Filed under: Pastoral Search Committees
Let me say at the onset, I do NOT think pastoral search committees or pulpit nominating committees should only interview a potential pastor about preaching. But, certainly, preaching should be a major part of what they interview a potential pastor about.Below are some potential interview questions about preaching. You probably won’t want to use them all. Maybe you will only want to use one or two. But, at least these give some idea of how you might interview a potential pastor about preaching.
I know the questions are all numbered one. When I pasted the material into my blog, it did that with the numbers, and I don’t have the energy to change them all right now. . .
If this material is helpful, I would love to hear about it. You can e-mail me at chris at theredbrickchurch.org.
The Interview and a Quality Dating Experience
I am not the first to observe that there are certain parallels between the candidating process and dating. Often potential candidates get a phone call from some mutual acquaintance. What the “mutual acquaintance” essentially says is, “Do you know that really nice looking church over by Des Moines? Well, she thinks you are cute. Do you think she is cute?” And so it goes from there. Eventually you may start writing each other or even make a phone call or two. It is the age of the Internet, so an e-mail may be in order. Who knows, you may even instant message one another. Sooner or later, if things progress, it is time for a first date, or using more conventional vocabulary, an interview.
Here is the thing. Make those “dates” count! Specifically, do not neglect to interview a pastor about preaching! Even if you have heard him preach one or more solid sermons, spend time questioning him about preaching. As the above question and answer with a district leader indicate, most search committees list preaching as number one. Many pastors indicate that preaching is their number one strength. A careful interview is necessary to get beyond a candidate simply telling you that preaching is a strength.
You might respond, “Oh, we would never overlook questions about preaching.” Be careful. Good questions in other areas can easily crowd out a careful interview about preaching. After all, you will examine a potential pastor in many areas. You will want to ask about his work ethic and how he relates to staff and church leaders. Is he responsible with his personal finances? You will want to ensure that you have the right chemistry together. At the same time, he will direct questions at you. Before you know it, your time will be gone. The conference call will be over, or it will be time for a tour of the community. Make a commitment now that you will thoroughly interview a potential pastor about preaching.
Even if you listen to a number of actual sermons, interviewing a potential pastor about preaching is critical for several reasons.
- You want to be confident that your next preaching pastor is truly committed to consistently preaching biblical sermons. It could be that the sermon(s) you heard do not represent what a pastor has planned over the long haul.
- Even if you heard a good sermon it could have been plagiarized; or, he could be a “one hit wonder.”
- It may be that a potential candidate has not been in a pulpit ministry. Tapes or opportunities to hear him in person may be limited. Further, if he has not yet been in a regular preaching ministry, then he may grow considerably in his preaching. You need to know if he is at an acceptable level currently, but also if he has the potential and commitment to continue to really develop over the months and years to come.
Interviewing a potential pastor about preaching will require time. At the very least, your search committee should plan 30-60 minutes for this area alone. Remember, you are praying that your next pastor will be preaching in your church for years to come. A thorough interview about preaching is a minuscule investment of time relative to the hours you will spend under his preaching.
It might help to divide interview questions about preaching into two broad areas: First, “Is the candidate committed to biblical preaching?” Where is his heart? Second, “Can this potential pastor consistently deliver biblical preaching? Does the candidate understand the process that preparing a biblical message requires and live it out in sermon preparation?” The paragraphs below provide potential questions divided into those areas. I have put in italics what you might look for in an answer.
Let me qualify my suggested questions. I have given some brief thoughts about what you might look for when a candidate answers a particular question. I hasten to add that good answers may be given in very different words.
- Explain your philosophy or theology of preaching.
Look for a candidate to talk about the Word of God. He should talk about believing that Scripture is God’s Word, that it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. At the same time, he should mention that preaching is God’s appointed means for feeding his people. You would also want to hear something about how the Holy Spirit works in and through the preaching of the Word.
- What Biblical passages on preaching have impacted your approach to preaching?
Ideally, this question should have been covered in the answer to the previous question. Any theology of preaching should build upon the Word. However, if he fails to explicitly point you to a passage give him a chance. Ask, “What passages that talk about God’s Word and preaching are especially meaningful to you?”
I would answer this question by first establishing the fundamental need that we have to hear from God. Passages like Deuteronomy 8:1-12, Psalm 19, Proverbs 29:18 and Matthew 4:4 make this point. From there, I would stress that today, God speaks to His people through His inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And, I would point out that the first thing that Paul says to Timothy after he emphasizes the inspiration of Scripture is that those called to the pulpit must preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
There are so many passages to which a candidate could turn. Most of all, you want to make sure that his view of preaching is based on the Bible and that he can show you from Scripture why he believes what he does about preaching.
- What well-known preachers do you hold in high regard?
There are many great preaching models. Maybe the people who have impacted the person you are interviewing are not even well known. But, any potential preacher for your church should be a student of preaching and other preachers on some level. If you are unfamiliar with the preachers mentioned, you may want to obtain one or two tapes and listen to that preacher.
- What constitutes a good sermon?
I gave you a long answer to this question in Section 5. The person you are interviewing may choose to use different words. At a minimum, he should say something about God’s Word impacting lives in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It may help you when you consider an answer to this question to have the sermon evaluation form given in Section 5 in front of you. As the candidate gives his answer, you could check off different areas.
- Does the candidate understand the process that preparing a biblical message requires and live it out in sermon preparation? Organize your questions around the diagram that I covered earlier. Your goal will be to ask questions organized around each of the five steps. I have given you the diagram below, which summarizes the 5 steps.
- What is your approach to reading the Bible? Do you follow a schedule? Do you read through the Bible in a year?
There is no right or wrong answer here. Just look for clues that the preacher really does spend time reading the Bible.
- How do you decide what to preach?
I do not believe there is a simple right or wrong answer to this question. Some great preachers have chosen to preach only through books of the Bible. Others, like Spurgeon did not preach through books. Look for an answer that has some thought behind it. Answers like, “I wait to see how the Spirit will lead,” should raise major flags.
- If you preach topically, how do you decide which verses to use?
A sermon can be both biblical and topical. Some believe that the categories are mutually exclusive. I often preach topical series composed of biblical messages. For example, I have preached a series on “forgiveness.” Each week I chose a different passage that dealt with forgiveness and preached on that Scripture. My messages were on the following passages:
|Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”|
|Matthew 18:21-35, The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant|
|Proverbs 19:11, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience, it is to his glory to overlook an offense.”|
|Romans 12:17-21, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”|
- Do you usually begin with a passage to preach? Or, do you select passages based on how they fit with a particular theme or point?
Again, this is the kind of question that can help you learn how the candidate approaches preparation.
- How far in advance to you plan your sermons?
Ideally, a preacher should know where he is going for at least the next year. (For me, it depends on what time of the year it is – - regarding how far out I know – - I usually plan Sept – June). Without knowing, it is very difficult to collect illustrations and properly study amid all the demands of pastoral ministry. Further, there is great benefit in knowing your direction in the pulpit so that other Bible studies and Christian Education programs within a local church can coordinate with the pulpit ministries. . . but maybe the pastor you are interviewing has a different approach. . . you decide what you think of it.
- Could you provide us with your preaching calendar from the past year including the passages on which you preached and your sermon titles?
You could learn a lot from the answer to this question both about his approach to preaching and also about how organized he is in his preparation.
There is a range of opinions about what is acceptable as an answer to this question. The matter is complicated because some well known pastors encourage others to use their materials without giving credit. When I was doing research on this book, one district leader told me of a pastor who lost his job because he was using someone else’s materials and disagreed with his church leadership about what constitutes plagiarism.
- Do you use commentaries when you prepare sermons?
Ideally, a candidate should talk about first digging into the text and then looking through different commentaries. We live in a time when there is an incredible wealth of resources available and it is only responsible to take advantage of these.
Beware of answers to this question that diminish the value of the opinions of others in the Body of Christ. An answer like, “Well, I just like to let the Bible speak for itself,” may indicate a candidate who is unwilling to do the hard work of proper study.
- What factors affect how long you spend preparing a sermon?
I find this question hard to answer. I recently preached through 1 Peter. But, my preparation for preaching in 1 Peter did not begin with the sermon series. When I was in seminary I took a class on 1 Peter. As a part of that class I was required to be able to sight read 1 Peter from Greek and break down the Greek verbs. My wife and I worked on it for hours together. I would read from the Greek text and she would follow along from an interlinear and help me if I got stuck. I also memorized large sections of 1 Peter that have been meaningful to me personally and pastorally. Over the years, I have reviewed those verses hundreds of times. Further, I had already preached some passages in 1 Peter. Now when someone asks me, “How long did it take you to prepare that sermon?,” I can only answer, “years and years.”
Having said that, I hasten to add that it is very legitimate to ask something like what percentage of your week do you spend on sermon preparation? When do you prepare for sermons? Where do you prepare for sermons? This question is also a good time for your search committee to remind one another that you will support your pastor taking time to prepare to preach.
- How has your education prepared you to preach on a weekly basis?
The skills to prepare a sermon are not developed in hours. It takes place across years. One of the things you should do as a search committee is evaluate if a candidate has developed the tools and experience to prepare a sermon week in and week out.
Education is a part of this. The ideal degrees are a Masters of Divinity (M-Div) degree or, a step further, a Theological Masters (ThM). In many seminaries, these require that the student will have studied the original languages and they are designed for the express purpose of preparing the individual for the pastorate.
- How important do you believe it is in preaching to focus a sermon around one central thought or big idea?
If the person you are interviewing has studied homiletics, then he will usually own the importance of having a clearly stated central proposition. In the event that he does not see this as important point, you would be well advised to evaluate his sermons and see if they are organized and focused. You may find that his sermons ramble from one thought to another. Even if this sounds okay at first, over time, he will probably tend to go back to the same soap box rather than allowing the truth of God’s Word to speak in a fresh way today.
- Describe a time when your sermon preparation impacted on your life? Does this happen often?
Preaching Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” was miserable for me. I was so convicted. I can remember, specifically, determining to do a better job helping with dishes at home. I could tell many other stories about how God has convicted me during sermon preparation. It should happen on a weekly basis on some level. Just listen to a candidate share his heart.
If for some reason, this question does not connect with a candidate, give him another chance or two. Follow up with either of the next two questions.
- What kinds of sermons are hardest for you to preach?
The answer to this question could go in one of several directions. Listen closely, and be prepared to follow up to gain more insight.
- What changes in your own life have you made as a result of preaching the Word of God?
Again, you are looking to see if the candidate first prayerfully considers how he should change himself. He must also be under the authority of the Word.
- What is your approach to introductions and conclusions?
Introductions and conclusions are critical parts of a sermon. Look for an answer that stresses the importance of both these areas and that they are strategically prepared.
Thoughts about the introduction should focus on the need to begin with where people are at (rather than in the ancient world) and gain their attention. Often an introduction will preview what the sermon is going to be about and provide a kind of road map for listeners to follow. However, this is not always the case.
Conclusions should “end on purpose.” Every sermon should have an intent or purpose for the congregation. The conclusion should seek to drive home the purpose of the sermon.
- How do you make sure that your sermon speaks to a wide range of people?
There could be many different approaches to ensuring this. Many preachers try to picture a diversity of different people during sermon preparation. This is something I often do. The bottom line is that in order to preach you need to be involved in some way in people’s lives.
- At what grade level do you try and prepare sermons?
Personally, I find this to be one of the greatest challenges in preaching. I preach to people who are brand new Christians, and I preach to people who have been saved for over 60 years. I know that the standard answer to this question is that we are to preach to a fifth grade level or so. I am not sure I agree with that. In any case, what you are looking for in this answer is a sensitivity to a wide range in the audience.
- Where is an area that your preaching needs to grow?
Remember, other than our Lord, there are no perfect preachers. All of us should be able to point to areas where growth is needed. If the pastor points to some technical aspect of preaching like, “I need to work on my conclusions,” this would provide insight that not only does he understand preaching, but that he is thinking about how to improve and grow. Over the last several years of evaluating my own preaching, I have become convinced that my conclusions need work. I have thought carefully about how to improve them.
- What do you do specifically to improve your preaching?
A candidate should be able to point to specific books he has read, conferences that he has attended, or association or denominational worksoips that were a help. If a very general answer is given like, “Oh, I read books,” then ask for specifics. “What are some books on preaching you have read?” “What conferences have you attended?” (You should be ready at this point to tell a candidate whether or not you will provide him with time and financial resources to attend conferences and purchase books!)
- What is your greatest strength as a preacher?
Every pastor will answer this one differently. The question may provide insight.
Without sounding too cynical, let me conclude this section with a couple of paragraphs from John Grisham’s novel, The Firm. This exchange is part of an interview in the first section.
“You’ve done quite well here, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said, admiring the resume. The dossier was in the briefcase, under the table.
“Thank you. I’ve worked hard.”
“You made extremely high grades in your tax and securities courses.”
“That’s where my interest lies.”
“We’ve reviewed your writing sample, and it’s quite impressive.”
“Thank you. I enjoy research.”
They nodded and acknowledged this obvious lie. It was part of the ritual. No law student or lawyer in his right mind enjoyed research, yet, without fail, every prospective associate professed a deep love for the library.”
I would not want to imply in any way that a candidate would lie about his preaching. However, part of the “ritual” is that most pastors will emphasize a love for study and sermon preparation. They will mean this sincerely. However, your job as a search committee is to objectively evaluate if the reality of their ministry is consistent with a love for study and sermon preparation. A careful interview is key in accomplishing that goal. Prepare well to interview a candidate.
- Prepare a standard set of questions that you will ask as a search committee.
- Decide how as a search committee you will divide up the questions. It is probably a good idea to have different people ask questions.
- How will you make sure as a search committee that adequate time is given to questioning a candidate about preaching?
 John Grisham, The Firm (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 5.
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