Tips for Those Applying for Ministry Openings

0-a-key.jpgA week ago today, I listed two open positions we have at our church for which I am recruiting.  Over the last week, I’ve received several hundred resumes from folks looking for employment in the ministry.  As a professor for Liberty University in their graduate program, I‘ve learned that during this time of difficult economy, there are many who are engaging in advanced degree programs wanting to change the over-all qualifications they possess with an eye toward going into ministry and this has produced a large number of “older” students who are trying to “break-in” to ministry work.. Add to that the number of churches which are declining in attendance or experiencing financial difficulties and are cutting back which results in dismissals and layoffs, there is just an unusually large number of people looking for ministry openings and also a smaller than normal pool of opportunities.

I’m in a position where I can only afford to give each resume and cover letter maybe 2-3 minutes of review if I have any hope of staying ahead of the tsunami of applicants.  I’ve learned, from personal experience, that it is very frustrating to be on the applicant end and to send someone your carefully-worded cover letter and meticulously-dcveloped resume only to have it disappeared into some cyberspace abyss with nary any indication that it was received, considered or anything else.  Therefore, I send a very brief acknowledgement when I receive a resume that gives our timeline for making a decision and a second email whenever they are no longer in consideration.  I have found that folks are very appreciative of any communication at all and I think it‘s just courteous to do something so that they don’t feel locked in limbo.

Quite a few will then write me back upon learning they are no longer under consideration and ask for advice on how they can get further in a process with their next effort.  I think this is a legitimate question and as a result, I’ve developed a template reply for those requests as well as I think it is important to help those who are sincerely asking.

Here’s some of what I’ve been telling them and I share it here in hopes that it might help others:

Here are some pointers and tips that are important for me, if not others…

  • Use email and a file attachment.  Paper resumes are SO yesterday.  I hate shuffling the paperwork.  When I print one out, that’s a good sign — that means someone has made the first-round cut.
  • I expect very few, if any, typographical errors.  You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
  • I enjoy a professional and warm cover letter without being overly familiar or casual.  I don’t need hip vernacular, easy complements about our amazing website, a real long history, etc…  At this stage of the process, I just focus on facts.  Concise, bullet-pointed, facts.  Gushy add-ons about having the most beautiful spouse in the world and the smartest children in the world, etc… seem rather out of place.
  • Photographs invariably catch my attention and I ALWAYS look at them, but they should be careful.  I look for discernment in the photos.  Give me a picture of your wife or your older daughters in plunging necklines or short-shorts and I’m concerned about what I might have to deal with as you become a ministry leader of serious grown-ups and believers.  It’s not about legalism, it’s about propriety, modesty, dignity and wisdom.
  • This may sound superficial and even discriminatory, but I’m going to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.  If you are sending me a picture, remember that appearance DOES count.  If you are 27 years old and pushing the scales at 300 pounds, I’ve gotta’ tell you that I’m thinking about diabetes, heart disease, insurance rates and a whole lot of other negative things.  If you dress like you’re still in high school and you are 40 or if you dress like a mortician and you’re 22, that doesn’t just slide by unnoticed.  I don’t want to see pictures of you at a birthday party.  I do like seeing pictures of you in the midst of ministry as long as they don’t look staged or cheesy.  And yep, if you have cute kids, a dalmation and a lovely wife, those pictures leave good impressions as well.  However, if your kids are into goth, your wife dress like she’s Amish and you own a pet boa constrictor — I’d leave those lovely photos for some other time.
  • Concise – Anything more than 2 – rarely 3 – pages doesn’t get fully read.  I don’t care where you went to High School or that someone once worked at Taco Bell.  Edit, condense, repeat.
  • Professional Achievements – Anything published, awards, recognitions, unusual opportunities give me a reason to remember you.
  • Anything Extraordinary – Did you start something from scratch, have you done ‘extreme’ ministry somewhere, have you worked in multi-cultural settings, are you related to D. L. Moody, do you speak multiple languages, have you had the Virgin Mary appear on a honeybun at breakfast, etc…?
  • Transparency – I love that.  Brutal honesty always catches my attention.  If you have a wonderful testimony of God’s redemptive grace in your life — I want to know that.  If you’ve had a couple of really horrific ministry experiences and are hurting — you’ll find a sympathetic ear from me if it isn’t presented in a way that is manipulative or indicates you are still carrying tons of baggage.  But no one is perfect.  I already know that.  So help me not to go have to search for the issues.
  • Something I just learned – I’d put my “Letter of Introduction/Cover Letter” in the text of the email to which you attach your resume.  I found it laborious to open more than one file attachment per applicant.
  • I liked when applicants gave me a click-through link to their blog or a vimeo link to a sermon or lesson.  It’s not part of the first-level screening, but definitely will be later on.
  • I’m generally suspicious if there is NO internet footprint at all when I google a name of someone.  It either says that they’ve scrubbed their available information from the internet or that they are really young/bland or maybe both.
  • Please don’t nag me.  It’s OK to ask once for an update if you haven’t heard anything, but PLEASE don’t call me, don’t email me every day and DO NOT SHOW UP at my office or church saying you were “just in the area.”  That’s almost always an automatic, “no thanks” from me.

None of those are “deal-breakers” – but let’s be honest, when you receive hundreds of applications, the “little things” can be the difference between moving ahead and staying behind.  Obviously, ultimately this is a spiritual exercise rife with human judgments.  We all clearly want the Lord’s will, but at the end of the process – there are some very subjective criteria involved as well.  My wife and I once had a birth mother select us to adopt her child over another couple because we had a picture of our toy poodle with us in our introduction packet.  Go figure.

So I leave those thoughts and observations with you in an effort to sharpen you and encourage you.  As one who works with tons of young people breaking into the ministry and as one who has hired literally hundreds and hundreds of Christian school teachers, pastors, support staff, etc… over the years – I hope these observations will be helpful to you.

3 thoughts on “Tips for Those Applying for Ministry Openings

  1. Matt Olmstead

    This is good stuff, Dan. Very Helpful.

    I was recently helped by a secular book on job hunting: “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets. I’ve been trying to figure out how to apply some of his principles to pastoral ministry search. You’ve at least confirmed one of the major premises of this book: the hiring culture has changed from looking for the best candidate to looking for whom to eliminate first.

    Happy hunting!

  2. Donald Crane

    Wow! Great information and very helpful. It is true, we now live in a changed work environment…”no longer looking for the best candidate but to looking for whom to eliminate first.”

  3. Dan Burrell Post author

    Donald….I don’t know that it is a matter of whom to eliminate first, but rather a pragmatic reality that an excess of candidates and a limited amount of time requires winnowing from a variety of angles to allow the best candidates to emerge. If one can’t follow procedures, can’t spell correctly, show a lack of discretion, etc… why would a potential employer spend time on them that might be better spent on candidates who haven’t demonstrated those deficiencies?


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