Applying for full-time vocational ministry positions does not mean what you probably think it means. The days of dropping a hundred resumes in the mail (or e-mail) are gone. Most large churches have completely eliminated that option by keeping job openings out of public view. Mostly smaller, less-networked churches still post jobs publicly and depend heavily on paperwork. 

In my role I’ve found that ministerial candidates who believe it is enough to have an MDiv, a resume, and a few sermon MP3s will continue to be frustrated and disappointed by the job application process. That process wasn’t all that effective 20 years ago, either, when it was more common before technological advances. A good resume and a nice sermon are helpful, but they fail to capture the deeper relational, emotional, and spiritual conditions of pastoral candidates. Consider the outcomes of traditional hiring practices: One recent analysis of 186 pastors and their ministerial history from the past 47 years showed a 54 percent turnover rate after four years or less. Of these, 65 percent turned over again after the same length of time.

Large Churches Tend to Know Better

Large churches are increasingly hiring staff with consideration not merely to a resume or theological statement, but also various technological and human-metric resources. These churches hire consulting firms and make use of the MBTI, RightPath, or the DiSC. They check social media, including LinkedIn. They use Behavioral Interviewing questions in both the written and verbal interview steps. They search for candidates via networks, depending largely on recommendations by people they trust.

I have found that these searches produce better results. They largely focus on candidates serving faithfully elsewhere. And their jobs almost never get posted where you can say, “I applied.”

But most churches are not large and do not take advantage of these resources.

And Then There’s the Rest

Small churches tend to bring together six to ten men and women who are untrained in and unprepared for the dynamics of searching for a pastor. They post a job publicly, wait for 100 resumes, weed people out based on subjective preferences, land on a dozen guys they “like”—and then hire from the pool. Few ask why these candidates have applied or what they might be running from relationally. They almost never think to seek out candidates serving faithfully. Emotional health and relational wisdom almost never come up.

Instead, these churches often assume that theological agreement with the church equals a good fit. Theological agreement, of course, is a vital factor in a successful hiring process. But when so many other important factors are not also considered, is there still any wonder why so few pastors stay in one place more than four years?

Better Approach: Put Down the Unsolicited Resume

There is still value, of course, in having a resume, and in using job boards (for instance, the The Gospel Coalition job board). But increasingly pastoral candidates are finding that such tools work best when conjoined with a more aggressive networking, relational emphasis. I often encourage pastoral candidates to seek pastors working in the types of positions and church contexts where they would like to serve. Do not ask them to help you find a job. You might as well walk up to a stranger on the street and ask her to marry you.

Instead, ask these pastors to help fill your knowledge gap, which falls somewhere between your education and experience. Ask the pastor for an hour of his time for an interview. Pastoral ministry is, above all, relational. The hiring process should be equally so. Finally, be curious. Good knowledge gap questions are open ended. For example:

  • I’d really like to serve in a similar area. Tell me what some of the challenges have been for you serving there.
  • I hope to someday be a senior pastor. Tell me about your vocational process of becoming a senior pastor.
  • People have different communication styles. Tell me how you make sure you’re connecting with all the different kinds of people in your church.

Remember, pastors have a wealth of experience, and few people ever just ask them for their story. Most will gladly give you an hour where they get to share the beauty and brokenness of their ministerial experience. This process becomes a mutual exchange: they feel appreciated, you gain in knowledge, and you both know each other better. Asking them to be part of your network at that point is really quite easy.

Finding a Good Connector

A good connector is someone who will be sought out when positions open and whose recommendation for candidates will be received. Not every pastor is a good connector. Some of the pastors you interview to fill your knowledge gap will be people likely to hear about jobs. Others will be people sought out for those jobs. Only a few will be able to connect you with the open positions. This means you have to interview more than one pastor in one part of the country. I typically describe a vibrant network as 10 to 12 pastors in 7 to 9 different geographical regions.

Build a vibrant network, and then work hard to maintain it. E-mail those people with concise, actionable, and relevant messages once a month. Include a brief update on your process, or a link to a resource, but not both. Ask them to tell you about any new jobs. Ask them to put you in touch with other people they think could be helpful. And ask them to take one minute to pray for you. This is a bounded, five-minute request on the time of a busy minister. Few say no.

I don’t intend to promise you’ll land a full-time ministerial position this way, but you’ll find this approach to be light years ahead of the default, sit-back-and-wait approach that lands unemployed MDiv graduates an interview with PBS. Sure, candidates can just keep mailing unsolicited resumes to overwhelmed search committees of small churches and hoping for different results. But don’t be surprised if this approach is less likely to land you behind a puplit than on the front page of USA Today .