee thanks, this wasn’t a personalized note. It was a cold call letter that was caught and mocked by my computer.
The root problem is authenticity and warmth. The “Dear Candidate” salutation exudes a depersonalized coldness. Even Siri knows and uses my name! Copying and pasting the content of a letter can save time—but it shows a lack of authenticity when the praise is just a copy and paste cold call tactic.
Lesson: Treat each candidate as unique individuals. Any personal comments should be original and tailored to each person.
3. Don’t Explain the Connection
Churches often use a cold call letter to get the word out about open positions. A cold call letter can be sent to those who might apply for the position or to people who can suggest candidates.
Churches can turn off candidates by not explaining the connection to the person. Our communication can seem to be stream of consciousness. The problem is that we jump in mid-thought and don’t give context:
“Hey, this is Exodus Church, and know you are a great pastor and want to see if you are interested in …” (Who exactly is sending this to me? How do you know I’m a great pastor?)
“I’m helping a church and wanted to see if want more information about …” (What church? What position? How did you get my name?)
“Joe said to contact you as you might know people interested in applying for a position at our church.” (Joe who? What church? What position?)
A while back we held a class at church that was by invitation only. In each invitation, we included the person who had suggested their name for the class. This was a real winner as each person understood the context. “Ah ha, Sally recommended me for this class. They didn’t just draw my name out of a hat.” Both those who made the recommendations and those invited felt honored in the process.
If you want to get the interest of a candidate for a position in your church, be specific. “Pastor Larry Jones of Faith Church suggested that I reach out to you about the Care Pastor position here at Exodus Church. He thought that you might be an ideal person for us to talk with about the position.” Wow! Now the person respects you for talking to his friend, Pastor Larry, and thinks highly of Pastor Larry for recommending him. This is a double win.
Fear of rejection often causes people to not get specific, to hedge the truth or to inflate egos. We think to ourselves, “You might not respond to my email if I tell you the truth …”
Lesson: Speak the truth in love; explain who you are and how you got the person’s name.
4. Say, “Let me know if you want more information …”
A while back I got an email from a recruiter. It was a fine email where he explained who he was, his role with the church and the Executive Pastor position they were seeking to fill. But he said, “Write back to me if you want more information.”
I felt like I was back at the junior high dance. It was like Mrs. Gremlin saying, “If you are thirsty, just ask us for some fruit punch.” The recruiter was the adult and I was the teenager, “If you want more, just ask.” That line may work in certain industries, but not with pastors:
- Church positions have so much specific DNA that just a job title is of little value.
- Role descriptions vary widely from church to church.
- It is so easy to attach a PDF to an email. Just do it.
I saw that God wanted me to stay at our church and not move on. But, as I know hundreds of XPs around the country, I would have been pleased to have recommended people to him—if I had a PDF of the role description.
Lesson: Share as much as possible so that others can know of your open position and help you get the word out.
We all have our stories of how we have messed up in communicating with candidates. Let me conclude with one of my classic ones:
We include a line in the first response letter to all who send in resumes. It says, “We will think and pray through your resume—you can expect us to get back with you in about ten days.”
For one open position, we were getting about 25 resumes a week (and that went on for four weeks). We reviewed each resume upon arrival and again after ten days. Essentially, we were asking God to give an indication during that time on whether we should move forward with the person. It sounded good to us to do this—and we thought we were treating each person well and with dignity.
The first round of decline letters went out after ten days. There were about 25 great folks who just were not the right fit for our church. One person wrote back and they were angry—white hot angry. “How can you say that you have thought and prayed about my application? You never contacted me. You only had my resume for ten days. How can you be a Christian and lie like that?”
You want a process that treats each person as an individual, as created by God, and having unique and special gifts. Your open position has a unique DNA that only a few candidates will fit, so thank all the others for applying. Draft a unique reply letter for each position. Be personal in your emails only if you can be authentic and original in your comments. Avoid cliches and jargon. Speak the truth in love and use the person’s name.
By asking God for guidance in the process and honing your process, you can avoid these four ways of turning off candidates. Happy searching!