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Engaging in face–to-face interviews

There are two forms of face-to-face interviews: a visit to your current parish by a subgroup of the search committee, and a final tour and interview at the prospective parish with the whole search committee and/or vestry. Clergy not currently engaged in parish ministry are usually asked to “borrow” a pulpit in a local parish, so the visitors can hear them preach. Some search committees may omit the step of visiting home parishes for financial reasons.

The pre-visit preparation arrangements give clergy an opportunity to demonstrate their administrative skills. Clergy should help the visiting team make their arrangements. If a hotel is needed, help find a good, reasonably priced one near the church. Send the visiting team maps showing the location of the church, hotel, restaurants, and parking. You may have some latitude choosing the specific day of the visit. If so, choose a day which can best illuminate your ministries, a day with special programs, or a day with good lectionary passages on which to preach.

You will be asked to schedule interviews with yourself and several references. You will also be asked to arrange a meal with your spouse or partner. When preparing the schedule for a site visit, leave sufficient down time for the visiting team and yourself. The visits can be tiring for everyone.

Visiting committees usually take the candidate and his or her spouse/partner out for a meal. Choose a relatively quiet restaurant with reasonably good food at reasonable prices. Your spouse or partner may be anxious about the shared meal, as this is the only time they are involved in the interview process. A few search committees still ask what role a spouse may play in the congregation, but more often they are interested in who the spouse/partner is in his or her own right.

The interview with the visiting committee is an integral part of the home parish visit. At this point in a search, committees are more focused on determining whether a candidate will be a good fit than whether he or she has the right skills. During the interview and any informal conversations, try to explore common values and a shared sense of purpose.

After the round of parish visits, search committees will ask a small group of finalists to visit their parish and meet with the entire search committee and/or the vestry. This final visit typically includes tours of the church grounds and surrounding community, a formal interview, and an informal meal or social occasion. A candidate’s spouse or partner may be invited to participate in the tours and informal conversation.

Interviewing techniques

Teaching interviewing techniques is akin to teaching a golf swing.  There are a thousand details that you could attend to, but it is impossible to remember them all.  The following tips touch on a few of the key techniques for successful interviews and can apply to phone, visiting committee, and full search committee interviews. A more extensive guide to interviewing techniques can be found at http://www.collegegrad.com/jobsearch/Mastering-the-Interview/. I highly recommend this resource.

The purpose of interview techniques is to present your essence to a search committee in a clear and engaging fashion. Interviews are by nature exercises in judging and being judged.  Anxiety is a natural part of the process.  The interviewers are also anxious as their judgment will shape their parish for years to come.  Interview techniques can help calm the anxiety so you can present yourself in the best light.  Do not use them to present someone you may think the search committee wants to meet.  Always remember to be yourself.

By the final interview stage, search committees should have determined that each of the remaining candidates have sufficient skills to be successful in the new position. While they may continue to ask candidates about skills, they are far more likely to make a final decision based on a perceived fit between a candidate and a parish. They will be looking for evidence that a particular candidate shares a similar set of values and purpose with the parish. A successful candidate needs to clearly articulate those values and purpose and show the ability to inspire others to act on them.

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, individuals make instantaneous unconscious decisions when meeting others. Most interviewing guides stress the importance of the first impression. Your first impression is based on your appearance, eye contact, posture, handshake, smile, and the sound of your voice. Much of your first impression cannot be altered. You are who you are.  You should focus on appropriate dress, posture, eye contact, smile, and speaking style. As best as possible, your appearance and demeanor should reflect the appearance and demeanor of the interviewing committee.

Often candidates are invited to open an interview with prayer. This gives you an opportunity to set an optimistic tone for the interview and ask God to help everyone in the room to focus on the key issues (values and purpose) to be explored at this stage of the discernment process. Write and memorize an opening and closing prayer before entering the interview room.

Search committees ask a wide range of questions. Some will ask you to reflect on their profile. Others may ask you to elucidate on material you have submitted. Open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about your greatest strength or your greatest weakness” are common. Do not be afraid to take a little time to think before responding. Keep your answers relatively short. Answer negative questions with a positive spin. For example, if you are asked, “What has been the biggest failure in your ministry?” talk about what you learned from that failure and how you turned that weakness into strength.

The tension between sales and discernment

Both the candidate and the committee share the task of discerning whether there is a good fit between candidate and position.  Candidates have the dual task of convincing the committee that a they are a good fit, while trying to discern the question of fit for themselves.  Selling yourself at the same time as deciding whether you like the parish enough to accept a call can be confusing.    By the time clergy are interviewed, we have invested a good bit of time and spiritual energy in the process and may have difficulty consciously recognizing warning signals.

A discernment checklist can help clergy balance the task of discernment with the task of presentation.  A discernment checklist is a series of questions that clergy can ask of themselves after both formal interviews and informal interactions with the search committee.  Sample questions after an interview might include: Did I feel at home with the committee?  What were the values underlying the questions that were asked?  Did they listen well to each other and to you?  Sample questions after a visit to the site might include: Was the committee hospitable?  Did I like the look of the church and the community?  What condition was the church in?  Did the committee give me enough down time?  A discernment checklist should be tailored to the values you are trying to discern.  Knowing that you have one to fill out after an interview will help you keep those questions in your consciousness during the interview.

Committees routinely give candidates time to ask questions during the interview process.  Take advantage of that opportunity to ask questions about their values and purpose.  Prepare a list of questions before the interview.  Ask questions in a positive, appreciative, manner.  For example: What is your best experience of (fill in the blank – liturgy, church school, outreach, etc.)?  What did you value in that experience?

The interview process is a time to trust in the Holy Spirit.  We can prepare a few things, like the opening prayer, closing questions, and details of a visit.  Ultimately, we need to relax and rely on the Spirit to help committees and candidates communicate their values, purpose, and essential nature.  I tell myself two things to help me relax.  They may not be absolutely true, but they get me in a relaxed frame of mind.  1. The interview is over in the first five seconds according to Blink, so make a good first impression then enjoy yourself.  2.  A good fit is either there or it is not, so focus on figuring that out and don’t worry about winning a popularity vote.  I’ll confess, these two points are easier said than done.