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How to Overcome Stress to Have Authentic Job Interviews

Job interviews are so stressful that they can cause pain. We think through every word, over-analyze the questions, and beg God to tip the scales for us. And I’m describing what employers like me, not just applicants like you, must endure… In almost 20 years as a pastor (and a veteran of youth ministry myself), I’ve interviewed a lot of potential youth pastors. Through them all, I’ve collected a storehouse of awkward stories, memories that make me wince, and an overpowering determination to help youth workers navigate their next interview with more confidence and impact.

Mistakes are golden, of course, as long as we learn from them…

  • I remember the time a youth minister said in an interview that his favorite method of evangelism was making videos of kids he’d just met—one person on our interviewing team who worked for a child protection agency almost fall off his chair.
  • I remember a friend telling me about an interview in which a candidate jokingly backhanded a person on the interviewing team on the cheek to illustrate gentle roughhousing.
  • I remember at least two occasions where I did not proceed with an applicant because I looked at their Facebook page, and (let’s just say) what was done under cover of darkness was suddenly seen in the full light of day.

So many mistakes that can derail an interview can be easily corrected…

1. Play Chess

To win in the game of chess, you have to think ahead and think strategically. You have to consider the other player’s next move, then your counter-move, and then how they will counter your counter. You’re always planning several moves ahead, readjusting as you go. I’m stunned when potential youth workers show up for an interview as if they didn’t know it was on their schedule. I mean, they dress like they just rolled out of bed, talk like they never imagined anyone might ask them questions today, or describe how they would do the job as though it were a completely new or foreign idea to them. It hurts to be the employer in these situations. You’re going to a job interview, so plan your next move. Picture what an ideal employee would look like in the job. What kinds of stories would that person tell? What kind of attitude would that person have? What kind of goals would that person set for themselves? The answers to all those questions will tell you what the interviewer(s) are looking for when they ask you questions. They’re definitely not looking for a mere nice conversation. They’re looking for a fit.

2. Get Your Three Stories

Employers are captured by interviewees who are engaging and stimulating. So, you need at least three stories that reveal what you love to do, how you love to do it, and what kinds of results you’ve achieved. If you ramble into a story that has “things didn’t work out” as its punchline, you’ll be the person who doesn’t know how to make things work out. Your interviewers will also assume you didn’t think ahead about your conversation. Sure, be prepared with at least one story of failure— employers always ask about this. Don’t lead with it, but make sure you’re ready to answer that question. Explain what you learned and how you might do things differently next time.

3. Why Tigger Gets Hired and Eeyore Does Not

The interviewer is going to ask you why you are leaving your present job (or why you’ve already left). This is not an opportunity for you to grouse about how hard ministry is and how unfair your last church was. Eeyore doesn’t get hired, for the simple reason that if you’ll complain about your former employer now, you’ll be complaining about your next employer in the future. If the previous situation wasn’t great, say (very minimally) that you’re looking for a different context, and explain specifically what you’re looking for. Focus on your excitement about the future opportunity, not your complaints about the last one. Eeyore doesn’t get hired, but Tigger does. Tigger is fun and energetic, and you want to know what’s going to happen to him next. You hire Tigger because you expect his/her story is going to be fun to watch. Everyone wants Eeyore to just go home and take a nap.

4. Mr./Mrs. Right vs. Mr./Mrs. Perfect

Seasoned interviewers are very suspicious of people who have no weaknesses. That person lacks either humility or self-awareness. The Apostle Paul says that his message came straight from Jesus, and he needed no one’s confirmation of it. However, even he went up to Jerusalem to meet with the other Apostles to ensure that he was not running his race in vain. Be prepared to target your real limitations. I loved interviewing a candidate who explained exactly when and how she got burned-out in ministry, what signs she knew meant her stress level was peaking, and what strategies she’d learned to avoid burnout. She could name her failure and its remedy—I trust that far more than a “never failed” narrative.

5. Thou Shalt Not Tell a Lie

Of all the 10 Commandments, this is the one to pay attention to in a job interview. Don’t bear false witness about yourself. When we’re desperate for a job, we’re inclined to put our best foot forward. But there’s nothing worse than putting your best foot right into a job that isn’t good for you. I took a call to a church just after I finished seminary. I wasn’t sure that we were a good match, but I didn’t want to be the last person living in an empty dorm hall, working as a barista. Three months into the new job I realized it wasn’t a good match. Six months in, the stress was taking its toll on my health and my marriage. That church could have had a better-matched candidate and I could have had a better-matched church. Because I wasn’t faithful to wait on God I forged ahead, and two years later I was at my second job after seminary. (And, yes, that’s one of the stories of failure I tell in interviews.) Be yourself in the interview. You want to put your best foot forward—just make sure you aren’t using someone else’s foot.

6. The Interwebs

You’re easy to research. This generation will be the first to leave a digital footprint that will last until the end of time. The only things that will survive a nuclear holocaust are cockroaches and your social media accounts. What you post online could cost you a job opportunity. So…

• Look through every single online account you have and delete anything there that would turn off an employer.

• If you just did a lot of deleting, you may want to talk to a respected Christian mentor about that, and ask what that means for your desire to work in ministry.

Research the church or ministry you’re targeting. I’ve been stunned when I’ve interviewed candidates who didn’t know anything about my church, particularly things that were plainly obvious on our Web site. And by “stunned,” I mean turned off.

7. Scrimmage

Before sports teams play the game, they scrimmage. That’s because the game counts and the scrimmage doesn’t. The interview counts. It will determine where you work, where you live, how much you earn, and what future opportunities are likely to be open to you. Because it counts, practice first. Ask a friend to sit down with you and read over the job description you’re interviewing for. Then have them ask every single question they think you might be asked in an interview. Practice answering out loud—assume you’re in a real interview. If you stumble, ask your friend for advice on how to answer it better.

8. Act the Part

I remember the interview I went through for the position in which I now serve. One of the people on the interviewing team later told me, “It felt like you were interviewing us more than we were interviewing you.” That’s because I’d already thought through what the church was looking for, and what resources they had to offer. I thought about what characteristics they were looking for in a leader. I suspected they want an innovator and a problem-solver, so I prepared a battery of questions about the ministries that they were running, and why they did things the way they did. Any church that hires a pastor wants that person to have the heart of a shepherd—to be a caregiver. In the interview, take time to focus on the people interviewing you, rather than yourself. Show your interviewer(s) that you care about them. If you’re asked for your perspective about a specific situation in the church, ask more questions about that situation first. Show that you care about the people you’ll be serving, and that you’re interested in their passions.

9. Money Matters

Money always comes up, and it needs to come up. But how it comes up says a lot. Every candidate I’ve ever interviewed who quickly brings up salary has proven not to be a worthwhile candidate. The problem is not that they asked about money—the problem is that they didn’t show as much passion for the job description as for the benefits. The candidates I’ve interviewed who have been most graceful about this aspect of the conversation have, somewhere towards the end of the interview, prefaced the topic with an acknowledgement that the subject can be tricky. They say something like: “I know money isn’t the bottom line, but I do have responsibilities and plans for my future. Can we discuss compensation?” That’s an excellent lead-in to a conversation that we need to have. A worker is worth his or her wages, as Paul said. And people who are self-starters and hard workers will find that churches will compete to offer them compensation for their efforts. If you’re a youth worker who’s looking for a job, or soon will be, I’d love to see you walk into your next interview strong and prepared—because you know who you are and what you’re called to. With a little prayer and preparation, you can grow savvy in how you present yourself—when you do, you’ll know if the job is right for you.

Jim is a longtime pastor in California, a former youth pastor, and the author of Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know. 

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How to Overcome Stress to Have Authen...

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