Church staff member: The pastor’s biggest headache and best friend

And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark. (Acts 12:25)

The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them…. and they also had John as their helper.”  (Acts 13:2,5)

Now Paul and his companions put out to se from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, and John left them and returned to Jerusalem.  (Acts 13:13)

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return…’  And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also.  But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.  And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another.  And Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.  But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord….” (Acts 15:36ff.).

Staff members! Can’t live with them and can’t live without them!

The biggest headaches most pastors will know in a lifetime of ministry will involve staff members.  Some will be his best friends, strongest advisors and most loyal supporters.  Others will write the script for his nightmares, will be Absalom to his David (i.e., rebelling and leading an insurrection), and will turn hairs in his head either to gray or loose.

Perhaps the three greatest problems a pastor will face in his entire ministry will be choosing members of his ministerial ministry team, motivating and guiding them, and (occasionally) having to terminate them.

Employing a staff member

I make no boast about having a spotless record in choosing staffers.  Several have been the finest companions and fellow servants imaginable.  One or two have been the stuff of nightmares.  And in between are all the rest.

A pastor who prayerfully chooses a new member of his ministry team cannot be too careful.  He will need a small team of his best people to assist, interview, raise issues, do background work, and advise him.  Almost without exception, I would say that the pastor who tries to do this completely on his own with no one helping him is going to regret his choice.  Don’t do this alone, pastor! If you do not have a standing personnel committee, enlist one to assist on this project.

In choosing a new staff member, you are hemmed in by several realities over which you have little control:  the pay your church can offer, the city where you live and the neighborhood around the church, the schools, safety of the environment, and particularly, the makeup of the congregation.  It is what it is.

I have two big suggestions when it comes to employing a new ministry-team member.  This is in addition to the usual list which includes much prayer, running references and then running some more, visiting the church where that minister now works and seeing first-hand what he/she is doing, and waiting on the Lord.  But in addition to these…

First. Enlist a most trusted senior member of your church (whether laity or clergy) to take the prospect to lunch and interview them, then report back to you.  This should be that rare person who functions on a different level from you, who sees the unseen, who picks up on subtle clues, who hears in his/her heart the prompting of the Spirit.  In enlisting the veteran to do this–not just once but as often as needed–you will want to talk to them in person, not over the phone, and assure them that you will be making the employment decision as you think best, but you need their wise counsel and input.  (The point being that, even if they advise you not to call that one, the decision is still yours and they should not feel hurt if you go against their advice.  A truly mature and wise friend will be able to handle this.  If you fear they aren’t and cannot, do not ask for their assistance in the first place.)

Second. Pay attention to your own spirit.  The Holy Spirit is going to be prompting you either positively or negatively.  If you decide the individual is gifted for this work, but you simply do not like him/her, move on.  Never employ someone whom you don’t like.  Period.  After all, you two are going to be working together for, hopefully, many years.

There must be better ways of phrasing it than “someone you don’t like”–I’m talking to myself now!–but that says it about as well as it’s necessary. Maybe it should be Someone you’re not excited about.  I can think of a couple of ministers whom we brought on staff, not because I felt they were the ones the Lord was sending, but I felt pressured from the lay leadership to “get this done.”  They were tired of waiting, and had I said ‘no’ to this latest prospect, they would have thrown up their hands in exasperation.  So, I did the worst thing imaginable and brought on-board someone who was not right for our team or that church.  That proved to be the case, too.

Motivating a member of your ministry team

The pastor is the leader.  The sooner he realizes this, the better.  Woe to the new pastor who finds some staffers in place when he arrives, possessing a fierce attitude that “this is my ministry, I’ve been here longer than you, and you cannot tell me what to do.”

The pastor is the leader.  The sooner the church gets this, the better.  So, a prospective pastor needs to have that understanding with both the search committee, then the larger leadership body, and finally with the church staff before he accepts the position.  That is not to say he should do truly stupid things like demand a written resignation from each staffer for his files (to be activated at his pleasure) or should enter terminating some staffers and reassigning others.  Do that and there will be (you know) to pay.

Here are three quick suggestions on motivating and guiding the work of your ministry team, pastor.

–Pray. Pray for each staffer and his/her family every day.  Do not keep reminding them that you are praying for them, as though you are trying to earn their love.  Keep it between yourself and your Lord. Just do it.

–Plan. Have regular, weekly staff meetings which you lead.  Start with a devotional, led by someone other than you. (In my last church, we had devotionals every morning at 9, led by a different secretary each day, using the Daily Guidepost devotional book.)  Five minutes is sufficient, followed by prayer requests, and then an unhurried prayer time.  This part of your meeting may take 30 minutes, but rarely more than that.  Then…

Go over the calendar for the next few weeks.  Make sure everyone is on board about assignments, expectations, and responsibilities. Stress to everyone that you do not like surprises.  They are never to schedule something–anything!–without first bringing it up in this meeting.  This will keep down conflicts.  (You are the only one allowed to violate this policy, but assure them you will do so as rarely as possible.)

The rest of the meeting deals with two things:  analyzing something we have been doing (last Sunday’s service?  the VBS last week? the conflicting schedule on Wednesday nights?) and planning some upcoming event.

–Followup. When you delegate a responsibility to a staff member (“Charlie, I need you to do this for me”), you absolutely must do two things:  follow up (“How’s that project coming along, Charlie?  Is there anything I can do to help you?”  or “Can we meet tomorrow morning to discuss that project I asked you to lead?” This gives them time to get to work!) and gratitude (afterwards thanking Charlie in person, with a handwritten note, and in public, as is appropriate).

Terminating a staff member who is not working out

This is the downside of your ministry, pastor.  It’s why they pay you the big bucks.  Few pastors can do this well.  Pray you don’t do it often enough to develop skills for it.

There’s no good way to do this.  None.  My wife once put it in perspective for me.  After we had cut Eddie loose, he was complaining and I was not happy about that.  “We gave him a full year to get his act together.  He brought this on himself.”  Margaret said, “Joe, get real. You want to fire a man and have him like it.”  She was right.

Read some of John Maxwell’s stuff (he’s the leadership guru, as you know) on terminating staffers.  The bottom line involves…

–working with the staffer to find ways to make him/her effective.

–giving this ample time, and not springing it on the person.

–involving the official committee which has this as their assignment, whether administrative or personnel or something else.  When and if the time comes to cut the staffer loose, no pastor should be left out there twisting in the wind as the culprit.  Every staffer has friends and supporters.  It is critical that they know their minister-friend has been given every opportunity but things have not worked out.

–giving as much severance as possible.  Ideally, it’s best if the individual will resign and make it appear the choice was his/hers.  To help the transition and to safeguard the church, the continuing severance will almost always be conditional upon the terminated staffer not maligning the church or the pastor.  This is the right thing to do, even though some are going to put this in the worst light possible.  (“They’re buying his silence!”)

From time to time, pastor, do this….

–Have an occasion for the staff members and their families to get together for an evening of relaxation and laughter.  A good meal, with no expectations other than sweet fellowship.  You’re trying to build the ties between these men/women whose ministries mean so much to the Lord’s people.

–Have periodic (and brief) visits with each staffer.  Start by asking, “What can I do to help you?”  This will not be a come-to-the-principal’s office meeting, but pure affirmation.  If this staffer works under the supervision of another staff member–the youth guy might report to the minister of education, for instance–make sure the senior staffers are aware of what you are doing and are good with it.

–Look for ways to bless each staffer.  Drop unexpected notes from time to time saying things like, “Great job in that service Sunday night.  You are such a blessing to this church.”  But don’t overdo it. Note-inflation, like all inflation, diminishes the value of each one.

God bless you, pastor.  Be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill your ministry.  That’s 2 Timothy 4:5 and it’s still a good word for each of us.








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