A good friend at church is the CEO of a growing manufacturing facility with more than 50 employees. He has advanced academic degrees and years of experience in business, but has only recently taken on the responsibility of interviewing potential employees.
A few weeks ago he confided he still hasn’t figured out the secret to interviewing people for his staff. In particular, he’s had a number of people excel in the interview only to flounder on the job. Hiring the wrong people has cost him a significant amount of time, money, and productivity.
If a seasoned, well-educated CEO still struggles with how best to interview candidates for employment, how much harder the task must seem for church selection committees, staffed by good-hearted volunteers, many of whom have little to no experience or education in interviewing or hiring.
Hope can be found in a specific type of interview that has been used in the church-planting world for more than 20 years. This type of interview, popularized by Charles Ridley of Texas A&M University, is known as “behaviorally based interviewing.” This is the form of interviewing we use at Stadia, and it plays a big part in our 90 percent success rate in starting new churches.
So what exactly is behaviorally based interviewing and how is it different from other types of interviewing? Simply put, there are two key goals around which the interview questions are based:
• Evaluating a ministry candidate’s past behavior as a predictor of future results
• Determining whether the ministry candidate has been an “actor” or simply “on the stage.”
Past Behavior as a Predictor of Future Results
I’ve been a part of many interviews (including some I’ve led) that were future-focused. This is understandable. After all, we are hoping a particular ministry candidate will be a part of our church or ministry’s future!
As interviewers we ask a candidate, “Tell me about your vision for ministry,” or, “If you were to come to this congregation, tell us what kinds of things you would do in your first year.” Or we use doctrinal questions, asking a candidate to articulate his theology of baptism, church leadership, or some other important topic. These aren’t bad questions, but there are better questions that will tell us whether a particular candidate is the right fit for our church or ministry.
The common element in behavioral-interview questions is a strong belief that past behavior is a predictor of future results. In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, Jesus says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” (Luke 16:10). A similar principle is found in the Parable of the Talents, in which each of the two servants who wisely invested his master’s money was rewarded with additional responsibility because of faithfulness with a little. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Matthew 25:21, 23). These passages make it clear that God uses past performance as one measure of how well we will handle future responsibility.
As interviewers, we put this principle into practice by asking questions about very specific past behaviors. For example:
• Give a recent example of how you handled interpersonal conflict in your work or ministry. Tell me about the conflict, and how you brought resolution to that conflict.
• Give at least two specific examples of how you relate to unchurched and non-Christian people. What kinds of things have you done to build and nurture those relationships? What results have you seen?
• Describe your greatest failure in ministry. How did you handle it? What did you learn from this experience?
While the specific questions should be designed around your candidate profile, all of these questions should lead to a candidate recounting actual, specific incidents in ministry or other leadership. You want the candidate to tell a detailed story about what happened and how he or she was personally involved.
The behaviorally based approach can also be used with doctrinal questions. For example, “Tell me about a time someone came to you asking you to baptize their baby. What did you do and how did you respond to their questions?” Or, “Tell me about the process you used in selecting a particular leader in your last ministry. How did you know that person was the ‘right’ person and ready for leadership?”
Most ministry candidates know how to give the right answers to doctrinal questions. Asking how they handled the application of those doctrines will give you much deeper insight into both their head and their heart. The stories they tell you will give you a very good idea of how they would apply those doctrines in future ministry.
Of course, all of these questions are “starter” questions. You’ll want to follow them up with more detailed questions, probing deeper to determine actual past behaviors and get more details of the story. If your candidate hangs out with his unchurched friends at Starbucks, you want to know what kind of conversations he has with those friends. You want to know how she has introduced spiritual topics into the conversation, or what he has done to meet practical needs to take those relationships deeper. The more you know of the story, the better you’ll know how the candidate will likely act in the future.
Actor or Stage?
The second goal of behavioral interviewing is to determine whether a ministry candidate has been an “actor” or simply “on the stage” in their previous ministry leadership. Let me explain.
The “stage” in this case is the particular church, ministry, or marketplace leadership in which a candidate has been involved. (I am not saying ministry is a performance—this is just a metaphor!) For example, the stage for someone who’s been a lead minister could be the church he led. For a youth minister, it would be the youth group he oversaw. For a person entering vocational ministry from the marketplace, it could be work or community service experience as well as volunteer ministry leadership.
One of the challenges in evaluating past behavior is separating the success (or failure) of a particular ministry (the “stage”) from the success or failure of the ministry candidate as an effective leader (an “actor”). Just because a person was a part of a successful ministry does not mean that person was instrumental as a leader in creating that success. Likewise, a failing or struggling ministry doesn’t necessarily mean that the ministry candidate failed or struggled.
In separating the actor from the stage, it’s important to carefully discern between ministry programs and personal involvement. I’ve found that confusing actor and stage happens fairly frequently when ministry candidates are asked about evangelism and outreach. Many have had roles in churches with successful outreach programs, and they often describe their involvement in evangelism by describing these programs. Or they describe the people who have come forward at church for baptism. They’re describing the stage, but we want to know their role as actors.
Asking questions like, “How were you personally involved in that outreach program?” or “Tell me about a time you personally led someone to Christ outside of your role as a minister,” can help determine whether the candidate was an actor or merely on the stage.
The actor-stage distinction can be helpful in situations when a candidate was part of a struggling church. Many youth ministers have developed thriving youth ministries despite substantial negative pressure from a senior minister or elders. The stage might not have been great, but they’ve done a good job as actors given the limitations of that stage. Understanding how they acted under those limitations can give a glimpse of how they perform under pressure.
On the other hand a thriving ministry can mask the fact that a candidate isn’t an especially effective actor. This is a particular danger when a candidate is moving from a larger church or ministry to a smaller one. In larger ministries, candidates often have very specialized roles and a number of paid support staff. In smaller contexts they often have to be generalists. Again, it’s important to ask questions about a candidate’s personal involvement in the health and growth of that ministry to determine whether the candidate or someone else on a ministry team made that ministry a success.
Applying the Principle
Let me emphasize that these are principles. This approach isn’t limited to the candidate interview but can be used throughout the entire process. The church I now serve is using these principles of behavioral interviewing in a written application, in phone interviews with a candidate’s references, and in telephone and face-to-face interviews with the candidate and his spouse. In all three of those contexts, we’re looking for evidence of past performance and examples of how that person has served as an actor in ministry.
My CEO friend and I had a great conversation about these principles, and he’s decided to begin using them not only in the workplace but as part of our church’s search team as we look for our next lead minister.
David Limiero serves as the associate executive director for Planter Care with Stadia. In 2003, he planted Life Journey Christian Church in Bakersfield, California, which is currently using behavioral interviewing to select its next lead minister.
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 www.standardpub.com.