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!