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Help for Musicians Applying and Interviewing for Church Positions

It happens every spring, just like the bird migrations, shifting weather patterns, and the bursting forth of new buds and flowers. For whatever reasons, church musicians begin to look for new employment, pack up their things, say their goodbyes, shake the dust off their shoes, and move on to new positions and new challenges in new communities. It usually begins in early May with the announcement of a few open positions in churches anticipating music vacancies. The numbers of these vacancies slowly increase and then, around the end of the public and college school years, they take a jump. With the start of the yearly cycle of annual conference sessions taking place all across the denomination, and the announcement of the departure and arrival of new church pastors, the pace quickens; and the numbers of church openings and musicians seeking them rise dramatically. Throughout the summer months, there is a steady stream of music job positions published in numerous sources, finally beginning to taper off in September. It is a time of uncertainty and apprehension for churches and musicians alike. This article is an attempt to help musicians think through and plan ahead for the application and interview process. A little work beforehand can help the process go more smoothly and to your advantage.

Preparation for the Job Hunt

  1. Get your resume in order. If you don't have one, prepare one or have one prepared for you. There are books, computer programs, and websites to assist you in writing a resume. Commercial firms also develop rsums — for a fee. Limit your rsum to two pages (one-sided sheets of paper). Do not list references on yourresume, but say at the bottom: References provided upon request. Prepare and have ready your sheet of references for each position for which you are applying. Confirm with your references that they will, indeed, provide a reference for you. Send a copy of yourresumeand your reference list to your references so they know what you've said about yourself. Providing this for your references should help to refresh their memories.

    It should go without saying that yourresumeshould have a logical organization, look neat, and have no typographical errors. You may attach a photo if you wish, but it is against federal law for an employer to require or even request one. Send out yourresumeunfolded, with a brief cover letter, in a 9-by-12 mailing envelope with typed address labels. Make it look professional — the product of someone who takes care and pride in his or her work.

  2. Do research on the prospective church. Learn what you can about the church before you ever talk with the people who will interview you. Visit the church's website and read everything. Be familiar with its staff, its programs, and its ministries. Ask for copies of the church newsletter and worship bulletins. Request a copy of its most recent pictorial directory. This will tell you much about the membership: its size, its age, racial and ethnic makeup, and the number of children and youth. The pictorial directory probably will also contain pictures of the facilities. If you can obtain access to the annual conference journal, check the church's statistics for membership, attendance, Sunday school, budget, pastoral salary, debt, offerings, apportionments paid, and so on. Do a web search on the community to learn what it has to offer.

  3. Compile a list of the church staff you are likely to meet at the interview. You can do this from the newsletters, website, or bulletin. You may want to place a post-interview phone call to one of them to learn more about the church and its people from the staff perspective.

  4. Make a short list of key church leaders, including those involved in worship and music. After the interview, you may want to write a note or two about any you have met.

  5. Prepare a list of possible questions you may be asked. Think ahead about how you might answer them. Often the questions asked in the interview are prompted by something on yourresumeor application, and your responses may actually duplicate the information contained there. Other questions may be designed to reveal your past job performance, your philosophy of church music, or simply more about you. Here are a few questions to anticipate:

    1. What have been your past experiences in church music?
    2. What have been your greatest rewards and successes? Frustrations and failures?
    3. What experience do you have with childrens choirs, handbells, contemporary or blended worship, praise bands and teams, starting a church orchestra, older adults, youth choirs, choir tours, planning worship, selecting hymns, using drama, supervising other staff (and so forth)?
    4. How would you recruit new choir members?
    5. Describe some of your past choir concerts and programs.
    6. What experience do you have in preparing and administering a budget?
    7. How do you see yourself providing pastoral care to choir members and church musicians?
    8. How would you supervise other music staff and volunteer directors and workers?

    Of course, the list could be endless, but your preparation for some general questions such as these will serve you well in the interview. The article "Beyond the Resume" under the "Employer" topicprovides a number of types of questions committees may ask you: open-ended, closed-ended, situational, and illegal.

  6. How should you deal with the illegal questions? Remember that in all questions and all subject areas, how much you reveal in response to interview questions is your choice. You can be as forthcoming or as nondisclosing as you wish. That choice is yours to make. Of course, there may be consequences, depending upon how your responses are received by the interviewers. Think ahead about your responses to certain questions and certain kinds of questions, and about the consequences of answering them or not.

    Some questions may not be legally asked by the employer. These usually deal with matters of personal life, family background, and other non-job-related areas. Here are some topics that may be illegal to ask about in the interview:

    1. Your, your family, or your spouse's place of birth or nationality
    2. Your marital status or sexual orientation (including, "And what was your maiden name? And when will your spouse be joining you? Are you married?" or "Why did you never marry?")
    3. Race or color
    4. Age-related issues or retirement plans
    5. Arrests or legal history (illegal question: "Have you ever been arrested?" legal question: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?")
    6. Physical disabilities or handicaps (however, you can be asked if there is any reason why you cannot perform the job as outlined in the job description)
    7. Health or medical-related questions (sometimes this may come up in a question related to insurability under the church's group health plan, but it is still illegal to ask)
    8. Your future plans to have children, your views on pregnancy, birth control, and so on
    9. Even for a church position, it is wise not to ask questions about religious faith or beliefs that are not job-related, such as "Do you believe in a literal seven-day creation? Is the Bible the true and holy word of God? Did Jesus rise from the dead after three days in the tomb?" or "Does the Bible approve of homosexuality?" However, this kind of question can be asked if it is set in a job-related context. It would be legal to ask the applicant, "Since you will be making the selection of anthems and hymns for the worship service, please share with us your doctrinal view for choosing the appropriate music for Lent."

    Knowing that these questions cannot be asked in the interview does not keep them from being asked. The interviewers probably don't even know it is illegal to ask them, and they ask them innocently, out of ignorance. What is important is for you to know how you will respond if asked, anticipating what effect your answer will have on the interviewer. Here are three options to consider:

    1. Answer the question but don't go into great length or detail.
    2. Refuse to answer the question and explain that it is illegal for it to be asked.
    3. Restate the question in such a way that you can provide an answer without divulging information you'd rather not divulge. For instance, a woman might be asked about her future plans for having children - clearly an illegal question. The questioner may be wanting to get some idea of whether she is going to be around for awhile or if she only wants to work long enough to receive benefits under the church's health insurance plan before becoming pregnant. It is not a question I, as a man, have ever been asked or ever expect to be asked in an interview. However, the woman who is asked this might pass over the illegal element of the question and provide a response to the underlying unasked question by saying that anything the future may hold in the way of parenting is not of concern to her right now; rather, her commitment to a productive and meaningful ministry and career is of great importance, which is why she is at this interview and then move on to the next question.

  7. Practice in front of a mirror. Speak aloud. Rehearse your questions and answers. Observe your facial expressions, your hand gestures, and your body language. Be aware of what you look like to others, not so that you can put forward a false impression, but so that you can put forward your best impression.

  8. Organize your briefcase and notes. The night before the interview, empty your briefcase. Remove what you won't need for the interview, and organize what you will need so you can find it. Include those things you're taking just in case you need them, such as bulletins and programs, samples of arrangements or compositions, lists of names and addresses you might need, and so on. Take a spare pen, pencil, pad, and some breath mints. If you don't have a briefcase, get one.

  9. Prepare and lay out your clothes the night before the interview. The time to discover a missing button is not thirty minutes before the interview. Shine your shoes.

  10. Show up for the interview on time. Don't be early or late. Being late shows a lack of preparation and a lack of consideration for the interview team. Being too early requires someone to take care of you, or it may convey anxiety and uncertainty.

During the Interview

  1. Greet each interviewer with a smile, handshake, and some word of greeting. Repeat their names, which helps to establish a personal relationship and heps you remember the names through the interview. Shake hands and repeat the names again at the conclusion of the interview. If someone made an impression on you, don't hesitate to ask his or her name again. Thank the interview team for the opportunity to meet with them.

  2. Take a notepad and pen to make notes and jot down your thoughts or important information. Do not be afraid to use notes you have already written on the pad. You might look at your notes and say, "I see on the church's website that..." or "In your worship bulletin of June 9, I saw that your youth choir sang an arrangement of Git-down with Jesus, and I'm wondering how the congregation responded."

  3. Do not be afraid to pause and consider your response to a question. This allows you to say what you want to say and demonstrates your thoughtfulness and care to the committee. You will be judged less by how quickly you respond than by what you say. The ability to think quickly in a pressured situation may be a good quality, but it is wiped out by a poor answer to a question. Make your responses count.

  4. Control your speech. Speak in a measured tempo and volume. Don't try to demonstrate enthusiasm and energy by speaking too fast, too loud, or too high-pitched. Be natural. Be conversational.

  5. Keep eye contact with the person asking a question. When you respond, make eye contact first with the questioner, but then shift to include everyone in the group during your response. Don't look past the interviewers to a point on the wall, down on the table, or worse yet, out the window.

  6. Sit straight but comfortably. Don't slouch over the table or appear too casual. Let your body language convey your interest.

  7. Keep control of your body movements. Don't fidget with your hands, scratch your nose, excessively blink your eyes, or other such mannerisms. Grand sweeps of the arms, exaggerated hand movements, head bobbing, weight shifting, foot and finger tapping, and playing with a pencil can all be variously interpreted as nerves, frustration, disinterest, or dishonesty.

Questions to Ask in the Interview
(These are not in any particular order. You might want to decide which have the highest priority for you.)

  1. What is the current and future music budget?

  2. What is the calendar of major musical events?

  3. What will your relationship to the pastor and other staff be?

  4. Is there any secretarial support?

  5. Is there any technical support (computer, printer, internet access, copy machine, fax, phone)?

  6. Will you have an office, storage, files, bookcases, and so forth?

  7. What is your relationship to specific groups in the church: worship committee, music committee, staff-parish relations committee (SPRC), program committees, and so on?

  8. In recent years, what have been the high points and greatest successes of the music ministry?

  9. What has not worked very well and why?

  10. If there is one major problem you'll have to deal with, what will it be?

  11. Are there volunteers to assist you?

  12. Does the church have a policy regarding the illegal copying of music and other copyrighted materials?

  13. Does the church have any music licenses?

  14. By whom, how, and how often will you be evaluated?

Down to the Nitty-Gritty

There are three specific areas that are important for you to fully cover during the interview.

  1. Job Description: Ask to see it, if one has not already been provided. If one has not been prepared, request one. Actually, The Book of Discipline (2008) requires that job descriptions be developed for every paid staff position in the local church, but it should'nt be your place in the interview to point this fact out. The interview team may delegate this to the pastor or the SPRC, but it is important that you and the church agree on what you are expected to do. The job description should be a separate document from the statement of salary and benefits or the employment agreement.

  2. Salary and Benefits: The interview should cover salary and benefits, or specifically leave them to be negotiated between you and the SPRC, the pastor, or whoever deals with these issues. Be sure to discuss and come to an agreement on:

    1. Yearly salary
    2. Social Security
    3. Additional retirement benefits
    4. Health and hospitalization plan
    5. Dental benefits
    6. Travel reimbursement
    7. Continuing education
    8. Holidays (with pay?)
    9. Length of vacation; whether the vacation is with or without pay; how long on the job to earn vacation
    10. Compensation for a substitute while you are on vacation

  3. Employment Agreement: A short but important document outlining the date of your employment, its term (six months? one year? until canceled by either party?), period of probationary employment (if any), terms of cancellation (when, how, how much notice to be given, and so on), and severance pay (required by The Book of Discipline). Sometimes this document is combined with a listing of salary and benefits.

    Although the salary and benefits statement may be included with the employment agreement, the job description should be a separate document. Salary and benefits and the terms of the employment agreement may remain stable for a period of time, or some provisions may change with the church's budget or for reasons beyond its control, such as health insurance policy provisions. Church musicians should always request a separate job description. This will help shape how you view your work, how much time you are expected to put in, and on what portions of the job. It is a barometer of what the church expects of you. It is also a means of protection for the staff member in that a music committee chairperson, an assertive choir member, an unhappy financial giver, or even a new pastor cannot come in and arbitrarily change how you do your job. That will require at least the discussion and formal changing of the job description by the appropriate church board.

The interview process can be a time of anxiety and uncertainty, but it need not be a plunge into the unknown. Prepare yourself and be ready to demonstrate why you are qualified for the position. Mentally walk yourself through the interview beforehand, anticipating the questions you will be asked and the answers you will give; but don't tie yourself to those responses. You will want to be flexible in answering each question. Plan ahead the questions you want to ask the committee and the points you want to cover during the interview.

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