Those game-ending questions search committees ask

What started this was something my young friend Josh said.

Josh, who grew up in my last pastorate and is now a medical student, is a veteran contestant on game shows and quiz programs. At the age of 11, he was a contestant on Jeopardy.  As a student at the University of Southern California, he hosted his own television program on the campus station.  Later he was a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? In between, he did The Wheel and several other shows.

The question that tripped him up on Millionaire went something like this: “At 7’7″, (name) is the tallest player in the NBA.  But he is slightly shorter than what portion of the Statue of Liberty?”  The choices were her right arm, her eye, the tablet she is holding, and her finger.  Using his final lifeline, Josh asked a buddy to help him, and they missed it.  Anyway….

Josh said veteran contestants (like himself) have a name for that kind of question, but perhaps he shouldn’t tell his pastor.  I said, “Come on. Give.”

“We call that a Go To Hell question.”

“A ‘Go To Hell’ Question,” he explained, “is one relying on such fine detail that no reasonable person should be expected to know it.”

Ah yes.  Who among us is not familiar with such.

Questions designed to cull you from the herd, to stop this business in its tracks, to send the contestant home.

Pastors know about those kinds of questions. Search committees have a way of throwing such curve balls at candidates, whether to trip them up, to see how they react or perhaps just to make a point.

I asked some minister friends to share the weirdest questions they’ve received from Pastor Search Committees.  Here, in no particular order, is our list of “get outa here” questions culled from search committees over the years….

–“Why do you have no children?”

–“If someone dies, does the funeral time depend on your class schedule at seminary?”

–“If someone gives you tickets to a Saints game, do you expect us to pay your supply preacher?”

–“You aren’t gay, are you?”

–“How much does your wife weigh?”

–“Can you drive a tractor?”

–“What do you believe about election?” (The young man answered, “I believe everyone should have the right to vote.”)

–“Do you believe in open communion?” (He answered, “Sure. We could go outside in the fresh air.”)

–“Alabama or Auburn?”  (The candidate answered, “LSU.” Apparently, it was acceptable.)

–“Boxers or briefs?”  (That was asked in front of the choir, evidently for laughs. Whether it got one or not is beside the point.  Crude is crude, and the question betrays a great disrespect.)

–“Are you gonna do what we want you to do?”  (The pastor did not say how he answered, but I could hope he said something like “Is this a joke?” or maybe “Friend, you do not want a pastor who would take orders from the membership!”)

–“What do you think about women serving in ministry?” (The pastor wisely answered, “Most of our churches would have closed if it weren’t for faithful women serving.”)

–“Do you eat turnip greens?” (He answered, “With corn bread.”)

–“Does your wife play the piano?” (I cannot tell you how many pastors have been asked that. One pastor’s wife said after she replied “no,” the next question was whether she sang. When she said “no” to that, the questioner said, “Well, don’t you do anything?”)

–“Is your wife a big woman? She sounds like a big woman.”  (This was a phone conversation with the chairman of the search committee.)

–“Does your wife work?”

–“Should a church be deacon-led or pastor-led?”

–“Do you suck heads?” (This is a little inside joke about eating crawfish.  However, crude is crude and there is no way to excuse it.)

–“Which is more important–evangelism or discipleship?” (That’s like asking which part of the plane is more necessary, the nose or the tail.)

–“Who in the Bible are you most like?” (When the candidate answered, “Jesus, of course,” the questioner registered his disapproval.  He had identified himself with Barnabas and felt any pastor worth his salt would do the same.)

–“How much will your wife’s tithe be?”

–“What do you preach about the rapture?” (The candidate found out later the previous pastor had preached on the rapture 7 months out of the year.)

–“How long are your sermons?  We don’t like long sermons.”

–“Can you minister to my son without taking up too much of his time?”

–“Have you ever done anything you wouldn’t want anyone to find out about?”  (The pastor answered, “Yes. Haven’t you?”  He found out later the previous pastor had been involved in a scandal.)

One pastor’s wife tells me they were met at the door of the church by a psychiatrist who introduced himself and said, “The committee has requested me to do a psychological evaluation on you before they meet with you.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

A minister who met with a committee in the last few days shared with me some of the questions he fielded:

–“Will you continue doing things as our beloved former pastor did?”  (He said, “Probably not.  I’m not him.”)

–“What are your plans to grow this church?”  (He answered, “I don’t have any.  I’d have to get here and learn the church and see what the Lord has in mind.”)

–“Do you visit?” “Do you preach on hell?”  “Are you willing to learn?” “Do you receive constructive criticism well?” “Does your wife—?”

–And when they asked, “How will you vote in the upcoming election?” he answered, “None of your business.” (smiling, no doubt)

A few quick observations about these “get outa here” questions….

–Such questions have a background.  Usually, the previous pastor did something unpopular for which the committee is trying to compensate.

–Such questions tell volumes about the committee.  If a member asks something out-of-left-field and no one looks concerned, you may assume he/she speaks for all.  If, however, they look surprised and a little embarrassed, take that as a good sign.  Many committees will have one or two people who have no business being there.

–You can’t plan how to answer a question you weren’t expecting.  Stay prayed up and trust the Lord to lead you when this happens. Oh, and do not beat yourself up if you think of a better answer later. Walk by faith; don’t look back.

–How a pastor answers a bizarre question tells a lot about him.  Often, he should simply say, “What do you mean?” or “I’m not sure I understand what you are asking” in order to let the questioner talk further. He should never hesitate to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”  At times, the best response to an off-the-wall question is a smile. And silence.

–For my money, the weirdest question among the questions above is the one asking how much money the pastor’s wife makes.  Well, that and the one asking if his wife is a large woman.  Both are jaw-droppers.  To the first, I would say, “I’ll make a deal with you.  Everyone in here tell how much your spouse makes and I’ll tell you what my wife makes.  How’s that?”  (I can promise you, they will not go for that. And, most of them will see the question for what it is, sheer foolishness.)  As to the other–whether the wife is a large woman–the best response is silence and then, “Was there anything else you wanted to ask?”

Every veteran pastor knows there are some questions which are game-enders.  The committee member asks it and they wait for your answer, and all you want to do is shut this process down and leave the room.  I have a suggestion for pastors who are thrown a “go to hades” question:  Since you know this is the end and you are not going to survive this–nor do you want to!–I suggest you look at the committee and say, “Does the rest of the committee agree with this question?”  If they do, I would answer it truthfully and plainly, “with the bark off,” as they say.  Tell them in plain language how you feel about the issue they have raised. Then, at the end, say, “I think we’re through here.” And get up–do not sit there waiting for them to make nice–gather your materials, and walk out. 

Pastors do a disservice to off-the-track committees by not speaking bluntly when a plain-language answer could be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Tough love is so hard to administer sometime.  But so Christ-like and so life-saving.

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