How To Win the Game of Hiring

Tony Toth
October 3rd, 2009

Do you feel like wasting $40,000? If you make a bad hiring decision, you're probably out at least that much. What's worse, if you make a really bad hiring decision—and it happens all the time—losing money will be your least headache.

In a growing ministry you are what you hire. Like other information-driven positions, the talents and gifts of the people who fill the leadership slots are incredibly important. But unlike many other occupations, a youth pastor's lifestyle, theological convictions, personality, and family life are also critical. To put it bluntly, when it comes to hiring church staff, there are a lot more ways to mess up than there are ways to get it right.

And just to raise your blood pressure a few more notches, your first two hires—the ones you typically make before you have much experience at hiring staff—are the two most important ones, because they represent fifty and thirty-three percent of your work force.

How can you improve your odds of success? Other than prayer and fasting, what can be done to find the right addition to your staff?

1. Recruit help.

Obviously, if you need to add a member to your paid staff, then you should have the strongest voice in choosing who is hired. Yet I hope it is equally obvious that you accept help in making that decision.

Choosing a quality selection team is the first step. Robert Dingman, a professional search consultant who has helped many churches and parachurch organizations select staff, jokingly comments, “When the search committee is formed, half the damage is already done.” Warm bodies aren't enough.

I use my staff as a selection committee and seek additional input from the senior pastor. Other churches form committees from members of the congregation. Some hire a consultant—possibly a youth pastor from a local church—to sit in as an objective third party. Obviously, a committee that is too big is ineffective, but the more people who help you make a selection, the more people who will have vested interest in seeing the new staff member succeed.

The associate pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, Washington—Dave Galanter—puts together a small in-house team of paid church staffers. This not only tightens confidentiality and allows him to quickly sort out those who are not strong contenders, but it also ensures that only those who really understand the church's vision have a vote in selecting church leaders. “I don't put laypersons on a selection team,” says Galanter, “because they are often too impressed by a flashy personality or a great speaker.”

2. Put a job analysis in writing.

Write both a job description and a personal profile. The job description answers questions like, “What will this person be responsible for?” “Who will they report to?” and “How much will they be paid?” The personal profile paints a picture of the kind of person you are interested in–their age, what skills they will need, what their passions should be. Rework the description and profile until you've got it right. “People rush the whole process,” says Galanter. “They're too anxious to fill the position. They don't take the time to ask all of the right questions, to really figure out what their needs are.”

Business consultants not only encourage managers to draw up a list of skills a person must have to fill a position, but they also encourage them to weight the skills according to their importance. This will serve as a guide later on and keep you from being overly impressed by a high-powered person who could to a great job—just not the right job.

3. Look in your own backyard.

Promote from within, advocates Dr. Robert Brady, a church consultant with the Charles Fuller Institute, a branch of Fuller Seminary that specializes in church-management issues.

“If your ministry is growing to the point of adding more staff, you probably have people involved who can fill your opening,” says Brady. “The advantages are obvious. Though they may lack the fresh ideas and objective viewpoint that an outsider would bring, they can jump right into the saddle. You save the year or two that it takes someone new to figure out your vision, the church's infrastructure, and how different divisions within the church relate to each other.”

Galanter agrees with Brady, and on two occasions he has hired from within. “You have two choices,” says Dave. “You can hire someone local who has the potential, but who will need some time to fully develop into a leader. Or you can hire a gun—someone with the experience it takes to make it happen right now. The problem with the gun is that it's very rare to find someone with the skills and the knowledge to make it happen, who also shares your philosophy of ministry. And it takes a while for an outsider to drop their baggage and really understand and embrace your style.”

A second problem with bringing someone in from the outside is that you really don't know what you're getting. The candidating process is a courtship dance. Everyone is on their best behavior. And although there are tricks and tools to help you better understand a candidate, nothing can replace the test of time. On every occasion but one, I have appointed former interns to staff positions. They came with shortcomings, but a least I knew what those shortcomings were. When I went outside my intern base to hire a staff member, I inherited a few more headaches than I care to list.

Galanter has gone outside of the church on two occasions. “Sometimes you have to,” he says. “We went outside because we needed someone with more experience than anyone had and more experience than anyone could gain doing the job. We did this knowing the risks and knowing that they would probably not stay with us as long as someone we train. But in our blue-collar community, it can be hard to find people to fill our white-collar positions.”

One point that everyone agrees on: Whether you stay inside or go outside of the local body, you do not want to hire a needy person. Hospitals hire healthy people to take care of those who are ill. The church would do well to follow their lead. Carl George, the director of The Fuller Institute, says that because a full half of a church budget is staff salaries, you need to hire someone who, within two years, will be bringing in twice their income. Needy people will not do that. Instead they will become a black hole in the middle of your schedule. George suggests that if you want to hire someone to help them out, you'd be better off cutting them a check for $50,000 because that—plus headaches—is what it will cost you before you end up letting them go.

4. Network.

If you must go outside your own ministry to fill a position, your best bet is to use your network. Contact friends around the country or churches with cutting-edge programs and describe the kind of person that you need. Ask them for names and leads. Chances are that the type of person you want to hire is currently (and successfully) engaged in ministry somewhere else. In fact, they may not be thinking about leaving until you contact them.

You can also contact some of the national agencies that match pastors with churches.

You might also consider contacting seminary placement offices—but keep both eyes open when you do. Hiring someone right out of seminary—especially a young someone—means that you're signing on to help them complete their training. “Some churches do this and do it quite well,” says Brady. “I just ask that churches know what they're doing. It's more expensive to keep hiring, training, and then losing recent seminary graduates than it is to just offer a larger salary and hire someone with a proven track record.”

5. Read between the lines of resumés.

Two months after you've advertised the position, your desk will buried under six feet of resumés. Some will be written in crayon (I'm not kidding), and some will be written by people who are probably institutionalized somewhere (I'm also not kidding). The rest will fall into three categories: high potential, possible, and unqualified. Send them all a postcard that reads: “Thank you for sending us your resumé. We will be in touch with you as our search process continues.” Then start reading.

Use the selection criteria that you formulated earlier to sort through the stack. Some hiring experts suggest that you start reading each resumé from the bottom up, because people will list their best information at the beginning. Others warn that lots of space devoted to education or hobbies might indicate trouble; success in the classroom doesn't guarantee success outside it, and a long list of outside interests might indicate little time for work.

Tricks aside, do understand that people are going to make themselves look as good as they possibly can. (“As long as people write resumés,” Peter Drucker said, “the American novel will not die.”) Learn to read between the lines. When someone says they recruited, trained, and supervised Bible study leaders, that probably means they ran an ad for people interested in leading a study, five people showed up, and they gave them a two-hour crash course using Serendipity material. On the other hand, if they built a team of 75 small groups, took them through a one-year training program, and then met with them weekly for discipleship and accountability, expect some specific numbers to show up in their resumés. Also, qualifiers like had exposure toassisted withhave knowledge of, basically mean they have no hands-on experience in that area.

6. Check references meticulously.

When it's all said and done, what's been done counts a lot more than what's been said. The best indicator of what anyone will do in the future is what they did in the past. References help you check an applicant's past.

“Don't take anything for granted,” says Galanter. “If they told you that they did something, check to be sure they're accurate. Also, don't just consider what the reference says, but also consider who the reference is. Are the references qualified to judge this person? Have the references worked day in and day out with your applicants? I spend as much time looking at who the applicant picked as references as I do listening to the references. Do the applicants list the senior pastor they are currently working under? If not, why not? Also, do they list any people who have to report to them? These are things I want to know.”

Just about anybody can find three people to speak very highly of them, so don't be quickly impressed. Just how high—and how specific—are the praises being heaped? If the applicant lists more than three references, start with the names on the bottom first—they will probably be the most honest. Ask each reference for the names of others that you could talk to, especially previous employers.

Arthur DeKruyer, author of Mastering Church Management, believes that one's assessment of a staff person is clarified over time. “Trying to locate someone for whom the candidate worked two or three situations ago also helps. Their superiors tend to be far more honest with the passing of time.” DeKruyer also suggests meeting with references face to face, perhaps over lunch, and asking very specific questions. “Did they do a good job?” will not yield one-tenth the insight that “Did they work well with the parents of the kids in the program?” will. Remember, references are not likely to volunteer unflattering information unless you ask specific questions about that area.

Two warnings. In this litigious society, where many employees are suing their former bosses over poor recommendations, many companies will not allow their staff to give out any information on past employees beyond a verification of the applicants' position and dates of their employment. This kind of stonewalling should not reflect negatively on a candidate. Also, it's wise to check beyond one bad recommendation. A friend of mine was virtually blackballed from ministry by one mean-spirited senior pastor with whom he did not get along. It took quite a bit of research to figure out that the problem lay with that one senior pastor.

7. Structure an extended interview.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government—except for all of the other forms of government. Believe it or not, interviews deserve the same accolade. They typically do not provide the kind of information people need to make a wise selection. They are usually unstructured and too short. And often within fifteen minutes, everyone in the room has acquired a gut feeling that they will stick with to the end, right or wrong.

Nevertheless, people want to see an applicant interact with a group and get a glimpse into his or her personality. An interview gives you that. After you have narrowed the field to two or three candidates, fly them out and conduct an interview.

Situational interviews—interviews where the candidate is asked, “What would you do in the following situation?”—can be helpful, because what a person says they will do and what they will actually do are pretty close. Be sure to take notes—after five interviews no one is sure who said what—and be sure to ask each candidate the same questions. This not only legally protects you against charges of bias, it also helps you compare candidates. Encourage the candidate to ask you as many questions as you ask them. This promotes a discussion that will help you more fully understand them.

Galanter likes to fly people out for close to a week and have them stay at his home. “This gives me a better chance to get to know them,” he explains. He also wants them to be as involved in the life of the church as possible. “I want them to meet all the key people and have a chance to ask questions of anyone they'd like to.”

Right out of seminary I spent a week in Orlando interviewing with a church. After the first couple days we loved each other, but after spending a few more days in the pastor's home, my wife picked up on some significant issues that would affect my job. As it turned out, they didn't offer me the position—the extended stay helped us get over our infatuation with each other.

8. Don't rush the offer.

If you've done your work to this point, the final decision is often quite easy. One candidate stands out as God's choice for your staff. You select them, and hopefully they accept you. (Don't be too quick to throw away the files on your other top one or two applicants, because your choice might say no.) Usually the official offer is made in writing and includes details such as starting date, details of compensation, vacation days, and a clear duration of the offer.

After someone has accepted the position, you should quickly contact the other applicants and let them know the outcome. If they were one of the final candidates it is appropriate that they receive a personalized letter briefly explaining your choice. You should also destroy candidates files—especially those that may contain unflattering information—and send out thank you letters to everyone who helped with the process.

Remember, go slow. Just about everyone who mails in a resumé is going to love Christ, want to be part of developing an exciting and dynamic youth program, and be able to talk theological circles around the average Joe. Your task is to sort through the hundreds of people like that to find the person God has uniquely equipped to join your team.

For additional information see The Complete Search Committee Guidebook(Regal Books, 1989) by Robert Dingman.

A Thumbnail Hiring Guide

  • Be prepared for the selection process to take a while. In business the rule of thumb is that for every $10,000 you offer in salary, you should expect one month for the search. You are much better off hiring temporary help, or simply holding back on your expansion plans, than you are to rush this process.
  • Recruit a prayer team. When you form a selection team, also form a prayer team whose responsibility is to meet weekly to ask God's blessing on the process.
  • Never hire someone you can't fire. I once hired the girlfriend of my assistant and got away with it, but I doubt I'd do it again. This is why some churches will not hire a member of the church for a staff position—and why you shouldn't hire the senior pastor's son.
  • Don't ignore the candidate's spouse. If at all possible, fly the candidate's spouse out for the interview. Dingman suggests that the spouse not sit in on the first interview (so you can focus on the one who will actually be occupying the position), but that the spouse not be ignored, either. If you are really set on recruiting a particular candidate, you'd better do a great sales job on the spouse.
  • Be honest. Do not hesitate to talk up the high points of the opening and brag about your strengths and the benefits of living in a particular city. But don't gloss over the down sides of the position. If you expect your staff to be out four nights a week, you'd better mention that in the interview. To do otherwise is not only dishonest, but also stupid. You may hire someone who is not willing—or able—to handle the job.
  • Don't stop gathering information about a person until you know their flaws. You're not done until you've uncovered their weaknesses. No one is perfect except Jesus Christ, and hopefully he is already leading your staff team.
  • Don't ignore orientation. Do everything you can to help your new team member get off to a positive start. Introduce them to key people, and set up lunch appointments with members of the staff. Have a desk, phone, computer, and business cards ready for them. Send out a press release to the local paper, and be sure to publish the same information in the church bulletin or newsletter.


Seven Must-Ask Interview Questions There are entire books with nothing but penetrating interview questions. Ironically, those same authors often write sequels that tell job applicants how to answer those same questions. The only winner in such a scenario is the guy who sold the books.

While the following questions are not meant to be definitive (I'll leave it up to you to ask the obvious questions—”Tell me how you came to Christ,” “Describe your philosophy of ministry”), they may pique your thinking.


  • Your question: “When you think of a big youth group, what number jumps into your head?”
  • What to listen for in the answer: If candidates say fifty is big, don't expect their ministry to get much bigger than that.
  • Your question: “Describe three setbacks and how you overcame them.”
  • What to listen for in the answer: Peak performers learn from setbacks and go on. Insecure people try to hide their previous mistakes.
  • Your question: “Why are you leaving your current position?”
  • What to listen for in the answer: You want to beware of people who bad-mouth other people or other churches. It goes without saying that if your hire them, they will one day bad-mouth you.
  • Your question: “What did you like the most about your last job, and why?”
  • What to listen for in the answer: Listen to why they like what they did. This will help you understand if they really enjoy a challenge.
  • Your question: “Describe emergencies in the past where you have had to reschedule your time.”
  • What to listen for in the answer: This is a more effective way to ask “Are you willing to work extra hours if necessary?”
  • Your question: “What questions do you have of us?”
  • What to listen for in the answer: Asking “What do you like to do?” is not a reliable guide to what they do well (I'd like to be an NFL quarterback, but I'd do a poor job). But what you *don't* like to do is probably what you do poorly.

Don't spend much time on theological questions—they can take forever. Instead, send them a copy of your statement of faith, and then ask them if they would be comfortable signing it.

Tony Toth

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.