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Becoming Staff – the 1998 classic version!


When hiring staff, congregation leaders often ask, “Should we consider members?” Members have some obvious attractions. They are apt to be familiar with the congregation and its program, committed to its mission, and accustomed to working hard without pay. Furthermore, most staff roles pay too little to attract many strong candidates from outside.

The drawbacks of hiring members are also mostly obvious. A former lay leader may have difficulty accepting supervision. A minister or board who try to fire a member may wind up in hot soup with the member’s friends and family.

(I should add, here, that in the first week of my first ministry I fired a janitor, the teenage daughter of a board member, who had been turning in false time sheets. Having worked in factories, I assumed stealing from the “company” required immediate dismissal. Not a word was said about my unilateral decision — but I would not do it that way now!)

Looking at the disadvantages, some congregations resolve “never again” to hire a member for a staff role. There are two troubles with this policy. The best qualified candidate, especially for part-time jobs, is often a member. And for “program” positions — director of religious education, director of music, membership development director — there are advantages to hiring someone in sympathy with the unique style, theology, and emphasis of the hiring congregation. Often the pool of such persons comprises mostly members.

Luckily, by orienting applicants and lay leaders in advance to the potential difficulties members face when they become staff, it is possible to head off some of the worst problems. On the next page is a list that may be useful to share with member-applicants.

I assume that the minister, no matter what the congregation says, is responsible for staff morale and effectiveness. It follows that all staff members need to accept the minister as leader of the staff team. It should go without saying (but unfortunately doesn’t) that the minister, like any leader, must be loyal to those he or she leads. A minister who plays favorites among staff or speaks with scorn about lay leaders is asking for trouble. The minister’s first obligation is to make sure the staff has what it needs to do its job effectively: resources, political support, and a sense of direction.

Too many congregations pay good money for the privilege of watching their staff fight! High on any congregation’s list of goals should be a unified, effective staff.

When a member joins the staff

A congregation member who joins the paid staff can expect important changes in his or her relation to the church. The following list is meant to help you to anticipate how these changes may affect you. You may wish to discuss some of these items with the minister and search committee at your interview.

A staff member is both a leader and an employee. Unlike a committee chair or congregation president, as a staff member you work for the church. You are expected to follow policies adopted by the board and committees and to cooperate with the minister and other staff. In order to keep the distinction clear, a staff member should normally not also hold lay leadership positions in the congregation. If you have a spouse in leadership, he or she must take care not to speak or vote on anything directly affecting you. You will of course promote your program, but objectively, advocating for the congregation’s larger mission, not for what you personally prefer.

A staff member belongs to the staff team. Especially in small congregations, this may seem a little odd. Doesn’t the RE Director really work for the RE program, and the music director for the choir? These relationships seem real and practical, while the “staff” may rarely meet. But in congregations of all sizes, conflict among staff is frequent and destructive. Lack of cooperation among staff causes frustration, failure, burnout and high turnover. For these reasons, no one should accept a paid job who does not expect to balance loyalty to one’s “department” with a positive relationship to the whole staff team.

A staff member may need to find another minister. Your minister is still your minister for weddings, funerals, and other public functions, but for the more private, pastoral aspects of ministry there are some limits. Whether he or she is formally your supervisor or not, the minister’s first role with staff is to lead the team. This means articulating the mission and goals of the congregation to you, seeing that you have the support you need to do your job, and giving you frank feedback about how you are doing. These roles may not be compatible with intense pastoral care or counseling, in which case you may have to look elsewhere for the ministry you need.

A staff member may need to find a new peer group. Your enjoyment of your peer group in the church may be part of what moved you to apply for a staff job. For a time, the satisfactions of group membership continue, but eventually — with new members especially — you will be more a leader than a peer. As a staff member, you cannot be casually available to anyone who wants to chat. In time your relationship with fellow members shifts, and you will find that to feel truly relaxed and “off work,” you need to find friends who are not part of your congregation.

As a member of the congregation, you bring unique experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm to the paid staff. If you say “yes” to a staff position, you will join thousands of others who have moved from lay membership to professional service. Best wishes!

What to Say When Your Side Loses

by Dan Hotchkiss

LOSER !!!! from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Craig Sunter, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio
“The ayes have it.” Curt put down his hand and looked across the table at Priscilla, who had also voted “no.” Priscilla smiled, shrugged, and joined the chatter about how to ask the membership to ratify the board’s decision.

Curt was not smiling. By five to two, the board had voted to tear down the ladies’ parlor to make room for a new classroom wing. Curt understood the need, but he felt strongly this was the wrong project at the wrong time. He had said so several times.

Luckily, the congregation also needed to approve the project. Curt was thinking about how to make his arguments again. Surely in the congregation as a whole there were enough who loved that parlor, enough who were unhappy about all the excess spending lately, to put a stop to this new folly.

Priscilla interrupted Curt’s reflections, speaking toward him from across the table: “I am frankly disappointed by this vote,” she said. “But now that the board’s decision has been made, it is our duty as board members to support it whether we agree or not.”

There was a long pause as everybody waited for Curt’s answer. And we will leave them there for now: Curt and Priscilla, marking the two sides of a dilemma that confounds many boards.

A useful way to approach questions of this kind is for the board to make a covenant—a well-known procedure popular since the publication in 2001 of Gil Rendle’s Behavioral Covenants in Congregations. A board’s covenant spells out its expectations of board members. It might require such things as regular attendance and respectful dialog at the board table. It might ask board members to attend worship regularly, to contribute generously, and to be available for special duties outside board meetings.

But the toughest issue, often, is the one Priscilla raised with Curt: What should you do when your side loses?

Priscilla speaks for unity: “The board should speak with one voice. Our duty is to advocate for the decision, whether we agree with it or not.” This rule effectively requires the losing members to switch sides after the vote. The reasoning goes like this: however strongly I may feel, our shared concern is for the success of the congregation. Division threatens that success, so leaders need to pull together. If you can’t accept that, you should resign your board position, and then speak as a free, unfettered individual.

For Curt, freedom is the main point. Why should he have to resign to say what he believes? Don’t congregants who agree with him have a right to know he represented their views on the board? Is it even ethical for Curt to mislead the people who elected him? On small matters, switching sides may not be problematic, but when (as sometimes happens) the member’s opposition is grounded in morality, strong sentiment, or a conviction of superior knowledge, changing sides feels deceptive and wrong.

How can a board decide on a rule, with loyalty on one side of the issue and liberty on the other?

In talking with a lot of real-life Curts and Priscillas, I have made some observations that may help.

One is that Priscilla’s point of view is practiced frequently in business boards. It’s easy to see why. Disagreements in a business are often about strategies and methods, but rarely about purpose. The purpose of most businesses is comparatively simple: to make money for the owners. Boards argue about product strategy, the choice of CEO, or whether to acquire another company—but once a decision has been made, it is in no one’s interest to prolong the struggle. Unity of leadership is a prime value if you think of your congregation as an enterprise whose leaders want success.

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Curt’s attitude is more at home in politics. Opinions are the currency of politics. It would be shocking if a member of Congress pretended he or she had voted on the winning side. Constituents expect to know—and expect their representatives to keep on fighting when they lose a vote. If, for you, your congregation is a “little commonwealth,” you’re apt to want to keep its marketplace of opinions open and transparent.

Is a congregation more like a business or a public body? This question is best framed not as an either-or, but as a dilemma or polarity, a balance of two values both of which have relevance.

Like Priscilla, most leaders value the success of their congregations, and know that it depends on people to support it even when it makes decisions they don’t like. As leaders, we want to set a good example—contributing our strong opinions when that is appropriate, and then setting them aside.

We also admire, to some degree, Curt’s passion for what he thinks is right. We want to know, as members of the congregation, that the board at least considered contrary opinions before making a decision. If we are honest, there are some decisions that would make each of us consider leaving, sad though that would make us.

After much discussion, both Curt and Priscilla moved away from their original positions to embrace the board’s new rule, permitting members to express dissent about board actions, but only after first affirming the board’s leadership and the legitimacy of its process.

At the members’ meeting, Curt asked to be recognized. He said, “I want everyone to know that as a member of the board, I voted against this and I lost, fair and square. That is how we do things. If this passes, I’ll contribute to the classroom project. But I can’t in conscience vote to tear down that old parlor. That is how I voted on the board, and that is how I’m going to vote today as well.”

What Size is Our Congregation?

Ruler - Wooden; Why no "Inches" label? from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Biking Nikon SFO, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

It’s harder to size up a congregation than it used to be. It’s still worth trying, though, because no one fact says more about a group of human beings than its size. A group of 20 people behaves differently from a group of 200, or 400, or 800. The question is: which number tells what size a congregation is?

Once upon a time, you could say with confidence that the best measure of a church’s size was its average worship attendance. That idea was the basis of the familiar church-size categories first set forth in 1983 by Arlin Rothauge. If you knew a church was Family, Pastoral, Program, or Corporate-sized, you could say a lot about how it was likely to behave and predict many of the challenges it was apt to face.

For churches that approach life the way most white, mainline Protestant churches did in 1983, Rothauge’s categories—and the literature they spawned, including Alice Mann’s The In-Between Church and Raising the Roof—can still be used quite simply and directly. Susan Beaumont’s Inside the Large Congregation extends and updates the categories to address different patterns found in larger groups: Multi-Celled, Professional, Strategic, and Matrix. I use these categories all the time, and leaders tell me they bring clarity to what seemed incomprehensible.

But there’s a risk in thinking we know more than we do. Congregations are complex, unique, and open-ended. As Rothauge himself warns, using “fixed categories to examine a living organism” can tempt us imagine we’ve pinned down what remains a mystery. At the very least, he says, we need to ask, “In what given moment did we mean to describe that social process?” If a congregation is an organism, it will change—indeed, “a new shape and more appropriate destiny [for congregations] may be in the making!”

We may well hope so. In 1983, the career path of a mainline Protestant church was measured by its capacity to support paid staff, build buildings, and sustain a balanced program of activities, committees, and outreach efforts. We forget how recently this standard of success was set. A century ago, it was rare for a congregation to have more than 100 or so active members. The typical church building was a house of worship—sans office, classrooms, and the other trappings of the “institutional church.” For what churches expected of themselves then, that was enough—but now many churches expect more.

Such shifts in expectation make a big difference to the way size categories play out in the life of congregations. One person can speak before thousands, but to run an institution of a thousand takes a structure that divides them into hundreds, fifties, and tens. The progression from the Family to Pastoral, Program, and Corporate-sized church tells the story of those stryctural changes.

But not every congregation chooses to become an institution. Many churches keep on operating with what now seems a tiny staff—one minister, perhaps a part-time secretary, someone to play the organ or piano. In the past this was made possible by a relative abundance of free labor—mainly from the women of the congregation. But then as now, it makes a lot of difference what a church or synagogue expects of itself. A group with a simple, static purpose can manage more informally than a more ambitious group of the same size.

Today, as in the past, many congregations are in flux, and expectations once again are at the heart of it. Rates of religious affiliation have declined to levels not seen since the 1920s. Among those who affiliate, rates of attendance have declined to what may be unprecedented levels.

We see a wave of experiments with new ways of gathering for religious purposes. Denominations and large congregations—motivated partly by alarm at the deterioration of old ways, partly by enthusiasm for inventing something fresh—have started to compete for some of the new action. Established institutions that once sneered at viral movements like Vineyard and Chabad now look for ways to imitate them, fostering their own house churches, havurah groups. Using social media, once-stuffy congregations (and some that are still stuffy) convene prayer and study groups in coffee shops, workplaces, and micropubs.

When such efforts succeed, they diminish the simplifying value of the old size measures and create a need for new ones. A congregation that has more than a single entry point needs more than a single headcount.

So how do you tell what size your congregation is? The right metric depends, as it always has, on the question you are asking:

  • If you want to know how many seats you need or how many parking spaces, attendance at your largest frequent gathering is still the most important number. For most churches this will be a worship service. For a synagogues it is more apt to be an education time.
  • If you want to know whether you are staffed or housed appropriately, you need to think about your congregation’s current expectations of itself. Affluence is also an important factor, because wealthy people hire more help and live in bigger houses than poor people do.
  • If you want to “act your size” organizationally, you need to pay attention to the number who actually participate in making decisions.
  • Most congregations need to pay more attention than they do to the number of people who give significant financial support. If you are getting more and more from fewer households, that is a concern.
  • No matter what you’re counting, trends matter more than absolute amounts.

If we were once too ready to declare that we had found the key and squeezed out all the mystery from congregations, today it sometimes seems we feel only the shifting ground under our feet. Some of us react to this by clinging tighter to the things we think we know. Others revel in the chaos, expect only novelty, and quit looking for patterns altogether.

Size still matters—but there is no single number that sums up a congregation. For what it’s worth, there never was.

[box]Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. Dan’s best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.[/box]

The Post-Construction Blues

by Dan Hotchkiss
Few projects excite and galvanize a congregation more than a new building or a major renovation. People complain about construction delays, capital campaigns, and the general din and dust, but their blood pumps, their wallets loosen, and their enthusiasm rises. Lyle Schaller went so far as to generalize that congregations that build capital are happier than those that spend it. (read more)

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Where’s Alban?

by Dan Hotchkiss
The work of the Alban Institute continues—you just need to know where to look for it. Like rich man’s fortune in the Parable of the Talents, Alban legacy has been divided into three parts, each carried forward by a different group. (read more)

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Family or Institution?

by Dan Hotchkiss

A church or synagogue always is two congregations at the same time. One is the formal institution, governed under bylaws by elected officers and ministers and staff. This congregation has procedures, rules of order (whether Roberts or some new alternative), and stated decision-making methods. Each newcomer who joins has the full rights and privileges of membership. If you want to know how this congregation runs, you read its bylaws, policies, and job descriptions.

The other congregation is more like a family. Its leaders are selected for charisma and respect, and remain indefinitely in office. Decisions are made informally, according to unwritten rules. Newcomers are accepted slowly, and until they are accepted have little or no voice in the deliberations of the group, even if they hold high office. Some things are “done” and others are “not done,” and there is no introductory brochure to clue the stranger into the folkways of the tribe. read more

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The Short List

by Dan Hotchkiss

Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that are the most useful. I am continually struck by the way multiple priorities, distractions, interruptions, and alternative perspectives cloud my view each day. It is part of ministry, of course, to be “accessible”—which is to say, open to interruptions—but over months and years it is important to maintain sufficient focus to be able, at the end, to say, “This is what we did.”

The Short List is a concept I use to keep myself on track. The basic idea is that no one can keep in mind more than three or four major priorities at once.... (click to read more)

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Governance and Ministry: Why Worry?

by Dan Hotchkiss

Why should congregations worry about governance and ministry? When there’s so much important work to do, why spend precious time defining boundaries, tinkering with bylaws and policies, delegating power, assigning duties, setting goals, and holding one other to account?

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Succeeding in a Paid Position

by Dan Hotchkiss

Each year, thousands of musicians, educators, clergy, office workers, and custodians start new jobs in congregations. If all goes well, the new staff member will eventually become an energetic, well-respected, and productive member of the team. The staff member helps to make this happen, but so do the governing board, the head of staff, and other supervisors. I will share some thoughts first for the top leadership, then for the new staff member directly.

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