5 Keys to Leveraging Interviews to Build Strong Church Teams

“None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”

Mother Teresa

Have you ever had to let a team member go because of a performance issue? Without a shadow of doubt, it’s a horrible feeling. 

I know there are macho leaders out there who may say things like “hire slow, fire fast” as if letting people go from a church is no big deal. 

However, let me say this in no uncertain terms. It’s a big deal. 

It’s painful on so many fronts. The person you are letting go feels a pervasive sense of intense disappointment. If that wasn’t bad enough, the relationships that the person has formed in the end up being strained. You have an internal sense of doubt about your decision. Furthermore, it costs the church a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy. 

If you haven’t had a chance to do that yet, consider yourself fortunate! It’s not something I’d wish on anyone. 

The best way to avoid firing someone is by not hiring them in the first place. 

Leveraging your face-to-face time with candidates is a critical step in building the sort of team that you need to drive the long-term mission of your church forward. Here are five keys to leveraging your interview process in order to ensure that you’re finding the team you need! 

NOTE: As with anything around hiring and human resources, make sure to consult your local laws so as to ensure you are operating in the best practices! 

Get Them to Relax

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about interviews is that you have to get people to relax. 

When people are nervous, it is very difficult to get a real sense of who they are. At best, they are tight-lipped, and you can’t gauge what it’s going to be like to work with them. At worst, they turn out to be a chameleon and just pretend to be whomever it is that you need to hire. Go out of your way to ensure that people who are in the process of being interviewed are relaxed and comfortable, and you are way more likely to get a true sense of who they are. 

7 Ways to Help People Relax During an Interview

  • Don’t make them wait // Sweating it out and waiting for the interview to start will just exacerbate the tension. They will arrive early (most likely), so you may want to be ready early and articulate that you’re glad they are with you! 
  • Get them laughing // Crack a few jokes at the front end of the conversation in order to put them ease. Even a good “dad joke” or two can go a long way in helping someone get in the right frame of mind.
  • Offer them coffee // A hit of caffeine to the brain will help people relax and act closer to normal. 
  • Find common ground // Look over their resume and find common points in your background. This will reduce the “power structure” that tends to get amplified in the interview by assuring them that you come from the same background. 
  • Choose the location wisely // Don’t sit across the desk from them. Instead, sit side by side in some causal seating. Work hard to reduce the barriers between you and the candidate. 
  • Go for a walk // If it’s possible, get moving during the interview. Even a quick stroll around the building will help diffuse the inherent tension in the conversation. 

Use Performance-Based Questions

Compelling interviews should primarily be based on performance-based questions that look at what the candidate has done, as opposed to what they “think” or “feel” about serving in your church. We need to understand what they have actually done, and not what their opinions or thoughts are on what they would do. 

Taking time to delve deep into their background and understand their past experiences will help you figure out how they will fit into your church. Past performance is the best indicator of the future reality. Understand what they’ve done and then apply that to the role you are hiring them for. (Yes … I’m asking you to discount any growth potential.) 

Here are some questions that might be helpful for your next interview.

  • Tell me about a time when you developed a new team of volunteers into a strong working group. What did you do? How did you know they were strong?
  • People consider our church fast-paced and constantly changing. When have you found yourself in a similar context in the past? Tell me exactly what you did to deal with that and the outcome.
  • What have you done this week to grow in your relationship with Jesus?
  • Can you outline some steps you have taken to improve existing systems and structures?
  • What was the most creative idea you introduced in your last ministry role? How did you persuade the leadership at the church to execute your idea?
  • Tell me about a time when you let someone down and how you dealt with that situation.
  • What goals have you set in the past for your ministry area and how did you accomplish them?
  • Describe a time when voicing your opinion was uncomfortable, but you did it due to your strong conviction in the value of your perspective.
  • Give me an example of the most complicated project you have had at your church. Tell me about your part and the outcome.
  • What do you do when you are communicating with a volunteer and it becomes apparent that they don’t understand what you’re saying or vice versa?

Break Expectations

Please don’t ask them what their strengths and weakness are. That question is too typical and doesn’t really give you any insight into who they are.

In your interviews, you should try to break conventions as much as possible to get a sense of what people will be like. (Obviously, while still staying well within the bounds of the law and proper etiquette!) 

By demonstrating a little bit of creativity in your hiring process, you will be able to communicate with potential candidates that you are looking to operate creatively. 

For example, I was once applying for a role at a church where they came to me instead of being flown to their location for a weekend! I thought this was such a fantastic move that I’ve repeated it a few times when I’ve been hiring others. There’s nothing like actually getting into a person’s environment and seeing them serving to give you a sense of how they might fit on your team. You’ll need to come up with a creative reason for visiting them, but it will definitely make the candidate think clearly whether or not they want this role. Besides, you’ll see them in their natural environment. 

I also heard of another church that hired potential candidates to do a weekend of “coaching & consulting” with their team around the area of expertise that they were hiring for. This approach not only allowed the church to learn from the potential candidate in the field of knowledge that they were hiring, but also forced the candidate to actually engage with other leaders at the church. Since the church allowed the candidate to set the fee for the consulting, it wasn’t perceived as “free work.” 

Don’t Trust Interviews (Really.) 

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book titled “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know” he makes some interesting points about the lack of value in interviewing all together. His point is that interviewing ends up adding a bunch of information to the process that isn’t really helpful towards hiring. That interview serves very little purpose other than adding “noise” to the “signals” of the hiring process. 

While this is indeed a contrarian position, as someone who has done a lot of hiring over the years, I can see his point. Rarely have I gone into an interview not really knowing if I was going to hire someone, and all of a sudden, the interview moved me to the point where I wanted to hire them. Or conversely, I’ve rarely gone into an interview leaning towards wanting to hire someone, and the person so botched the conversation that we didn’t take steps closer. Interviews are a tool to understanding more about people, but they aren’t the only ones you should be using. 

5 Other Ways to Learn About Potential Candidates (That Might Be More Helpful Than Interviews)

  • Social Media // Yes, you should stalk people that you are looking at hiring. What they post (or don’t post) will tell you a lot. 
  • References // This shouldn’t be the “last check” before making an offer. Call them early. Ask good questions. Lean in. 
  • “Backdoor” References // The church world is small. Make a few calls to find people who know this person & aren’t listed as official references. Listen to what they have to say carefully. 
  • Application // Rather than just asking for a resume to start, the process includes an application that asks the pertinent questions about them serving with you. 
  • Search Agencies // One of the values of a search firm, like the Slingshot Group, is that they do a thorough research of candidates. Leverage their expertise! 

Start Recruiting 

Finally, there will come a point in the interview process where you switch from trying to understand if this person is a fit for your church to trying to get them to join your team. You need to make this turn deliberately. Finding good people to push the mission forward at your church is hard work. Don’t hesitate to change the pacing of the conversation to getting them to join the team if you sense that you have one of the people in front you. 

Asking leading questions that start pivoting towards their thoughts is an excellent way to do this. Here are a few examples:

  • If you were to be offered this role, what would stop you from moving forward?
  • What is it about our ministry that appeals to you?
  • What would you need to know about us to make you comfortable in joining the team?
  • How could we make this the best place you’d ever work?

Another useful tactic is to pivot the conversation to speaking about the “first 90 days” in the role. Help the candidate see what it would look like to start working with your team. Carefully listen to their replies when you ask them how they foresee the transition going from their existing role to your church. Closely watch out for any barriers that you could work to overcome in order to help them be ready to join the team. 

More Recruiting Help for Church Leaders.

Are you doing some hiring at your church? Looking to build a high-performance team that will push the mission forward like never before? These three PDFs are designed to be great discussion starters for your team. Use them to help guide conversations with your team around any growth issues you might be facing. Click here to download free resources to help your church. You’ll receive 3 PDFS in this download:

  • 5 Healthy Meeting Habits in High-Performance Church Teams
  • 4 Leadership Personalities Needed for Your Church Team
  • 8 Axioms of Church Staff Hiring

Click here to download these resources!

Thank You to This Article’s Sponsor: Red Letter Challenge

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.