Bruce was in his first call to a small town church that professed community and love for each other as primary core values.  While they were not expert evangelists, they loved each other well in times of crisis and understood the mandate to be each other’s keepers.  That included their relationship to the church secretary, with some unfortunate effects.  This lovely but “mature” woman had barely learned to use the computer well enough to eke out a weekly bulletin, albeit one filled with typos.  She no longer drove at night which impeded her ability to be present at times and places her job description sometimes required.  And she was avoidant at learning new things in spite of the last four pastors’ best efforts at getting her to do so.  When Bruce walked into this church, he inherited a situation that everyone knew needed to be dealt with, but to date, no one had the courage to manage.  The story is long but the moral is this:  Bruce very lovingly made it his mission to help escort her to her long-overdue retirement with as much grace and dignity as possible.  And for reasons like this, he ended up leaving that church after three years as an “unintentional interim.”

As churches like this one think about staffing models, they ask questions like “What positions do we need?”  “What can we afford?”  “Who do we want to be, and how do we staff for it?”  But there are deeper cultural questions, rarely named, that are often more primary.  “How do you fire your family?”  “Isn’t the church supposed to be loving?” “Don’t we have a ministry to our staff too?”  We can talk staffing logistics all day.  But as Peter Drucker reminds us, and these unstated questions illustrate, culture is always going to eat strategy for breakfast. 

In an age of excellence, allowing staff to remain who are not well-matched for or up to the job are not neutral decisions.  Many churches are stuck, struggling or in decline due to staff dynamics that are  draining morale.  Church visitors often make their decision to join a fellowship based on the first impressions of music quality and facility cleanliness.  If we are going to compete in the open market for where people invest their time and resources, then how we staff and the performance standards we expect of our employees should be no less than those of non-church organizations.    

So what is required for churches to build, support, and maintain staffs that can serve the church of today? 

Clarity:  I spent one unfortunate year as an 8th grade teacher.  I was thrown into a classroom in the heart of Brooklyn with a bunch of students who could see in my eyes that I had never taken a class in education, much less received training in classroom management.  I started that first class talking about how I wanted to be their friend.  (Are you cringing yet?)  Needless to say, those kids ate me alive for an entire year.  They did not need a friend.  They needed a teacher who laid out the rules and stuck to them. 

In our church staffing, job descriptions can often be seen as suggestions, and when staff deviate from them, we do not always hold them accountable.  Pastors are stretched thin and staff supervision often seems the least urgent of their duties.  But investment here is time worth spending.  And as I learned while teaching, starting that early, and being consistent with it, are keys to ensuring that we have the right people on the bus and that they are being effectively supported.

Creativity and Courage:  How many church members turn a blind-eye when the longtime organist starts missing more than the occasional note?  How many boards draw down their endowments to pay for positions that are no longer needed?  How many pastors have walked into positions and fallen right into the culture of pretending that the antiquated Christian education program is sufficient to reach today’s youth?  Sometimes the emperor is not wearing clothes, and someone needs to name that out loud.  I often recommend the use of “mystery worshippers” (think mystery shoppers) who attend your service and give a report to the board on their experience.  Getting someone else to name what everyone sees can be a creative launching pad to raise the awareness of the system.  And then we need to find the courage to have those crucial conversations.   

Boundaries:  Pastors want to pastor.  It’s what they do best.  And that’s how Brenda found herself offering daily pastoral care and support to her choir director after a cancer diagnosis.  This staff member spent hours on Brenda’s couch, paralyzed by fear and asking big questions about God’s grace and goodness.  Brenda was happy to provide support.  What she did not anticipate is how it would later dismantle her ability to hold this employee accountable when, for reasons totally unrelated to cancer, her performance began to slip and she was simply not doing her job. 

While some degree of care and concern is appropriate with staff members, pastors need to be very clear about which hat they are wearing while supervising staff.  In one middle-size congregation, the pastor created a separate head-of-staff position so he could just wear the pastor hat with staff, knowing that supervision was being handled elsewhere.  Or this could mean having a network of trusted mental health professionals to whom pastors can make referrals for staff who need more pastoral care than is appropriate for them to give. 

During this time of cultural upheaval, we can no longer get away with mismatched skill-sets and under-functioning among our rank and file.  But building a team does not happen overnight.  And nothing less than a solid cultural foundation in our relationship to staff will enable that house to stand the social and cultural winds of our day. 

Michelle Snyder
Michelle Snyder, MDiv, LCSW has been doing organizational consulting for over 10 years. With training in theology, systems theory, and organizational intelligence, she brings a unique perspective to her consulting and coaching work with middle judicatories, congregations, nonprofits, and clergy. Michelle has co-authored the book Life, Death and Reinvention: The Gift of the Impossibly Messed-Up Life. When not coaching and consulting, Michelle does suicide prevention training for faith community leaders and spends time at home in Pittsburgh with her clergy husband and two teenage daughters.