13 Tips for Pastoral Candidates in the Initial Hiring Process, Part I of II

People often say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. While that’s true, it’s also true that in many job searches, if you don’t make a good first impression, you’ll never even get a chance to make a second.

With this in mind, when I was looking for my first pastoral job, I knew the initial contact would be important. However, I wasn’t ready for what I experienced.

After I sent my resume and cover letter to one church, I called to see how the process was going and to let them know I was interested. The kind woman who answered the phone said, “It’s so nice of you to call. The search is going great.” When I asked how many people had applied, she said, “I think it’s up to 300.”

A few weeks later, I applied to another church, and in that search, I later found out I was one of 600 candidates from 11 different countries! See what I mean. If you don’t start strong in this process, you might be a great candidate, but they are moving on—without you.

Now, I’m several years removed from these experiences. Now, I can say (both as a candidate and someone who has been on pastoral-search committees), that the size of those searches is on the high-end. But they are not unheard of, especially for the large church that puts a well-crafted job description on major websites, such as ChurchStaffing.com.

Below are 13 tips to help candidates differentiate themselves from the dozens—and maybe hundreds—of other candidates in the early stages of a pastoral job search.

1. Always include a short, cover letter.
Include a cover letter with each submission. Much of your cover letter can be boilerplate (this is who I am; this is where I worked; this is where I went to school; this is where you can listen to my sermons; this is what I’m passionate about and why you should hire me; blah, blah, blah). But, you should definitely tailor at least one paragraph to demonstrate two things: first, that you actually read the job description, and second, why you think you would be a good fit. To do this, make sure you spend time on the church’s website. Perhaps you can even comment on something on their church calendar, or some connection you have to their particular city or state, if you have one. But don’t get wordy; your cover letters should be short—certainly less than one page.

2. Choose the right resume style for you.
There are two basic approaches to the resume: the traditional, business style or a skill-based style. In the traditional style, you state “I worked here and did X, Y, Z; and then I worked here and did X, Y, Z.” This style will appeal to those on the search team who are in the business world and accustomed to these types of resumes.

The other approach is a skill-based resume. In this approach, you highlight three or four skills that you have (say preaching, administration, and leading short-term missions), and then you explain when and where you’ve used them. It’s not a rule, but people that work in a church tend to like this style; it helps them quickly see your strengths. Additionally, the skill-based style resume helps a candidate highlight his skills even if he has had minimal church ministry experience, and/or developed his skills in non-ministry jobs, such as education or engineering. One other thing to think about: as with the cover letter, tailor the verbiage on your resume to the specific job description you are applying for—but of course, do this only within the bounds of integrity.

3. With audio and video samples, suggest a few of the best but give them several.
If you are a preaching pastor, pick your best two sermons and tell people where they can listen to them online. If you are fortunate enough to have your sermons available on video, pick your favorite two-minute clip and post it somewhere online like Vimeo(not YouTube, which tends to be cluttered). As I said, churches often receive more inquiries than they want, and a solid two-minute clip is all they need at the start of the process. You can always give them more later. But keep this in mind: if the only video footage you have is lame, don’t show it to people. Video of you preaching in a seminary classroom, if it’s anything like mine was, definitely falls under this category. In this case, just give links to audio.

Speaking of audio, early in the hiring process, only give your best sermon or two. Later, if you’re a preaching pastor, encourage the search team to listen to at least a dozen sermons, a dozen sermons that you don’t hand pick. For their sake—and for yours—a diet of your typical preaching should be sampled. Sure, we all have that one great sermon, that one we’d preach at conferences (if we ever got asked), but such sermons aren’t reflective of our norms, and hiring expectations need to be grounded in the typical, not the exceptional.

But what if I don’t have sermon audio? This is common for seminary grads, but there are easy ways to avoid it. When you do preach (in your own church or as a guest in other churches) make sure you get a recording. If you preach at a country church that doesn’t record, as I did for a few months in seminary, you’ll have to do it on your own. You can use your iPhone, or if you want to improve the quality, without spending much money, I’d suggest an entry-level handheld digital recorder such as the Samson Zoom H1.

If you’re a worship leader, what I said of video and audio applies to you as well; except, at some point, you’ll very likely have to find a way to show video. Thus, if you don’t have this already, find a way to get it even if it means recruiting some friends with the necessary skills and equipment, even if this means “leading worship” when no one is in the sanctuary. Be careful, however, as this will be dicey if your potential transition is not public knowledge. In another post I’ll say more about when and who to tell about a transition. For now, suffice it to say this: tell your senior leadership early and certainly before the transition is public. The point to make here is to say that when preparing some early documents to give to churches, you don’t want the senior pastor walking in the sanctuary after youth group only to ask why you are making a music video! Awkward.

4. Include high-quality pictures and a family bio.
You should include pictures of yourself, and if you are married, pictures of your family. Generally speaking, in the business world you don’t want to do this (and it’s often not even allowed), but ministry is different. In fact, because ministry is about relationships and knowing one another, I’m tempted to say it’s wrong to not have a picture, though you are free to disagree. Be careful not to overdo it, though. You don’t want lots of pictures, one or two professional photographs should suffice.

You may be asking, “Where do I put these pictures? In the email? On the cover letter? Where?” Good questions. Here’s what you do. Write a short bio sketch of your family and put the picture at the top of the page. The writing should be informal and conversational. Look at it this way, it’s another chance to display your writing and people skills.

5. Select quality and diverse references.
It’s common for candidates to write that references are “available upon request.” I understand why people do this; either they don’t want to overwhelm churches with lots of paper, or they want to wait until the job search has progressed before they gather this info. However, I say provide them right away. It shows you have nothing to hide, and if you are serious about the job, you’ll have to provide them at some point anyway.

I would suggest picking a diverse group of three to four references. You don’t want them to all be from the same place. For example, you might choose a seminary professor, a former pastor, someone in your congregation that works in the business world, and the parent of a child in your youth group. If you are brave, you might even include a non-Christian who knows you well. This—in fact—is a requirement for pastors since Paul tells us we must “be well thought of by outsiders [to the church]” (1 Timothy 3:7).

In addition to your references’ contact information, make sure you include a short sentence about your relationship to each person. For example, “Tom has been my neighbor for the last ten years. He’s not a Christian, but we are good friends and have had many conversations about the gospel. He has also visited my church several times.” Or, “Steve is the worship pastor at our church. We work closely together, and our families are dear friends.”

And this leads to my last point, namely, as the process moves forwards, it is appropriate to give your references a heads up that they may be getting a call soon.

6. Use simple, professional formatting.
Simple, professional formatting is essential if you’re going be taken seriously. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at resumes with goofy margins or fonts. Make sure to keep all the fonts consistent. The resume, the cover letter, the family bio, and the references should all have the same font. This feels silly to say, but trust me, it matters.

My preference is to use serif fonts, that is, fonts with the little lines on the edges of most letters (in contrast to the font in this blog post, which is a sans-serif font). Serif fonts, like Times New Roman or Garamond, while bland, look more professional. Also, even among serif fonts, don’t get cute. Choose a simple, standard one. If you choose to use a weird, artsy font, you’ll definitely stand out, just not in a good way.

[Part I of II; tips 7-13 here]