4 Easy Ways to Support Your Church Staff

By Joe LaGuardia

In the mid-1990s, G. Lloyd Rediger published Clergy Killers, which argued that some churches are so destructive and dysfunctional that they have actually persuaded some staff to give up ministry altogether.   Churches not adept in conflict management or basic communication skills run the risk of abusing staff or, in the least, draining staff energy to the point of burn-out.

Sometimes this happens when congregations wield power over staff with little risk to the parishioners’ own well-being.  Unlike employers who have shareholders and CEOs to answer to, parishioners try to call the shots aggressively or passive-aggressively without having to risk their own financial or personal resources.  It is an unfair advantage that congregations have over the staff they employ.

Many churches, however, are wonderful congregations to call home.  Many treat staff fairly, have appropriate policies that protect all parties involved, and are intentional in building healthy communities that minimize dysfunction and distrust.  How to do that?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are four easy ways to support your staff at church:

Understand the job.  Jobs at church–from administrator or accompanist to pastor or pastoral counselor–are not the same as jobs in the secular world.  Every staff position in a church is designed to achieve specific goals while creating a sacred space for people to meet Christ while on campus.

Consider the average job–a mechanic, say.  What if you were a mechanic, and someone “dropped in” on you to chat with you about a concern every five minutes?  You would not be a productive mechanic.  Dropping in on staff at a church, however, is a regular part of our jobs.  We make time for it because we know that ministry takes place most often in the interruptions of life rather than in the daily routines.  A mechanic’s time is valuable, and problems can be handled in specific ways.  Church staff is no different!

Understanding the job also means knowing what it takes to do a particular job.  For instance, a pastor may “hide” in her office for ten hours a week and some parishioners may feel slighted, but how else might a pastor preach a great sermon if she does not have time to prepare and write one?  Do not use your own experiences to tell a staff person how to do his or her job.

Build trust.  Church leaders learn that building trust with a congregation is the first step in effective ministry.  Trust is the catalyst for growth and the linchpin for getting things done for the Kingdom of God.

Trust must be earned, and trust goes both ways!  Parishioners must behave and communicate in a way that builds trust with staff–to be people of their word, to keep confidences, to pray for staff.

Trust comes by being interested in staff personally.  You don’t have to be a staff member’s best friend, but why not ask how his child is doing in school or about any new movies he has watched lately?  Talk about something other than church, and listen intently.  Be concerned.  It builds trust, and when you have an issue, your ability to handle it with staff will go much more smoothly if your previous interactions were positive, personal ones.

Think like an employer.  For all practical purposes, congregations employ staff.  That means that the staff at a church–even the senior pastor–does not have a traditional employer that can help negotiate the rigors of the job.  If you were to think like an employer, what would change about how you treat your staff?  Let me give a few suggestions:

Employers lean on policies to protect employees.  For church staff, that means encouraging staff to take their vacations, find time to spend with family, but also be held accountable for punctuality, professionalism, and preparedness in their job.

Employers work with employees to maximize strengths and curb weaknesses.  Church staff is no different–members have strengths and weaknesses that define who they are and how they work.  Do not micromanage staff, but work with each one in order to encourage professional development by having room for people to be who they are in all of their idiosyncrasies.  Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Employers celebrate employees.  Form a staff support team that handles all of the special holidays and birthdays of your church’s staff.  Shower the church administrator when its Administrator Appreciation Week, for instance.  Collect a few gift cards, balloons, and cupcakes when a staff member has a birthday.  Write cards of encouragement and let your staff know that you are praying for them.  It makes a difference!

Stay invested.  The worst thing that can happen is that a parishioner goes to another church when that parishioner does not get her way.  If you have an issue with a staff member, deal with it directly, immediately, and honestly; but, be prepared for the response.  If you want a specific outcome to a problem, help the staff member address it, but know that you may not always get your way!

In fact, the church does not revolve around you, your expectations, or your personal preferences.  But you are a part of the discerning community that makes the church a part of the Body of Christ.  Discern and pray with staff as things arise, don’t be antagonistic or petty.  Be patient and have an openness of heart.  You and your staff are on the same team, there is no room for hostility or animosity.

At the end of the day, church is supposed to be a source of joy and comfort, of fulfilling the Great Commission and of ministry not misery.  If something is not going well, it is usually not because God is not present or the Spirit is not at work.  It is likely because we have done something to railroad the human relationships that keep the wheels of the church going in a forward, harmonious and productive direction.  I hope that these four tips will make a difference!

Ghosts in the sanctuary, ghouls in the fellowship hall

When I was trying to think of something patriotic to write about for the Fourth of July week, I couldn’t think of anything specific.

Sure, I considered writing about the separation of church and state–a Baptist thing to do if there ever was one–but I thought (being a good southern yankee and all) why rock the boat?

Instead, what kept haunting me (no pun intended) was all of the ghost stories I’ve heard (and told) related to the founding of our nation.  Go to any historic town in our nation–from Savannah to Salem–and you can take a ghost tour and hear about some pilgrim ghost child running amuck in the local watering holes.  (If you’re ever available, you can make an appointment to hike up Stone Mountain with me and I’ll tell you a good ghost story on the way up.)

Ghouls and goblins keep coming to mind because I have a thing for ghosts, always have.  No wonder, then, that whenever youth stay at the church for a lock-in or some special nightly event I remind them of the ghosts that live at Trinity Baptist.

The youth know them well by now: ghosts unlock impossible-to-reach windows, make noises that go bump in the night, and snatch video games or TV cables from the game room.

One time, when I was walking through the church at night with my daughter, she asked whether the ghosts are real.  I told her that the ghosts at Trinity are no more real than the ghosts in Savannah and, like any good story, my ghost stories are mostly pretend but have some element of truth to them.

I explained to her that the only ghosts in our church–and churches all across America–are the remnants of relationships, situations, crises, and legacies that have affected the life of the church over the years.

Your church is no exception; each church has its own baggage, its own ghosts, so to speak.

Truth is that, although such ghosts don’t steal video games, many of them appear as old hurts and conflicts that end up rearing their ugly heads now and then.  These bitter disputes leave a residue–ghosts–that awaken from a deep slumber whenever contention or anxiety erupt in a business meeting or fellowship function or dispute between churchgoers.

Relationships are strained after all of these years, and reconciliation is hard to come by.  Yet, forgiveness and unity are needed in a community that depends on some sense of Christian camaraderie.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul, a commensurate ghostbuster, pointed to lingering ghosts–or sources of division–in the community that caused disruptions to the Gospel.  “Enemies of the cross,” he called them, whose “minds are on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18, 19).

They were not necessarily specters from horror movies, but people who left behind a wake of hardship and destruction, discord and toxic rhetoric.

To combat such haunts, Paul encouraged his audience to “be of the same mind” and to “hold fast to what we have attained” (Phil. 3:15).  He does this by pointing to his own ability to forget “what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13).

Whenever ghosts erupt in church life, they can be extinguished by seeking reconciliation, healing wounds of old, and committing to a common ministry vision that looks forward to what God has in store for the community.  There is an intentional shift from dwelling on the past to facing a hopeful future.

In fact, a forward-looking mission is one that brings out the best in people rather than recalling the worst elements that lead to paralysis.

Over the years, I have heard about churches that erupted in conflict.  Pastor resign; people flee the pews.  Never once have I ever heard of a conflict that just erupts out of nowhere, over night; rather, conflict is the consequence of long-lost haunts that hurt and fan the flames of discord at the most vulnerable of times.

“But our citizenship,” wrote Paul, “is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” not the ghost of a church’s past, present, or future (Phil. 3:20).  Believe it…or not.