Avoiding The 5 Common Pitfalls Of Hiring Internal Candidates

One of the more common conversations we have with churches is about how they should deal with an internal candidate. Sometimes it’s a potential successor for their Senior Pastor transition, but other times it’s moving an associate into a director-level role. Whatever the transition, internal candidates can be tricky and emotional waters to navigate.

Should you find yourself in this situation, it’s important that you handle it with care. There is not only a job at stake, but a relationship to consider as well. We’ve walked alongside several churches as they navigate this situation and below is our best advice for doing this well.

1. Create A Plan

A common mistake many organizations make is to “just wing” the interview process with their internal candidates. It is important to make a plan for the evaluation of your internal candidate in order to set clear expectations and protect the relationship. We feel it’s best to set up an interview process just like you would if you were hiring outside of the church. It doesn’t need to be anything too formal, but take the time to ask the candidate important questions about this transition: What are your goals and expectations in this new role? What would your game plan be for the first 12 and 24 months? Why is this a role you want to step into?

If you try to “just wing” this transition, there are going to be missed expectations and hurt feelings on both sides of the aisle. Be intentional about this time of evaluation by putting a clear process in place. Giving them a similar interview experience to outside candidates also allows you to conduct a more thorough and accurate comparison, so you end up with the best fit for your role.

2. Set Expectations With Clarity

In the same vein of intentionality, it’s extremely important to set expectations around the role and possible transition upfront. The extent of expectations you set can vary in as long as they’re clear: We are going to do a full search and bring you into the interview process. Let the candidate know where he or she stands and what your plans are for evaluation. What is the process of choosing the final candidate? What is the timeline for making a final decision? Is the job theirs to lose or do they still need to prove themselves? Are you planning on doing a nationwide search?

Providing clarity on what’s happening, where they are, and how interested you are in them will mitigate any sort of hurt feelings or uncertainty that come with the complexities of an internal candidate.

As early as possible, be clear where the candidate stands and what steps are ahead for this transition. Clarity is key for all parties involved – decision-makers, candidates, and the congregation.

3. Make A Timeline (And Stick To It)

This is a bit of an addendum to the first point, but it’s critical make a clear timeline and put it in place. Giving the candidate clarity about the timing of the process will ease tension through the evaluation process. For example, tell the candidate: “We are going to evaluate you for 3 months and then either promote you or begin a search,” or “we are going to begin a search next month and you will be a part of that process.”

Whatever the case, don’t leave the candidate hanging with vague timelines like, “sometime next year” or “when we feel ready.” Create a timeline so everyone, including the board, will know how long to expect a transition period. Clarity reduces the risk of tension and fear.

4. Involve The Family

Part of the benefit of hiring internally is that you already know the candidate and family well. Often when churches hire internally, they leave spouses out of the process because they already know them. 

It’s wise to bring the spouse or family into the discussion about a role shift, especially if the candidate would be taking on more responsibility or changing time commitments that involve the family. Take the time to hear from them about this promotion and gauge how ready they are to make the transition as a family. It is unacceptable to make a hiring decision based on spouses, but it is also foolish to ignore them. It’s also important that you treat your internal candidates just like you would any external ones. You don’t want them to feel as if they are outside the bounds of your normal process, which can ultimately lead to confusion.

5. Use Fresh Eyes

It’s never a bad idea to use fresh eyes when evaluating an internal candidate. It can be next to impossible to be objective about internal candidates; you know them well and probably already care deeply for them and their families. Because of this, it is important to seek out wisdom when evaluating an internal candidate for a new role.

Fresh eyes can come in a few different forms. Perhaps you have a trusted advisor or peer that could speak wisdom into the situation, or you bring someone from your denomination into the fold for interviews. Sometimes you can even engage a search firm like Vanderbloemen to run reference checks or evaluate of your internal candidate.

If you do hit a point in the process where you feel it’s best to evaluate your candidate against other potential external candidates, a retained search firm like ourselves would be the best way to navigate this situation. We are 100% objective about the hire, so churches can send any candidates they have our way and we vet them along with every other candidate that may be an option.

Whatever the case, it’s almost always wise to bring a third party in to give objectivity to an internal candidate hire.

Hiring from within can be a great move for a church, but be sure you’re taking the best steps possible into this delicate transition.