Interviewing for New Staff: Using a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

Interviewing for New Staff

Calling or selecting suitable staff is an important aspect of ministry that simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Because of this the results can be very detrimental to the ministry and to the individual. Most ministries have some general criteria that they use, but I seldom find ministries that gather all the relevant information to make sure that the candidate is as role-related as possible. Without this you are likely to make some pretty “hit or miss” hiring decisions. 

Most people involved in the calling or selecting process take a rather narrow and limited view of the important task of collecting information about candidates. They generally gather information from only three basic sources:

  • The candidate’s background (résumé)
  • Impressions from the interview(s)
  • The candidate’s supplied references

These sources are likely to provide you with a basic range of information about the candidate but each have their weaknesses and limitations. Let’s therefore look at each of these information sources in a little more detail: 

Résumés – Designed to present a candidate in the best possible light

In most situations, a candidate’s resume leaves out any negative or unflattering information because, by design, all information contained in a résumé is self-declared. This is especially true where a résumé is permitted to be submitted (online or as a physical document) without standardisation or within a given template. This allows a candidate to be sparing with the detail and omit important information. In addition to missing key information described above, résumés also seldom provide insight into several important areas, including candidate expectations, motivators, or interests which can help those in the selection process to determine if the candidate is a good fit for the role and the ministry. 

Interviews – Avoiding the empathy trap

Conducting an interview is still the most widely used tool for gathering information about a candidate. These interviews take many forms including one-on-one and panel type interviews, fixed or open question formats (or a combination of the two), the use of behavioural event questions or a response to given pre-scripted scenarios. 

Whatever the format, interviews are fraught with problems. This includes insufficient time to probe the candidate’s background, experience, preferences and passion which are important in spotting a candidate’s omissions, possible misrepresentations and exaggerations. Also there is usually inadequate time to take notes about a candidate’s responses to make an assessment of suitability later on, or to compare them to other candidates.

However, by far the biggest problem with interviews is overcoming the often natural human response of feeling empathy or not feeling any empathy. Research suggests that this presence or absence of empathy has little or nothing to do with role fit or future performance and success, but is easily the most used yardstick for selecting one candidate over another. 

References – Can be questionable!

When questioned in a general way, most referees are prepared to say mainly positive things. It takes a lot of time and real skills to get well rounded information from a referee, thus rendering the exercise far less useful than it might be. And even in the event that a referee does provide relatively rich and balanced information about a given candidate, his or her lack of knowledge about the role and the ministry reduces the value of the input to marginally useful, but not compelling.

Also in today’s world, many ministries (often at their legal adviser’s behest) prohibit individuals from providing specific reference information. Even when referees are allowed to provide information, liability concerns are a real possibility in their mind and it is possible that they will not provide enough in the way of realistic information about a candidate.

So, what can we do to gather better candidate information?

We can start by improving the formatting of resumes to include more information that we want and need, redesigning our interviewing approach to be more skilled and targeted and taking up references in a more focused manner. We can also improve the hiring quality by making additional use of a pre-interview questionnaire or assessment. These pre-screening tools can often be completed in paper and pencil format but increasingly can be taken online. 

Using a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

A pre-interview questionnaire or assessment is typically a series of questions answered by the candidate, with the answers presented in a report, which help interviewers to learn more about a candidate well before he or she comes for an interview. It also provides some guidelines that can be used to save time and increase accuracy in the interview. If well-designed, it asks an applicant to provide a range of information which may include personal preferences, motivations and interests, aspirations, leadership and management skills and expectations, and even perceived strengths and development needs.

Here is a small sample of some of the questions that are used in one of the pre-interview questionnaires that I use.

  • What types of things will an applicant accomplish or put off?
  • What motivates them?
  • How will they communicate, influence and lead?
  • How much initiative will they take?
  • How much will they persist when faced with obstacles?
  • How much will they accept and respond appropriately to feedback?
  • To what degree will they become autocratic, dogmatic, dictatorial or controlling?
  • What behaviours will they exhibit under stress?
  • How much will they be blunt or harsh in their communications?
  • To what degree will they avoid difficult decisions?
  • How well will they organise and handle details?
  • What kind of recognition do they need?
  • How well do they handle conflicts?

If the right questionnaire is used, it will also provide information on the likely fit of a candidate to a specific role. Some of the role templates I have used in interviews include:

  • Assistant Pastor
  • Campus Pastor
  • Youth Pastor
  • Small Group Pastor/Leader
  • Creative Ministries Pastor/Leader
  • Solo Pastor (120 people in attendance)
  • School Chaplain
  • Church Planter

I started this article by saying that ‘calling or selecting suitable staff is an important aspect of ministry that simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Because of this the results can be very detrimental to the ministry and to the individual’. Use the best means available to you to gather the right information so the results of your hiring choice provide the best possible future for your ministry and for the individuals involved in that ministry.

 Colin Noyes is the Director of CoachNet Global-South Pacific and ResourceZone International. He has thirty-five years of ministry experience as a pastor, college lecturer and consultant/coach to consultants, denominational leaders and local church pastors. He can be reached at or

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