Readers Respond: Should There Be a Written Test?

No Test Today...Maybe Later...

In an earlier post, I asked the question: Should there be a written test as part of the application process for a position in music or worship ministry? I also asked for feedback, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the reactions were mixed.

No Way!

The most passionate answers came from those who were opposed to the idea. Here's a sampling of what they had to say:

    • I think it would be more helpful to take a personality test! And a survey on how one would handle church politics! I've found that no matter how much you know, it is your capability of dealing with the rank and file in the church (who often know nothing and don't want to be educated, thank you very much) that makes all the difference. Sadly. ~ anonymous


    • Why should there be a written one? We get an oral exam every time we interview for every position, church or otherwise. Who would create the test? Who would administer it? Who would grade it? Laymen? Non-musicians? An independent company? Having said that, I do think it's good when church musicians avail themselves of classes and training offered by AGO or some other organization or institution. It helps us sharpen our minds as well as our skills. ~ Neil Brown (UMC Red Bank NJ)


    • Each denomination would require a different test according to their doctrine. Oh my...that would open up a problem if you've not worked that denomination before, quickly learning what makes them different. So, we'd expect to be tested by laypersons? Choir members? Ministers? And if they have no real musical knowledge, how would that work? I've worked in churches where I was told the first thing by the minister, "I know nothing about worship, so I'm depending on you." Hmmm....that minister should give a test? For most of us, we are constantly learning and honing our craft. By the questions they ask at an interview, that should tell them if we really know what we're doing. And there are Certification programs in the UMC, PCUSA, ELCA and Episcopal churches that also show a church what kind of musician or worship leader they are hiring. ~ G. Shelley Reel, CCM (Strategic Partner, The Gladstone Group, LLC)


    • Shouldn't my references, degrees, and experience say it all? We go through enough testing on an educational level, plus our musicianship is constantly tested on a weekly basis in rehearsals and services. I wouldn't be for more testing. It seems silly. ~ George Donovan


    • I think this is one of the most incredibly stupid ideas I have ever heard. There are some things that simply cannot be measured. For those, God gave us the gifts of personal insight and discernment. You cannot judge a calling or God’s will with a written test. ~ Ron Sinclair (St. Luke’s UMC Hickory, NC)


On the Other Hand


    • This is hardly the SAT. If you are a professional, and seeking a position in music/worship, and can't answer these questions coherently in 25 words or less, then... ~ Marc Willis (First UMC, Corvallis OR)


    • Even if there weren't a written exam, everyone should attempt to write a faith statement, a raison d'etre, and articulate the types of jobs for which they are particularly suited. There are those of us who are " jacks of all trades" and there are those of us with "laser beam" skills. Ministers of Worship and the Arts (including media) are an examples of the former and Organists are examples of the latter. What you don't know for your first position will direct you to your subsequent positions. Each move informs the next until one is fully formed and clear about the call God has in mind for them. Should one be applying of a job that is not in the state or even the city in which one lives, it is not unusual for people to explore these issues by written word prior to committing to a visit. In these economic times, this would not be a surprise either. Distance is a reason for answering fundamental questions of faith and practice prior to an interview. I have done that at least 5 times. This is not a big deal. It may be intrusive to a schedule, but is conducive to conversation and a consonance of thought between parties. ~Cortlandt Bender (Director of Music Ministries Church of the Epiphany)


Would a Church Even Know How to Interpret the Answers?


    • Rarely have I experienced anyone in my past churches who had the knowledge to ask, much less, grade such a test. However, I remember doing a community Thanksgiving service a number of years ago in which several choirs traditionally massed and sang in a joint service at one of the represented churches on a rotating basis. The new music director of the host church served as the conductor. This new person was grossly inadequate. He tried to conduct a piece that was in 6/8 instead in 4/4. He had actually taught it that way to his large choir with no one complaining. When we all got together, I could take it no more, and I said, are you aware that you are conducting this piece in the wrong meter? It was only then that he recognized it! We managed to struggle through the anthem in the newly-corrected meter. Shortly after the holiday season, this person was fired. However, how much time, effort, and pain could have been abated had a test been given? ~ Ward Gailey


    • I can't tell you how many churches I have encountered who were looking for a Worship Leader/Minister of Music and they had little, if any, idea what type of person (qualifications, etc.) they were looking for. When a church contacts me asking if I know any potential candidates, I always ask if they have a thorough job description. If they don't -- I estimate it at about 1/3 of the time -- I tell them to call back when they do. Otherwise we're both just wasting our time. Similarly, I have encountered far too many Worship Leaders/Ministers of Music who were searching for a position -- any position -- regardless of the theological bent of the church, the style of the church, the leadership style of the church, etc. When one of these folks asks me for help, if they don't have a thorough list about the details of the position they are seeking, I don't spend any time with them. It's just not worth it. In six months they'll be moving on again and the church will be upset with me for suggesting them. Your questions offer a great starting framework. Good work! ~ Tom Kraeuter (Training Resources, Inc.)


There is a Better Way


    • Written Test??? It depends upon what the test is trying to learn about the candidate. It is hard to learn about a candidates personality from a test unless it is a psychological test or a Spiritual Gifts test. As these tests usually cost the church money, it seems prudent to only use one of these tests on your top final candidates.However, having spent 25 years in the business world as a hiring manager and building large effective staffs, I notice that people tend to jump into the interviewing process before clearly defining the position. Churches are often the worst at hiring as there are many other dynamics that come into play with the candidate in the church world. Often, there is no agreement at the church on who they are looking for and in frustration just start interviewing to see who God leads their way. Example: some church’s just want a Music Director and want the “pastoring” stuff left to others on staff. Often church people just want to “be nice” and won’t ask the tough questions. I have been to interviews in which it is obvious that the hiring entity has NO IDEA of what they are looking for and wastes a lot of people’s time. I am usually turned off as a candidate as this type of interviewing tells me the church has bigger problems to solve before I would go there.

      After the role is properly defined and agreed upon by the committee doing the interviewing, then the criteria and tools for the interview can be defined. A face to face series of interviews, a musical skills test and a lot of background checking usually are most important. However other tools might better identify a candidates skill in other area and a written test may be the best way to handle this. The committee should test the candidates’ skill level in all areas that are most important. As an example: Pastoring Skills – During a face to face interview ask questions related to this skill and check references, take a personality test? Musical abilities – Look at video of candidate leading worship, have candidate lead a few rehearsals in all musical depts. and styles, a theory test? Compose an original song, arrange a song for the choir or worship team. Time Management– Let the candidate run a “tight rehearsal” and see how they manage the rehearsal time, check previous employers, etc. Personal Issues – background check (don’t just talk to references) with other music directors.

      I am sure you get the idea. I am not sure how effective a written test would be as I would much rather watch a candidate “sweat” through a tough situation as I would learn much more about their personality in how they handle the issues. ~ John Jarvis

    • I see no reason why a qualified person should fear a written test any more than any other part of an application/interview process, but it almost seems like the areas of proficiency needed for a worship leader would be more accurately measured through interviews, resume/education/employment history, references, allowing that person to perform, or watching them lead a worship service. It takes a unique set of musical, social, theological, liturgical, organizational, intellectual, and personal skills to do this job. I'm not sure how many of those areas could be measured in a written test. ~ Lisa Davis (Director of Music Ministries Canyon Lake UMC Canyon Lake, TX)


    • Rather than a written test, how about an audition versus a spoken interview? Bring in professional music friends from outside the church if needed to make judgement calls. I've found it funny when I'm only given a spoken interview for a music job. People can do a wonderful spoken interview without being able to back it up with a rehearsal process that demonstrates a solid knowledge of vocal pedagogy as well as basic musicianship. Or is it only in this part of the country that the average music director is rarely auditioned and just given a business interview? ~ Elisabeth Kisselstein(SUNY-Oswego)


    • In my experience, using solely a “business interview” approach is quite common. iser groups at least use audition recordings (“send us a dvd”) or go out to observe you doing a worship service. Very few seem to go to the trouble of bringing you in for an actual audition in addition to a personal interview. I suspect that besides the lack of knowledge from some search committee members, other reasons for that issue are that the candidate can’t miss their own mid-week rehearsal or Sunday worship, or that the interviewing church’s choir can’t come out on another evening to allow candidates to conduct them. It’s a tricky problem to solve. ~ Stanley Livengood (Director of Music First Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith AR)


    • As someone who has served in 10 congregations, 5 denominations in a 36 year career, I can count on one hand the auditions I've had---3. I even asked at one full time position if they wanted an audition and was told it wasn't necessary. I agree that this is the measuring tool for musical ability, having the musician bring one familiar piece (to him or her) that can be taught as a new anthem, showing their rehearsal abilities and having them direct one very familiar to the choir. If the musician is given the time to lead a rehearsal as it would be, you'd see if prayer was included and that would also give an idea of the spirituality of the individual, as well as their organization skills in planning rehearsal. Remember, it is very hard to judge the other abilities needed: organization of program, managerial skills (depending on the size of the position), creativity, people skills. If we are only looking at musical skills, that's one thing, but I found that the music was just a small part of what I do. ~ G. Shelley Reel


    • My experience is with small rural churches rather than large urban mega-churches. In churches of this size, a written test would be overkill. In the first place, in these small churches, the musical style is very frequently simply "traditional piano, played uptempo and mostly by ear" -- or at least, with some embellishments. Sort of "southern gospel" style. In that setting and with those requirements, a written test would be quite unnecessary. In churches the size of mine, worship is not a "production," it is simply corporate worship. As such, a person need not know how to "direct" operations as much as in a larger church. When the sound system is "either on or off" and there is only one instrument, the only qualification for the pianist is that he or she is capable of playing the instrument in a way that the congregation finds pleasant, singable, and worship-enhancing. A person can best demonstrate this not by a written test, but by sitting at the piano, playing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and saying "So, what do you think?" He or she should also understand and agree with the church's theology, because this is necessary for picking theologically agreeable songs for the choir to sing and for the congregation, if the pastor doesn't pick the hymns each week like ours does. In a larger church where the person has more "production" responsibilities, a written test may or may not be necessary. In small rural churches, however, it would be unnecessary. For example, my personal story is that I was playing a medley of "Special music" at revival at one church, when the pastor of another church that needed a pianist was in attendance in the congregation. She came up to me after the service and said "Want to play for a church full-time?" and that was that. This or something like it (ad on the bulletin board at a local university, etc) is how we do it "around here" and that's typical of all the small churches that I've been in or around as I went from hometown to college town. ~Michael Salley (Henson Chapel UMC, Boone NC)


  • When I was interviewed for my current position, there were appropriate questions about my experience, familiarity with worship styles, etc. Then they asked if I would be willing to play through a couple of hymns for them, which I did. Then they selected a hymn which lent itself better to the piano (a "southern gospel" type) which I then demonstrated on that instrument. When they heard me play in the gospel style, there were many murmurs of approval! The whole process was quite simple, but very practical. The questions asked were well chosen in order to identify best possible matches of candidate to music needs of the congregation. I think a written test of any sort would be rather impractical, and not likely to accomplish anything useful. ~ Rev. Thurlow Weed, PCA (Organist Whitehall United Methodist Church Whitehall, Ohio)

Final Thoughts

The prevailing wind seems to be: audition yes, written test no. But I think these words are the best way to leave the issue:

  • I have been through the interview process at 6 churches over the past 33 years and have been honored to be hired by 4 of them. Honestly I think the Holy Spirit has been the main factor in being selected – not my resume, nor my talent, nor my “engaging personality” (love that one), nor my looks or my age. Hopefully I’m through with the process. The advice (unsolicited) to those of you that will in the market: don’t seek a position; seek God’s will and everything will work out for you. ~ Jack Horner (First UMC Montgomery, AL)


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