There are questions every pastoral candidate ought to ask a search committee or hiring team when evaluating possible relocation, and then there are the questions every pastoral candidate ought to really ask.
What I mean is, it’s fairly normal to ask about the size of the church and its basic socio-cultural demographics, as well about the town, if such information isn’t readily available. But there are questions about churches that reveal more and can better prepare pastoral candidates for effective ministry in contexts new to them. You can look up population, income per capita, ethnic demographics, etc. – and all of those things are informative – but if you really want to know where you’re going, think about asking questions like these:
1. What power centers in the church should I be aware of?
In other words, who’s really influential in the congregation, even if it’s not the other pastors or staff team members. What families are prominent? What laypeople carry a lot of weight in the church?
2. Do I have your permission to talk to the previous pastor?
I would want to know what wisdom about the congregation the previous leader can share. I want to be mature and discerning enough not to take anything he says at face value, especially if he left under bad circumstances – you will want to regard every congregant on new terms and not prejudge them based on someone else’s perception of conflict – but it is still worth hearing any advice about the role the previous holder can give you. And if they don’t give you permission to talk to the previous pastor, ask why.
3. What significant challenges has your church faced in the last 5-10 years, and how did they overcome them?
Ask them what has “marked” them in the last decade. Have they been through periods of conflict, potential or actual splits, challenging seasons of lean growth or quick growth that changed relational/cultural dynamics? What obstacles have they overcome or what successes have they accomplished that have changed the church, and what did they learn about those accomplishments?
4. What are the church’s idols?
Every church has a thing or set of things that dominates in rivalry for worship of God. In some churches it’s family sports. In others it’s religious performance or intellectualism. In others it’s social standing or suburban affluence. Ask the hiring team, “What sacred cows are here? What landmines should I know about before I step on them? What unspoken rules exist in congregational life that could make people turn on me?”
Perhaps these questions have prompted new lines of inquiry of your own. The point is not to become a church’s inquisitor or to pry for gossip. But if you’re going to devote the next season of your ministry – or the rest of your life – to this church, it makes sense to ask deeper, probing questions that help you evaluate their identity and culture and whether you’re the best man for the leadership position.
This is an article I contributed to Benjamin Vrbicek's helpful book Don't Just Send a Resume: How to Find the Right Job in a Local Church, which also includes short articles from Jeff Medders, Dave Harvey, Sam Rainer, and more. If you're a prospective pastor navigating the interview process with a church, I highly recommend it.