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Red Light or Green Light?
The Cover Letter

By Robert L. Withers

Churches can often receive hundreds of candidate profiles in response to their open pastoral positions. This Niagara Falls of resumes requires them to concentrate on only the most qualified candidates. Will your cover letter be a "red light" or a "green light" to a search committee? Will it induce the committee to turn the page and read your profile, or will it bring the committee to a full stop?

I recently critiqued a cover letter for a pastoral candidate that was three pages long. In it, he attempted to unpack his passion for service, his emphases in ministry, and his vision for the prospective church. As a result, he also guaranteed that his cover letter would be a "red light" for the reader, that the page would not be turned, and that his profile would not be read. In fact, it is doubtful that many search teams actually read his entire cover letter. If the cover letter induces the reader to turn the page and read the resume, it gives a "green light." If it tries to trigger a decision by the reader to talk to or hire the candidate, it turns into a "red light," and you lose the reader's interest.

The cover letter is not designed to generate an interview, to get hired, to tell your life story or to showcase your humor, wit or knowledge of Scripture. The purpose of the cover letter is to get the reader to turn the page. Therefore, it should be simple, short and to the point. After the envelope in which your profile is mailed, the cover letter is the first impression you'll make on the search team. As a result, a wordy cover letter can do more damage than good to your chances of an interview.


The Leadoff Hitter Principle

In baseball, when a manager makes out his batting lineup, the leadoff hitter has one goal: to get on base. The leadoff hitter is not selected to hit home runs, he is not expected to drive in many runners during the year, and he is usually not the most powerful hitter on the team. His job is simply to get on base. If the leadoff hitter should make an out, the rest of the inning becomes problematic.

The cover letter acts as the leadoff hitter. If the cover letter makes an out-if it turns the reader off-then one of two things will occur: the reader may not even turn the page and look at the candidate profile at all, or the reader will turn the page but read the profile with a bad taste in his/her mouth. Either way, the candidate loses.


Cover Letter Tips

The #1 rule for the cover letter: Keep it simple. Here are some tips for producing a simple, professional cover letter:

  1. Use a business letter format. If you are not sure what this format looks like, there are ample resources on the web and in your local library. Take the time to get it right.
  2. Present a professional appearance. If you are sending your documents in hard-copy, do not use basic copy or printer paper. Use professional-grade white or off-white paper, and do not use colors that you think will grab attention; those colors will grab the wrong kind of attention. A green, blue or yellow document could likely be sent to the Sunday school for arts and crafts.
  3. Keep your letterhead crisp and clean. Do not clutter your stationery with bumper-sticker sayings and symbols or use exotic fonts. A clean, simple font lets the reader know that you are focused and serious. This advice also holds true for electronic submissions; avoid the temptation to use background designs that incorporate dynamic colors and patterns.
  4. Use the correct date at the top of your letter. While this may seem like a no-brainer, in the age of word processing when document formats are used again and again, you might be surprised how many times a letter is sent in February 2009 with an October 2008 date. Is that a red light or a green light?
  5. Use the correct addressee. Once again, at first glance this appears elementary, but I can't tell you how many times I've received letters for a position at First Antioch Church that were addressed to First Brethren Church. Often the name in the address block of the letter is correct, but the salutation has another church name in it-often the result of the electronic age, lack of proofreading, and our hurried lives.
  6. Clearly indicate the position in which you are interested. Provide two or three reasons why you are attracted to the position. Be brief, and be specific. At least 50 percent of the cover letters churches receive are too general, having no direct bearing on the church or the job. Expand on your strengths in your profile/resume; remember, your goal in the cover letter is just to get the reader to turn the page.
  7. Refrain from telling the search committee that "God is calling you" to be its next pastor or youth leader. While it may be true, trust God to help them see this. You may be sincere and well-meaning in your sense of God's calling to the prospective church, but more often than not, such statements are red lights. If we believe in the New Testament teaching of the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit, then we can trust God to testify on our behalf and make a way to our best place for ministry and our own spiritual formation. I'm sure you'll agree that His testimony will always be stronger than ours.
  8. Thank the search committee for its prayerful consideration, and let them know that you are praying for the best pastoral match for their church-and then make sure to pray for the church. Remember that these folks are reading a mountain of cover letters, resumes, and profiles. They could use some thanks now and then, and they can certainly use prayer.
  9. Use a flat 8.5x11" envelope if you are sending a hard-copy of your profile. Do not fold your materials into a #10 (standard-sized) envelope. You are a professional; mail your material professionally. Consider using either Priority Mail or Express Mail, depending on the circumstances. By doing so, you are communicating, "What's inside is important; read it." Yes, it will cost more to do this, but it is an investment in your future.
  10. Use a cover letter even in electronic submissions. The temptation when sending a resume/profile via email is to let the body of the email substitute for a cover letter. Do the extra work, go the extra mile and make the best impression you can.

Preachers know that if they don't grab their congregation's attention in the first twenty seconds that they will lose them. Just as the opening moments of a sermon are critical, the first page of a candidate profile, the cover letter, evokes a critical response from the search committee - will that response be to a red light or a green light?

Robert L. Withers is the principal of CompassDynamics™ and Pastor of New Hope Church, Woodstock, VA. He holds a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he served as administrator of The Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace. Bob's extensive organizational experience includes the recruitment, training and mentoring of executives and managers in the corporate sector. Bob recently published the book, Charting the Course: The Pastoral Search Process, with related resources for both pastors and search teams. Comments and requests for more information may be directed to Bob at

Copyright © 2009 Robert L. Withers, all rights reserved

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