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Striking a Match

Jay Hostetler

How do a church and a potential children's pastor begin the process of making the right match?

The position of minister to children, director of children's ministry, or family-life pastor is the fastest growing position on the local church scene. This is primarily a response to the dynamic changes that are occurring in the lives of children and their families. Children come to church with specialized needs, different learning styles, and family stresses. Churches must provide significant ministry to meet these needs.

Parents are also more informed today. They come to church with a "shopping list" of expectations. With high standards, they check out teacher-student ratios, screening procedures, safety issues, curriculum choices, and the church's overall readiness to respond to their needs.

In addition to all these pressures, programming for children must be cutting edge, culturally sensitive, biblically strong, and theologically on target. Churches face the task of hiring quality leadership for these significant positions. And it can take a team to handle the massive load of programming and managing volunteers, so many churches have the additional responsibility of hiring more than one person. How does a church and a potential children's pastor begin the process of making the right match?

Defining the Position

The first step for the church is to define the type of individual who's needed to not only fulfill the present needs but who also has the capacity to take the ministry to the next level. Churches need individuals with specific education, experience, and expertise in many areas of childhood development. Each church has different expectations.

I've served as a children's pastor for 25 years and as a personal coach to children's ministry leaders. In that time I've noticed significant changes in the profiles of children's ministry directors as churches have asked me to help them find a children's pastor. Many churches want candidates who are slanted toward kids' needs while others want people who are slanted toward staff development and parenting issues. From my files, here are the most common ministry profiles.

Profile #1

We're looking for a candidate with five to 10 years experience, preferably in a larger church setting. A master's degree in Christian education is a must for this role. The candidate must have great people skills. This person must have experience leading volunteers and working with paid staff. Administrative skills are a high priority because we have many systems and details to manage. The candidate should be creative, innovative, a visionary, and also have experience in a team-based model. Ordination or a similar level of credential is preferred.

Profile #3

We're looking for a candidate with a great heart for kids. This person should become immersed in the lives of our kids. We need a person who every child has interest in being around. Ministry skills include leading worship and effective storytelling. This person has to be comfortable in front of a large group of children. This candidate needs to be creative and capable of planning a weekly showcase event for kids. This person should be willing to work with a team. The most important thing is that the children admire this person as a hero and a pastor.

Profile #2

We're looking for a young, energetic children's ministry leader. A recent college or seminary grad is preferred. New music, new programs, and change should be a part of this person's mind-set. This person should be computer-savvy, creative, and teachable. This candidate should be open to a mentoring relationship with our more mature senior associates. This candidate should be a risk-taker and willing to provide high energy to make our program contemporary. We also prefer that our candidate is married. (Note: Although, legally, churches can't say this last thing, they may still prefer it.)

Profile #4

We're looking for a person with James Dobson's, Fred Rogers', and T. Berry Brazelton's qualities. A person who understands the way kids develop and how to work effectively with parents. It would be helpful if this candidate has some background in counseling. This candidate should be aware of the best approaches to parenting and be willing to teach parents.

This candidate will not spend time teaching children, but will teach the teachers and will serve as a "principal" for the kids. It would also be helpful if this person has experience in planning family events and cross-generational experiences.

Whew! What's a potential candidate to do?

Role definition of children's ministry leaders changes about every five years. Fluctuations occur in areas such as people skills, system management, knowledge of trends, and specialty skills. These profiles tend to change as churches become more sophisticated in defining their leadership choice.

Finding the Dream Hire

After the church has defined the type of leader they need, the next question is where to find their "dream hire." There are basically two ways to search: networking through the buddy system or employing a search firm. The buddy system has been used for a long time. Denominations and Christian schools practice this form of networking.

If a church uses the buddy system, one benefit is that most candidates are known by a buddy. The downside is that buddy networks are often small and don't provide a broad range of candidates.

The second approach of using a search firm is where firms such as mine come in. I've created Church Team Connections to help churches find the best candidates for their positions. Our company's primary goal is to help candidates find the right positions. I believe that the process includes a spiritual component; the candidate needs to sense God's will and the church needs to feel a spiritual kinship with the candidate.

At Church Team Connections, we interact with the church leadership to determine the church's specific needs and then recommend candidates we believe are the best. We consider all the factors: adaptability of the candidate, the spiritual dimension, and the ease of starting the position. We can predict with accuracy a good fit.

Being the Dream Hire

It's encouraging that churches are taking more time with their searches because finding a good fit is best for both parties -- the church and the person. Taking time ensures good decisions and, we hope, candidates who stay for the long haul.

If you're thinking about making a change in ministry, take your time to find a match made in heaven. Here are key principles to help you in your search.

  • Network your way to opportunities. Talk to ministry colleagues, college buddies, curriculum consultants, denominational executives, or anyone who may travel and connect with local churches. Talking to people in different circles is of value because many positions are in the formative stages and may not be public yet. In some cases you may not only be first in line, but you may also design your own portfolio for the position.
  • Research opportunities. As you consider a particular position, research the significant aspects of the church. For example, what's the average tenure of staff members? How many volunteers are presently involved in the children's program? How do people describe the senior pastor? What words or phrases would people use to describe the church? How would staff members describe the staff-life? Does the church have a good reputation in the community?
  • Put your best foot forward. First impressions are significant in communicating with the church you desire to serve. If you're sending a résumé, do it right -- no typos! On your résumé, include past experiences, but also itemize your present value. In other words, what are the things you can accomplish for the church now? In many cases the church is more interested in your ability to perform than in your credentials. Many churches are now requesting videotapes of potential candidates. Consider creating a video describing your philosophy of ministry and your vision to reach kids in the community.
  • Interview well. The interview is the most significant element in the hiring process. I remember how uncomfortable I felt about this process in my early days of ministry. I was uncomfortable "selling" myself to the interviewing committee. When discussing ministry skills, I felt self-aggrandizing and conceited.

Churches that are poorly prepared for the interview (and many are) place too much pressure on the candidate. If the church isn't prepared with the right questions, it's often an exercise in futility, and you as the candidate can feel as though you're not well-represented. (See the "If They Ask..." sidebar on the right for help in answering bad questions.)

If you're preparing for an interview, follow these principles.

  1. Interview the church. Be prepared to ask a lot of questions. This is the best time to get answers about budget for the children's program; pastoral support of the children's ministry; expectations of the job; and peripheral responsibilities, such as hospital calls or being the pastor on duty. You have every right to ask question. Remember: If you take a position and you're surprised about something, it's your fault.
  2. Maintain a positive attitude. This interview can set the pace for your ministry at the church. Share with the interview team the positive elements about the role of children's ministry. Your attitude can educate everyone about the privilege of ministry to children.
  3. Be yourself. Honestly describe yourself. Don't try to act like someone you're not, or make wild predictions about what you'll do as the new person. Don't fake it; it would be painful to be reminded later that you fabricated your abilities. (Plus it's sin!)
  4. Clearly define your goals for the position. Describe your knowledge of the position and share how you'd attempt to make improvements. Bear in mind that in some settings incremental change is better received than radical change. The interview can be a great place to communicate vision.

Beginning Well

Once hired, how can a church ensure that the new staff person has a good start? If you've just hired a new staff member, here are helpful hints for starting that person on the right foot.

  1. Start the person at the best time. A new hire can be frustrated if the initial days are chaotic. Plan for the new hire to begin when the direct supervisor is available to answer questions and set the pace for the beginning of the work experience. The middle of vacation Bible school or the start of a ministry year can be the worst time to start. Consider a downtime in the ministry calendar to bring in the new hire.
  2. Don't expect too much too fast. New hires are often adjusting to many things all at once. A new home, school, doctors, restaurants, routes to learn, and friends are time-consuming and sometimes overwhelming. It takes time to settle in before becoming highly productive. You can help by clarifying responsibilities and setting a reasonable performance path for the new hire.
  3. Make sure the new person is not alone. If you can assign someone to shadow the new person at the beginning, this will help with the initial anxieties. Allow the new person to ask a lot of questions.
  4. Don't start a new hire with a lot of processes and paperwork. A new person should begin with broad strokes of information about the ministry. Early detailing can cause confusion and even distort the whole purpose for hiring the individual. For example, you can discuss bookkeeping issues a full month later without damaging the new hire's effectiveness.

After all is said and done, remember that God is sovereign. He has the right ministry position for you, and his timing is perfect.

If They Ask...

You may need to help inexperienced interviewers by interpreting their questions. In so doing, you'll also represent yourself well. If an interviewer asks...

  • Closed questions -- Don't stop by answering a yes or no question with a simple "yes" or "no." Expound a bit more. For example, if an interviewer asks, "Are you flexible?" go beyond the "yes" answer to give details of how you've demonstrated flexibility in previous positions.
  • General questions -- "Tell me about yourself" is a question that's way overused by nonexperienced interviewers. To answer this question, don't give a litany of your hobbies or talk about your family. Focus on the character qualities that enhance your ability to do the job well.
  • Multiple questions -- If an interviewer bombards you with too many questions at once, simply say, "Those are great questions! You may have to help me remember all of the points you'd like me to address." This puts the burden back on the interviewer, rather than making you seem evasive.
  • Leading questions -- Often, inexperienced interviewers give too much information. For example, an interviewer may say, "We're a progressive, team-based church that wants to double in the next five years. How do you think you'd fit in that kind of environment?" Obviously you need to be honest, but use the information to your advantage. Explain how you yourself are progressive, team-oriented, and a visionary.
  • Protected-status questions -- There are certain areas an interviewer legally shouldn't address. These include race, sex, national origin, age, disability, color, or pregnancy. Other off-limit questions may exist dependent upon the state the church resides in. If an interviewer asks you a protected-status question such as how your husband feels about moving (to determine if you're married) or why anyone your age would want to make a career change (to discover your age), understand that they've violated federal law. Do you answer the question? It's up to you. Answering the question will keep things moving and may enhance rapport. After the interview process -- whether hired or not -- you can inform the interviewer of the violation. Or you can focus on the question minus the protected-status issue. For example, you could answer, "I'm looking forward to making this new move to your church" or "I'm eager to make a career change because I think this is a dynamic church I'd like to be a part of."

Jay Hostetler is a children's pastor and the founder of Church Team Connections, based in San Diego. To reach him log onto www.churchteamconnections.com or call (909) 303-6655. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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