Resume Red Flags: How to Read a Ministry Resume for All Its Worth

By Ben Shin Mar. 29, 2013 12:24 p.m. Christian Education, Church Life, Culture, Ethics, Ministry and Leadership, Spiritual Formation


            Looking over a resume in order to hire a person for ministry can be trickier than one realizes at first. This is especially true because they typically want to give the benefit of the doubt to one’s accomplishments and experiences as listed on a resume. However, it has been the experience of this writer that what is often listed on a resume may not actually be the truth. There are those who like to “stretch” the information or possibly “embellish” the facts to point in favor of the applicant. Then there are those who just flat out lie about who they really are and what they’ve done. This blog will highlight some clues or signs of “red flags” that may show up in ministry resumes.

            One of the first realities to accept is that even people who are applying for ministry positions do lie about the facts on their resumes. There are a number of possible reasons for this including financial gain, status, cultural pressure, or trying to establish notoriety, etc. These certainly are not excusable reasons to falsify information but the reality is that many people do this for those very reasons. That is why it is absolutely important to be aware of the following “red flags” when looking at a resume.

            Red Flag #1- Make sure that each educational institute is legitimate. Often times, depending on the church or the denomination, a long pedigree of impressive academic achievements may be viewed as a way to earn favor. This may include the listing of many institutions of higher learning as well as many earned academic degrees. But I have seen how often times, the actual institutions may be fabricated as well as the program or degree at that institution. In other words, if an applicant lists that he got a “Ph.D” from an obscure institution, make sure that the institution actually exists and that it really has a Ph.D program within the school.

            One notable true story comes in an applicant for a ministry who claimed to be in a Ph.D program at a reputable seminary. While it was true that the seminary did actually exist and that they did have the actual program, it turns out that the student only applied for the program but never was accepted into it. He was confronted on this and eventually admitted that he was never in the program. The strange irony and twist is that the program was the doctoral studies in ethics!

            Red Flag #2- Just because they list dates that they studied at a school, don’t assume that they actually finished the degree. Another sly trick and necessary awareness is to ask the applicant if he actually completed the program and graduated. The way that this works from the deceptive side is that the applicant may list dates that he studied at the institution. So the resume may read that he studied at a school from “1990-1994.” This would typically imply that he finished the graduate program in 4 years which is a normal given time to complete a degree. However, the interesting nuance is that “yes” he may have studied there during that time but did not actually graduate from the program. Don’t make any assumption that even though they studied there that they actually completed the program. Always ask for both a transcript and proof of a graduation diploma or certificate.

            Red Flag #3- Just because he has served at many places, that doesn’t mean that he is necessarily accomplished. Don’t just look at how many places he has been but rather how long he has been at each place. An easy trap to fall into when looking at a resume is to think that if the applicant has a long list of experiences on his resume that this person is very seasoned. While this could be true, more often than not, it is indicative of a potential problem. The problem is staying power. Sometimes, people cannot stay very long at a certain place, again for varied reasons. So, as you look at the resume, focus on the duration of time that he spent at each place. Often times you will see a cycle of possibly one or two years at a given location and then a predictable move to the next place. These kinds of people typically have either relational or commitment problems. As the interviewer, you want to see if there is a good pattern of locations that he may have served at for a long period of time. This will most likely lead to a person who could stay long term and build a strong ministry.

            Red Flag #4- What types of ministry experience does the applicant have? He may be an expert only in youth and thus would have a difficult time relating to adults. As an applicant lists the different experiences that he has had in ministry, it will be important to see with whom he has spent the most time ministering to.  For example, if all of his time was spent with youth and teenage students, then he probably lacks experience with married people and older adults. For this reason, it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to hire this kind of person to be the senior pastor of the church. It is no fault of the pastor, it is just his lack of experience in that age/life stage group. This can get better in time but probably cannot be learned early on when starting a new ministry position. There are plenty of things to learn at this stage. That is why experience and wisdom are irreplaceable.

            Red Flag #5- Not listing references from his previous church or even saying “references upon request” should cause you to think twice about the applicant. One of the most important things to do when interviewing a possible applicant is to talk to the references. But not just any reference will suffice. You should talk with references from the applicant’s last ministry. If that person is not listed, then that should be a “red flag” that maybe there is no one who could vouch for the applicant as to his quality or competency. Another trick is when they say that “references are available upon request” they are typically thinking that no one will actually call the references. This is a frequent stalling method often used. One other interesting twist is that the applicant may even list a reputable reference while knowing that this person would not give a favorable recommendation of the candidate. I have called such people who were actually listed on resumes only to find that they would not give a favorable recommendation but actually would recommend that they not even consider this person for any kind of ministry!

            There are many other “red flags” that could be listed but perhaps this could be saved for another time. Remember, the best way to not have to fire a person in ministry is to do a good check on who he is as you are hiring him. Maybe you have seen some other “tricks” that people have played on resume writing. Please share some of these insights in the comments section below.





  • Owen Mar. 30, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    Thanks for this insightful post, Ben, and I hope you're well! I can't agree more, but I have one question: what about the new guys (or gals) out there, who are new to ministry and don't have the impressive staying power you've described? I was in this boat a few years ago, before being hired where I presently serve. What do you recommend for someone who's got the degree but just isn't old enough to have served at one place for a substantial amount of time?

  • Tim Apr. 1, 2013 at 2:00 PM

    Does not this dishonesty on the part of those considered to be "leaders" and "mature" in the household of faith seem to be a red flag that bogus systemic elements are being justified and called godly in the form of church that requires hired experts brought in as strangers? The fact that you feel the need to publish a warning indicates this may not be a small percentage of those in "full time ministry" looking for their "calling from God" starting out with dishonesty.

  • Jon Apr. 2, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    Very helpful Ben! The one thought I had was the last "red flag". What I'm finding is that the opinions about whether to have a short resume (professional profile) or a long resume are mixed. The short resume has its upside in that it gets an applicant "In the door" because it's easy to read with the longer resume sent later. The longer resume is more thorough but when it approaches four pages it starts to get long which means the likelihood of it having it read carefully decreases. That's why the job coaches I've had contact with seem to opt for the line "References on Request". It's not so much that I'm banking that my references won't be called (I would want them called!). It's more pragmatic to save space and it also affords me the opportunity to "customize" my references a bit depending on the job opportunity. Great thoughts Ben!

  • GaryH Apr. 2, 2013 at 7:45 PM

    I think it's important not to read too much into the fact that a person may not list a reference from his last ministry position because he may still be working in that position. In such a situation, a person may not, for a number of legitimate reasons, not want you to contact his current employer to ask for a recommendation.

  • Brian Apr. 10, 2013 at 1:00 PM

    I was going to make a comment about the "references" flag, but Jon and Gary already made the comment that I had in mind. I've had to be very selective in listing a reference because it would have resulted in my immediate termination from the current job I was in.

    Also, I think its helpful to see these Red Flags as things to allow the applicant to discuss more in an interview upon questioning. They may not be intentionally trying to deceive and might have a valid explanation. It is understandable that a person is gearing their resume to fit the job description. I give some room for this common practice and assume that things will be clarified in the interview. However, outright dishonesty is not understandable.

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