When I first accepted the call to serve as an interim pastor, I had no specific pastoral training or experience. I was a writer and college instructor, had the equivalent of a master’s degree in theological studies, some practical experience as a speaker and worship leader–but mainly I had lots of questions.
One of my first questions was to the conference minister of my denomination. Given my lack of experience and since the church had gone through a difficult pastoral leave-taking the year before, I asked if he might be willing to meet with me periodically during this interim time. He graciously agreed, I accepted the call as an interim pastor, and then every four to six weeks or so, we met for discussion and prayer.
Whenever we got together, I asked more questions as they arose from my daily ministry, and instead of giving me the answers as I anticipated, I found that he asked more questions to help me find my own way to the answers that I needed. His mentoring was critical to the start of my ministry, and helped shape me as the ministering and mentoring person that I am today.
A few years later, as I related this part of my story to a more experienced pastor, he asked, “How did you get that kind of time with your conference minister? That’s pretty much unheard of. Conference leaders are usually too busy.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but in retrospect, I realize what an amazing gift I had received. How did I get that kind of time with my conference minister? Because I asked. Because I didn’t realize a newbie pastor wasn’t supposed to ask a busy conference leader for that kind of time. Because I didn’t know any better.
I stumbled my way into asking a good question, but I now realize that learning to ask questions is a key leadership skill. In fact, leadership development guru Michael Hyatt says that “Leadership is less about having the right answers and more about having the right questions.” For some quick tips on developing the fine art of asking good questions, I recommend his 7 Suggestions for Asking More Powerful Questions which includes asking open-ended questions, getting comfortable with “dead air,” and much more.
To Michael Hyatt’s list, I would add 7 suggestions of my own:
1. Ask the “dumb” question.
If you don’t know the answer, it’s not a dumb question. As astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan writes,
There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question. (from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark)
2. Ask for help.
When I asked my conference minister if he would meet with me periodically, I suppose it was a naive question, maybe even a dumb question in the eyes of others who assumed that a conference minister would be too busy for a newbie pastor. But as it turned out, it was a dumb question for only a few moments, because he readily agreed. Since then I’ve asked for help for all kinds of ministry-related things from supply preaching, to prayer, to how to make sense of a balance sheet, to recommendations for a good lawyer.
3. Realize there may be more than one right answer to a question.
So for example, who should have responsibility for conducting staff reviews? Should I do that as the lead pastor? Should our personnel committee take the lead instead? Do we need a separate review committee? In my congregation, we’ve done staff reviews in these three different ways at different times, and all have worked well.
4. Accept the “no.”
Be gracious when people aren’t able to help or don’t have the answer that you’re looking for. I’m glad my conference minister said yes, but if he had said no, I might have asked one of my teaching colleagues who had church ministry experience, or another more experienced pastor.
5. Do your homework.
Sometimes it takes some research to know what questions to ask, and that’s where I still think of Google as my friend. For some specific questions related to discerning a call, I’ve found these helpful:
41 Questions to Ask a Potential Church – one pastor’s list of questions that helped him discern a new call, including theological, methodological, and personal questions. Examples include What has been the most vexing theological question the church has faced? How often are business meetings conducted? Are they productive and generally positive?
10 Interview Questions You Need to Ask for Church Jobs – questions that go beyond the standard interview questions, so instead of asking what’s your biggest weakness, which candidates often prepare for, try asking what are your two biggest weaknesses? which probes a little deeper.
Church Staff Interview Questions that Every Personnel Committee Should Know – includes a list of 200 sample interview questions, e.g.,How have you learned to balance the demands of family and ministry? What areas of ministry do you enjoy the least/the most? To what extent do you solicit ideas and input from others? Give an example of a time where ideas from others helped you.
6. Commit to On-Going Learning
Read a book, take a workshop, go on retreat, sign up for a webinar, subscribe to a blog (especially this one!), register for a course, enrol in a degree program, do professional development every year – explore your questions in a deliberate way.
7. Cultivate Curiosity
I love this post on staying curious – originally written for poets and writers, I think it applies more broadly to church workers and everyone: 7 Ways to Stay Curious including Stay Foolish, Ask the Big Why, and Be a Thinkerer.
What questions have helped you as a church employer/employee?
Next Up: The Pitfalls of Church-Speak and What to Say Instead
For more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better,
April, This is a very helpful article. Sometimes we are afraid to ask questions out of fear of ‘looking silly or stupid’. When doing a science project I realized that scientists ask questions (and they’re pretty smart) so why not me?
Thanks for including Hyatt’s 7 Suggestions.
I quite agree, Beckie, yet even if we do look silly, stupid, or worse, the risk is worth it, isn’t it? Thanks for your comment!