Problems in Church Hiring Practices: Prejudice, Bias & Discrimination

I offer this next section with a respectful and gentle but unwavering voice of critique to a living organism that I love very much.  I regularly serve in and on behalf of the church.  I worship weekly in a local church and most of my primary relationships grow out of the church.  But another living reality for me is that the church is a place of employment.  I and thousands of other men and woman make our living in professional ministry. 

We’d be fools to think that prejudice, bias and discrimination aren’t a problem in the church.  As important matters of justice and equality – which are biblical concerns – I believe that churches and denominations need to be proactive to produce hiring guidelines that steer local churches clear of ethical snares.  Churches should have employment practices that approach candidates as respected persons of equal worth and value.  The reasoning of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “it’s harmless” or “we’re not a business, so we can be more relaxed” are insufficient defenses against the very real problems of bias, prejudice, discrimination and favoritism.  As people of the gospel, bearers of  “good news” which lifts up the lowly, welcomes the stranger, provides family for the orphans and widows, releases the chains of the enslaved, makes women heralds of the resurrection and honors the faith of children, we must ensure that our practices align with the messages we preach.  Hiring practices are just a few of the ways in which we’ve been too lazy for too long.  It’s time to sit up and alert ourselves to the ways in which we may be risking or perpetuating injustice. 

The church is not a business, but it does do business.  As religious institutions, churches function outside of many employment anti-discrimination laws.  For me, my Christian convictions about justice and equality nullify my legal exemptions.  Regarding the following hiring practices, I’ve inscribed this phrase on the face of my moral compass – what is legal is not always ethical.

Asking For a Picture

Being a pastor has nothing to do with how you look – or it shouldn’t – but so many churches ask candidates to submit a recent photo of themselves.  Pastors are not applying for a modeling gig, so what bearing does their physical appearance have to do with their vocational call and possible fit with your church?  I understand that churches many want to be able to picture candidates as they read through a stack of resumes, to put “a face with the name.”  Frankly, the request leads churches perilously close to the edge of discrimination.  Whether that picture shows great beauty or downright ugliness, a baby face, a chubby face, wrinkles like a pug, hints at a disability or a unique skin color, etc., putting a face with a name isn’t worth the risk of allowing bias or prejudice to sneak its way into your search process.  Sometimes the best person for the job may come in the most unlikely or unexpected package. 

Alternative practice:  Don’t ask for a picture!

Involving Marital Status and Family in the Interview Process

Church search committees often ask about marriage and family during the interview process.  They ask candidates for family bios or pictures, to list marital status and any/all children on job applications.  My own denomination’s online pastor/church matching tool has boxes to check if you are single, engaged, married or divorced.  For many denominations it is a common practice to welcome not just the pastoral candidate, but his/her family to the candidate weekend.  Keep in mind that such inquiries and practices in the corporate world are illegal because they can lead to discrimination.  Practices like those listed above have resulted in lawsuits, charges and hefty fines and sanctionsIn the US there are many laws to protect candidates from discrimination and employers from discriminating.  However, churches avoid repercussions for our lax hiring practices because of legal nuances that exempt religious institutions from certain guidelines.

Some of you are shocked that I would take issue with involving marital status and children as “a problem.”  You might be thinking that these things have never created a problem or that’s the way you have always done things.  You might think that discrimination based on marital status and children doesn’t happen in the church, but it does.  I encourage you to peruse these articles:

Recently, a friend, who has been married to a pastor for 40 years, said that if the congregation doesn’t like a candidating pastor’s wife and kids, then that pastor won’t get the job.  It’s terrible to think that anything beyond a candidate’s personal call, gifts, character and skills would be a reason for rejection by a church.  But we also have to acknowledge the flip side, that the presence of a candidate’s spouse and children could also ensnare the sentimental hearts of a congregation and lead them to hire a candidate who really may not be the best fit for a position. 

I firmly believe that no candidate, whether single, engaged, married or divorced, with children or without, should be discriminated against when applying for a church job.  I understand the difficulty of navigating this issue because we view pastoral work as more than employment; it is a calling with requirements that go beyond experience listed on a resume.  However, I believe we have to safeguard all pastoral candidates and churches from unintentional (or intentional) discrimination.  Unfortunately, I’ve discovered few denominations or churches that offer ethical guidelines to search committees which may help them avoid of all kinds of prejudice, bias and discrimination.

Alternative practice:  To avoid discrimination in your hiring practices, inquire only about qualities, gifts and skills that are essential to the job description.  Out of Christian conviction, choose to follow EEOC guidelines even though you may be exempt.  These guidelines prohibit inquiries about marriage and children until an offer of employment has been made to a chosen candidate.  To read about ethical hiring standards, go to:

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