Checking References of Ministerial Candidates

By Brent Storms

In my local church ministry, and now in my position as president of a church planting organization, I have considered more than 1,000 candidates for open positions in ministry. I have screened and interviewed hundreds, and have hired more than 30 people for ministry positions. As I look back on the hiring process, I understand there are few elements more important than checking references and previous employers.

Let me share three examples.

Not long ago I met a candidate for the position of lead planter for a new church to be started in one of our northeastern cities. We met at a regional ministers gathering. He was serving in a staff role at another area church. He was dreaming about leading a new church someday. As we got to know each other through subsequent conversations I realized his passion and giftedness would probably make him a good fit for one of our projects.

Not All Weaknesses Are Bad

Before our second conversation, we agreed he would let the senior minister of his current church know we were talking. This prompted the senior minister to contact me with some concerns. We arranged a face-to-face meeting. I couldn’t have been more surprised at how the meeting unfolded.

I expected him to be upset with me for recruiting one of his staff members. Instead, he told me the church was already considering dismissing this staff member. He shared several disappointments with this individual.

I thought he was going to tell me, “This guy has no business planting a church.” Instead, he said, “While he hasn’t worked out for us in his current position, we think he’d be a great church planter.” (By the way, the senior minister was a church planter, too, so he knows what it takes.)

I suspected he might be recommending this candidate and overstating his abilities in order to get rid of him. But additional references confirmed some of the candidate’s weaknesses as a staff member and strengths as a potential church planter. After completing the rest of our process, we hired him. He’s doing great so far.

Here are a couple lessons I learned:

1. Every candidate has weaknesses. A reference who is willing to talk openly and specifically with you about the candidate’s weaknesses is a big help. Do not make the mistake of dropping a candidate once you’ve learned about his or her flaws. Their flaws provide insight into the kind of environment that would help the candidate succeed.

2. The person you’re seeking to fill your position might not have been satisfied with or performed well in his or her previous position. That may be OK, especially if you’re hiring the person to do something different than he or she was previously doing.

Not All Strengths Are Good

Several years ago I was leading a church that was desperately seeking help in a particular ministry area. We kept striking out in our search. We needed someone, anyone, immediately.

To our surprise, a candidate contacted us via e-mail. His résumé looked great. The initial phone interview went well. The subsequent meeting in person at the church went even better. Our whole team got a chance to meet the candidate and his wife. Everyone was convinced this couple was an answer to our prayers.

I happened to know an executive staff member at one of the churches where the candidate had served. I called my friend and asked about our candidate. He said, “We loved them [the candidate and his wife]. We hated to see them go. If we could, we’d hire him back.” That was enough for me. I trust this friend and admire the church. We’d found our new staff member.

Unfortunately, the position we hired him for was not a particular area of passion for our new hire. He did the job without complaining, but he lacked the energy that comes from operating in an area of passion. Additionally, this staff member was fantastic with people but terrible with details. I doubt my friend knew how much coaching our new staff member needed in that department. His lack of administrative skills surfaced quickly.

For these two reasons, his ministry with us was less than fruitful. Everyone at our church loved this couple, but after a few years, we couldn’t afford to keep him working in a role he didn’t love with results that were less than stellar.

Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1. When checking references, talk to the candidate’s direct supervisor. My friend observed our candidate’s ministry only from a distance. He wasn’t directly involved in his supervision. I suspect we would have gathered better information from someone else on staff.

2. In contrast with what I said in number 2 (above), just because a person performed well in one role doesn’t mean he or she will perform well in another. You may find it helpful to ask behavior-based questions to determine how the candidate might perform in the role you have in mind.

Not All References Will Talk

We had been looking for some time for the right church planter to start a church in a city we had never worked in before. A former staff member of one of our new churches recommended a friend for the position. We started the conversations, and things looked good. We asked to speak with his supervisor at the large church where he had been serving for nearly 10 years. He agreed (the staff at his church knew he was pursuing a new ministry).

Unfortunately the supervisor gave a noncommittal response to almost every question I asked. He mentioned a few strengths and weaknesses of the candidate, but wasn’t very specific. He didn’t enthusiastically endorse the candidate for our position, nor did he strongly dissuade us. In other words, our 20-minute phone conversation offered no help.

We have a lot of confidence in the Center for Ministry Assessment ( We use this assessment process for all of our church-planting candidates. Increasingly, churches are using this service for all potential hires.

We sent our candidate through assessment and reached an important conclusion. While we were confident our candidate had the gifts needed to plant a dynamic church, we were not willing to take the risk of hiring him. Why? We were concerned about the number of people his somewhat abrasive demeanor might tick off along the way.

Shortly after informing the candidate of our decision, we heard from the senior minister of the church where he had been working. “I think you made the right decision,” he confided.

It might have been helpful to know what he thought before sending the candidate through assessment. However, our decision reinforced this senior minister’s already positive opinion of our hiring process and his remarks affirmed our approach.

Lessons learned . . .

1. There may be several reasons for references to be hesitant about giving a strongly stated opinion about a candidate. On one hand, the reference may be reluctant to endorse the candidate for fear you might hold him or her accountable if it doesn’t go well. On the other hand, the reference might avoid discouraging you from hiring a candidate, knowing the new challenge or new setting might be just what the individual needs to flourish.

2. While references can be helpful in the hiring process, it’s important to trust in the other aspects of the process. Checking references is only one of many tools you can use to gather the information you need to make a wise decision.

Brent Storms is president of Orchard Group Church Planting. For more information, visit


A convenient, 12-page download that includes all seven articles about Hiring a New Minister–and which may be reproduced up to 10 times for church and ministry needs–can be purchased at

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  1. October 13, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    1- I love the revised logo. Diggin it’.

    2- I wish your posted articles would have hyperlinks in the text, the way Fast Company’s do. Surely there’s a way to automate it.

    3- I’m really happy that your new website lets me comment like this on the articles!

    – Kyle

  2. October 18, 2010 at 6:54 am

    interesting, thanks

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