By Jared Nelson | September 29, 2022
“So, do you have any questions for us?” When a search committee or a session poses this to a pastoral candidate in an interview or during a candidate visit, this should not be the first time the candidate considers the questions he wants to ask the church. A young or inexperienced candidate for ministry might not have previously made it to this stage in an interview process before to know what to ask. Maybe the candidate has not detected any troubling signs up to that point, and so the need for questions seems lost. But even if the candidate ends up taking the call, a series of preliminary questions to ask the church issuing a call can help a potential pastor prepare for what challenges to tackle early on in his ministry to that church. In other words, good questions help a pastor not only to evaluate whether he takes a call, but also to plan his preparation before taking the call.
The following ten questions are not exhaustive, and you may have your own list based on what you know of a particular church or about yourself. Yet, these questions are a place to start for understanding the place that the church is in and the expectations they have for the incoming pastor.
1. What does it mean to have a ministry that centers on the ordinary means of grace?
They may not be familiar with the term “ordinary means of grace,” but it is important to know if the Word, Sacraments, and Prayer are at the center of their ministry and strategy. Asking this question will reveal what the central concerns of the church are. Are they centered around the “ordinary means of grace,” or around something different as constitutive of church life: social gatherings, particular programs, or the personality of the previous pastor. The candidate needs to know if the early days of ministry are about taking up the reins of the already strong core of the means of grace, or instead about teaching the flock the importance and centrality of the means God gave the church for faithfulness and growth in ministry.
2. Would you describe the last discipline case you dealt with and how it was resolved?
Churches can fall off into two extremes. Some churches are overzealous for discipline, exercising it as a tool to get rid of difficult members or for matters where formal discipline is heavy-handed. Other churches rarely if ever exercise discipline, and this negligence causes problems with the unity and purity of the church’s ministry to individuals, families, and the surrounding community. The answer to this question can reveal if the church is falling off on one side or another. If the committee or session cannot think of a discipline case in the church’s recent history, that is a bad sign of potential neglect. Alternatively, if they cannot choose between the many, many cases they have had in the past year, another extreme may have surfaced. Neither of these problems are necessarily a deal breaker, but identifying them will help you to know if you need to do some instruction with the session.
3. What does shepherding by the ruling elders look like?
Some churches may have an elaborate and well thought out plan for shepherding by the elders. Others will have a CEO/Board model and think all the shepherding duties are the job of the pastor. The answer to this question tells you if your first major project is shepherding the session or if they are prepared to take the field with you to shepherd the congregation on day one.
4. What were the circumstances around the previous pastor leaving?
A pastor needs to know what he is walking into with a congregation. Did the previous pastor die, leaving a process of grief to be completed? Did the previous pastor retire as a beloved shepherd? Did the previous pastor leave out of frustration with the congregation or the session? Did he leave under a cloud of scandal of some sort? Was he fired? If so, what for?
The first duty of a new pastor in a new congregation will be to care for the people in relation to the previous pastor, and you need to know if you are prepared and equipped to minister in that environment.
5. What does success in ministry look like? If you call me, how do you evaluate my work as a pastor after 1 year? 3 years? 5 years? 10 years?
To be fair, this fifth question is more of a series of related questions. But the overarching issue is critically important to define before you take a call. What are the expectations the session or search committee has for the pastor? Is success measured by faithfulness, spiritual growth, numerical growth, subjective feelings, or a smooth running of programs? The answers to these related questions tell you if the congregation is expecting gifts of administration, exegesis, extroversion, or holiness in their pastor.
6. What expectations do you have for my wife?
Your wife will likely want to be involved in many ways in your ministry. However, if the church believes they are getting a two-for-one deal, they will be sorely disappointed if extenuating circumstances entail your wife being involved in a lower intensity way than what they otherwise expect. If the accompanist roster is not filled, the nursery not organized, the choir not started, and the women’s ministry not lead by your wife, will there be grumbling or is that not the expectation? If it is the former, try to disabuse the search committee or session of a “package deal” on the front-end of the candidacy process for the sake of your wife, family, and the church.
7. Would you describe a time that you defended the previous pastor from unwarranted criticism or attack?
This is a particularly good question for the elders. If the session cannot think of an instance, the next prompt may be: “describe a time that you have had a conflict between the session and the pastor.” You want to know if the session sees the pastor as a partner or as a rival. Remember, a true friend “stabs you in the front” rather than give the twin evils of grumbling and gossip a home in your relationship. The session can (and probably will) have conflict with a pastor, but you need to know that the men you will serve alongside will defend the pastor from unwarranted attack from others.
8. What do you consider the greatest benefit of being in the PCA? What is her greatest challenge for the future?
My father – perhaps echoing Billy Graham – told me when looking for a church: “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll ruin it.” All churches are filled with sinners, and so too with denominations. There ought to be a list of both advantages and challenges related to resources, controversies, reputations, and oversight. If the church has had generally helpful and encouraging interactions when they are involved in presbytery and denominational activities, then this may tell you the health of the presbytery in which the church is enrolled. If the church can name only the benefits, they may have a rose-colored view of the denomination, indicating that they may not be involved or informed. If they only have negative perceptions or experiences to report, the church may have been through troubles you need to know about or they may need to be reminded of the benefits of a connectional church.
9. What is your familiarity with and position regarding the last few study papers in the PCA (esp. the Reports on Human Sexuality, Federal Vision, Women in Ministry, Insider Movement, and Creation)?
How tuned in are the elders and leaders of the congregation to the discussions of current issues in the broader church? If they are ignorant of them, it may just be that they have more of a focus on the local church. Perhaps they are generally apathetic to the latest controversy. This is not entirely bad. However, this also means that they may not have their defenses ready for when someone starts teaching a (perhaps repackaged) heterodox view that has already been addressed by the denomination.
10. What do you think will be my greatest challenge in shepherding this congregation?
This is another way to ask: what should I prepare for? Do I have an over-involved congregation or an under-involved one? Do they struggle with legalism or license? Do they have trouble with getting the gospel right or getting it out? Do you have several marriages on the verge of destruction? Are the kids leaving the church never to return? Does the worship service cause more cringe than joy?
The session or search committee may not be entirely self-aware enough to answer this question, but it does give you an indication of their thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and self-perception, if nothing else.
Having prepared questions like this helps a candidate in many ways. You show the church that you are picturing yourself in the call, that you are interested in the congregation, and that you are preparing yourself to shepherd the flock. You also are preparing yourself to evaluate the merits of the call or to prepare your strategy of shepherding once you assume the call. You may choose not to ask all of these questions, or you may have a few of your own to add to the list. In any case, make sure you as a pastoral candidate are asking relevant questions of the search committee, and not just the other way around.
Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.