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!