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!

One Pastor’s Reading List for 2017

books_journalBy Joe LaGuardia

It is the “in” thing these days for pastors to publish their reading list for the New Year.  Since I am an avid reader, I can’t help myself.

The notion is that clerics were once the storehouses of knowledge, when churches were at the center of town and of political and cultural life for any given county.  Also, there is the thought that parishioners might be interested in what their pastor is reading.  That may or may not be true.

What is true, at least for me, is that my spiritual mentors instilled in me the abiding ethic that pastors should be continually growing in their field, in learning about what stands on the horizon of cultural movements, and how God is at work in our world today.

It was Karl Barth (or was it Deitrich Bonhoeffer?) who said that a pastor must go about his or her vocation with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Additionally, I consider myself a writer, and what writer do you know doesn’t boast of a formidable home library or reading list?  So there you go.

Here are a few books I am looking forward to reading as the new year is upon us.

1-  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.  I fell in love with Dillard’s writing a little over a year ago.  I started with The Writing Life, read Holy the Firm, and moved on to a book of her essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read The Writing Life for a second time when I moved to Vero Beach–all my other books were packed away in storage!

When I learned of her classic, Pilgrim, which won a Pulitzer, I set out to buy a copy at our local Vero Beach bookstore.   It is, in classic Dillard style, a meandering reflection of life at Tinker Creek in the Appalachian mountains.   Part memoir, part spiritual narrative, her writing moves between poetic reflection and naturalist exploration.

Dillard once stated that her goal was to write the “impossible page.”  In Pilgrim she does not disappoint (I started reading it before Christmas).  Her writing is heavy, rich like a meaty stew in which every bite contains enough nourishment and protein to fill you for the rest of the day.

2- Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  In a recent issues of The Christian Century, pastors submitted short paragraphs about the best book they’ve read recently.  A majority cited Just Mercy.  I better get on the bandwagon.

As director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, Stevenson mixes anecdotes and research to shed light on the underside of criminal (in)justice with the aim of bringing about real conversations on the need for criminal justice reform.

3-  The Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.  I heard about Douglas and her memoir of conservation when I went to high school at none other than Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida.

There was a joke about the school: What better way to honor her than by building a school right in the middle of the environment she longed to save?  (The ghost of Douglas struck, however–when I graduated, there was an urban legend that the school was sinking in the swamp at nearly a foot every ten years.)

This is not the only Florida-specific book on this list.  Over the years, I have come to love reading local authors about local places.  I’ve read scores of Georgia authors; now its time to read classics every Florida resident hopes to read.

4-  The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings.  Another Florida classic, a coming of age novel in the heart of the Florida wilderness.  I am not all that sure what this book is about, specifically, but it was recommended by a fellow Florida naturalist, so I figured I better read it.

5-  Communication in the Church, by Thomas Kirkpatrick.  One of the things I need to shore up in my first year at First Baptist is communication.  So many have cited communication as an issue for the church, partly because there was no figurehead–senior pastor–to really head that up.

This book came across my desk in an advertisement from the book’s publisher, Romman and Littlefield, and it caught my eye.  When I received it in the mail, I was delighted to find that it appeared to be both easy to read and practical.

When I spotted a chapter on how to lead a committee meeting, for instance, I knew I had made the right decision (not that I don’t know how to lead a committee meeting, but there is always room for improvement!).

6-  The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, by Roy Oswald.  In my previous church, we had an emotional intelligence guru in our associate pastor, the Reverend Karen Woods.  I was enthralled with the things she taught the staff and our church on this growing field in ministry, and I am still convinced its one of the most important things every church leader needs to understand.

I asked Pastor Karen what book would be best–give us the good stuff for people who want to read about EQ, but don’t have time to read every book on it.  She recommended Oswald’s book, and we purchased a half-dozen copies for staff and lay leaders.

I was grateful for her lessons, especially, since part of the interview process at First Baptist Church was to take an EQ test!

I began to read this book last month, and it is indeed still some of the most important material I’ve read of late.  What pastor does not want to learn more about empathy, self-awareness, and stress management.  Well, I am sure there are many–and this is the book to purchase for your stressed-out pastor!

7- The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben.  I read about this book somewhere along the way, maybe in an editorial or column in The Christian Century, and I was enthralled with the premise: A German forest ranger, Wohlleben, explores the science and theory behind the social life of trees.

I’m not sure what I will get out of this book, maybe that if trees are social, we humans can be too?  And, since moving to Florida, my family and I have made it a habit to hug a palm tree every now and then.  (We named the one palm tree on our property “Fred.”  We love Fred, but he gets grouchy sometimes if you get too close to him.)  This brings joy.  Maybe this book will explain why. Who knows?

8-  The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson.  A book of essays by the author of Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead (one of President Barak Obama’s favorite books, by the way).  Robinson is known for her conversational tone and religious sensitivity.

Since I am a sucker for essays, hoping to publish two new books of essays in the next two years, I figure I better read Robinson’s.

9-  Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, by Charles Deweese.  My personal history with this book is an interesting one.  Soon after I purchase it, about seven years ago, I lent it to my father-in-law, who was interested in how in the world Trinity Baptist made women deacons.

For some reason, he misplaced the book and it had been lost since then.  He and my mother-in-law just sold their house and moved here to Vero Beach.  In the packing and unpacking, the book turned up.  I hope to get a chance to read it, finally!

10-  Moby Dick, by Herman Mellville.  At the beginning of last year, friends and I joined an informal movement called “Sixteen books in 2016.”  We even devoted a Facebook group page to it.

This book was on my list, and, with the move to Vero and all, I never got around to it.  Maybe this year I will.  Until then, poor Ahab will continue his fateful search for the great White Whale.  I don’t want to leave the guy hanging, so I’ll try to make it my summer beach reading fare.  Beach + whale.  Sounds like a winning combination.

11-  Something about Henry Flagler.  I went to a college on Flagler Drive, which was across the bridge from the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Kristina and I went to St. Augustine for our honeymoon, and have visited many times since, including touring Flagler College.   What does all of this have in common?  Henry Flagler, the industrialist tycoon who founded Standard Oil and connected Florida by rail.  I’m sure there is a biography on him that I’ll pick up along the way.

Pastor’s schedule based around free lunches, saves thousands in one year

eatingmeetBy Joe LaGuardia

There is an old joke that if you want to get pastors together, just offer free lunch.

Every joke is based, of course, on some truth: When there is a conference, association or convention meeting, revival, or non-profit fundraiser hoping to raise awareness and clergy support, a free meal is not only helpful in turning out numbers, it is also expected.

For the Reverend Mark O’Reilly of Discover the Point Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri, free lunches are a regular part of ministry and networking.  He participates in various organizations and non-profits that insist on providing free lunches: from his local Baptist Association meeting to state conventions, local non-profits, and other parachurch organizations with which he participates.

A glance at Reverend O’Reilly’s calendar paints a picture of someone who does participate, but seems to bank on free food at such events: “It is true, I plan my calendar around free lunches locally and, at times, state-wide as well,” he said as if free lunches are but a perk of being a pastor.

Close scrutiny finds that Reverend O’Reilly attends an average of three free lunches a week over the entire year, saving him and his household thousands of dollars in grocery and lunch bills.  He does not see this as an issue, but a way to raise visibility in the community, enrich the missional footprint that is a foundation of his church, and insure that he is networking with the best minds in the business.

“Discover the Point Church is built on values related to collaboration in God’s Kingdom with other believers, and with partnerships in our neighborhood.  We like to reach out in as many ways as possible because we are Good News in the world today,” he states.

One of Reverend O’Reilly’s parishioners, Riba Neery, agrees. “Our pastor is successful because he is ‘out there.’  He does not hide in his office or preach an isolated or insular faith; he puts feet to faith–and challenges our own faith–by reaching beyond the church for the sake of the Gospel.  It is part of the Great Commission, after all,” Neery says, quoting Jesus’ commission as recorded in Matthew 28.

Others are not as sympathetic to O’Reilly’s schedule.  “I know that he is well-liked and known for being proactive in getting out in the community, but when does he find time to do pastoral care, write sermons, and run his church?”, said the Reverend Diana Lee of nearby St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Reverend O’Reilly has a simple defense to these (and other) charges.  He reminds his critics that being available to the community, organizations, and his denomination is a part of what it means to be a pastor.

“Part of shepherding is to be in community and hear the needs of the people, be available to offer a helping hand with our missions and community partners, and build on friendships to further the cause of the local church.  So what if I receive a free lunch while I am being the best pastor I can be?”

O’Reilly’s wife, Allena, understands the significance of his schedule and will defend his philosophy of ministry if pressed.  She sees the benefit of saving money on the grocery bill (she is a stay-at-home mother of five).

But she also asks what it might cost to his health.

“I like the idea of not having to spend money on all that bread and lunch meat, but why can’t Mark order salads and water when he is out with his friends?  Whenever he comes home, he tells me about how wonderful the pizza, pasta, Rubens, or fried chicken he had that day.  I just think its a lot of calories and fat, and I’m worried about his weight,” she opines.

Her concerns are valid.  Just last year, a Baylor Study stated that over a third of pastors are obese as recorded in Christianity Today.

“I know that there is a cost to all of this free food,” Reverend O’Reilly admits, “But you need to understand that when I attend all of these meetings, especially if held at a convention hall, I am also getting exercise walking from venue to venue.  Even if I am having lunch with a colleague or pastor in town, you have to walk from the parking lot to the restaurant.”

This raises another point of interest for Reverend O’Reilly.  He admits that in order to get a free lunch, you also need to buy lunch as well.  He sees picking up the bill not so much as a social gesture, but an investment.

“There is some sweat equity in this game aside from having to walk to the restuarant.  Sometimes you have to buy lunch for a new pastor or colleague, but there are always strings attached.  If I pick up the bill and my colleague says something about paying, I’ll respond, ‘Oh, its on me, but the next time I’ll let you pay.’

“And there is always a next time.  I make a note in my calendar and usually call that colleague about six weeks and ask to go to a pricier restaurant.  I try to get the best return on my buck,” O’Reilly said.

Reverend Lee caught on to Reverend O’Reilly’s strategies soon after she arrived at St. Mark’s as its new rector.  “Oh, yes, he offered to take me to lunch since I was new, said he wanted to talk to me about ministry in the neighborhood.  And, yes, he did pick up the bill, which was generous since he invited me,” she said.

But things turned south.  Lee continued, “He called me about four or five weeks later and asked to go to lunch again.  I thought that a great idea, and I intended to pick up the bill — I mean, that’s what ministers do, it is something we are taught at seminary — but when he suggested Le Chef de Leon over on Sixth Avenue, I knew something was fishy.  The plates there are about $15.00 or more–much more than the previous restaurant, and I thought that was not right.  I declined.”

Asked if she would go to lunch with him again, maybe in a group, Reverend Lee responded: “I don’t feel the need to ask Mark.  I’ll see him next Tuesday for lunch.  The local United Way is sponsoring a lunch for pastors and chaplains in the community.  I’m confident he will be there.”