Ask eleven curious questions and learn a lot!

Posted Mar 12, 2015 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Robert A. Harris

Robert HarrisAn interim pastor colleague noticed that women wouldn't enter the pastor's study. Another friend discovered that even though the church board approved a proposal to have a healing service, nobody showed up. A number of members criticized the pastor for urging them to tithe.

What's going on in those situations? What unspoken norms are behind these behaviors? How can you, especially as a new pastor, avoid stepping into minefields?

In my recently published book, Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church, I offer a very helpful tool: Eleven Curious Questions.

These Eleven Curious Questions with possible follow-up questions include:

1. Tell me about a time when you felt especially proud of some members or leaders of your congregation, when you felt they were really following Christ. (What makes this incident stand out in your mind?)

2. Who do you especially respect as leaders? (Why do you hold them in high regard?)

3. Tell me why you’re glad you’re a member of this congregation. (Why did you join this congregation instead of another one? Did you try other congregations? How have fellow members been especially helpful to you? How easily do people here welcome newcomers?)

4. How has being part of this congregation helped you and members of your family grow in faith? (Please give me some examples of experiences or classes that made a difference.)

5. Tell me a story about when congregation members resolved a conflict or difference effectively. (What do you think the congregation learned from this experience? How effectively do leaders and members handle differences now?)

6. What have you especially valued about your pastors and other congregational staff? (Do any sermons, initiatives, or attributes of your previous pastor come to mind?)

7. Tell me about a time when you were disappointed with members or leaders. What happened? (Seek the cause of the disappointment—for example, a betrayal or someone simply not working hard enough or having unrealistic expectations.)

8. Complete this sentence: “God is calling this congregation to be …”

9. What do you think God wants your congregation to emphasize in the next three to five years?

10. What else do I need to know in order to thrive in this congregation and community?

11. Do you have any other concerns or suggestions? (What chronic frustrations or differences do you hope I can help the congregation deal with?)

My recommendation is to interview a broad representation of leaders using these questions. Note that I say interview them. Don’t just send these questions as a questionnaire. Use them as a springboard for conversation. Adapt them as you go, asking follow-up questions or skipping already answered questions.

I have found that people like being interviewed. Most people like to give the new pastor their take on things. Interviews demonstrate that you are genuinely curious about this congregation.

Next, consider what you learned.

• Who are the real, trusted leaders (as opposed to loudmouths who aren't respected)?
• How clear is the congregation's mission and vision? To what extent does it guide leaders?
• How have they handled differences?
• To what extent is the office of pastor respected and honored?
• What minefields did you learn about? Where do you need to be careful?

Join us for a PEN Talk, a free webinar on this topic, with Bob Harris on Thursday, March 26, 2015, at 2:00 pm Eastern by going to:

Rev. Dr. Robert A. Harris coaches pastors and leaders by helping them assess their church systems, strengthen leadership teams, and clarify personal and church goals. His recent book is Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact



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