Saturday, October 26, 2013

staffing issues at church

It seems to me that Christian ministers are bad at working together. Every second week I feel like I hear the story of an assistant leaving because his* relationship with his senior has soured to the point where it’s best that they go their separate ways. 

It can play out something like this: A church needs to employ an additional person. Someone is chosen and it looks like it will work great. It does for a while, but then the cracks start to show. The assistant feels undervalued, overworked, micro-managed, unsupported and unencouraged. Sometimes he feels that the senior is pulling the church in the wrong direction. Often he feels that he has to pick up after the senior and that he is blamed for his boss’ incompetence. Meanwhile, the senior guy feels that his assistant lacks the commitment to the congregation that he ought to have. That this job is just a stepping stone for him. The assistant’s work ethic is wanting, he can’t see the bigger picture, he is overly precious about having time off and satisfied with delivering a half baked sermon just because he was also asked to run youth group on a particular week. He can be argumentative and disrespectful. He thinks he is God’s gift to the church, able to bring revival, unity and all other good things if only the boss would get out of the way for him.

Tensions are high but things limp along. Sometimes there are angry outbursts. Sometimes, by God’s grace, the senior and assistant find a way of easing the tension and they learn to work together. Sometimes the assistance is asked to leave. Sometimes he simply announces that he’s been offered another job. Sometimes he challenges the senior for the top job.

Church staff conflicts are difficult and sad for the people involved, but they are also unsettling for the whole church, expensive and can be a poor witness to the congregation and the watching world. 

I don’t want to sound self righteous here. I’m pretty sure that if I was in either the position of senior or assistant pastor in a church I would experience these things in much the same way as everyone else I hear about. In fact, in my secular work, at various points I have felt most of the things I listed above. I think that dissatisfaction with employer or employee is kind of a feature of the work relationship, but I think there is something about the boss-assistant relationship in the church context which make the challenges more difficult to live with and more likely to end badly.


1. The boss/2IC relationship in the church isn’t as simple as it is in other workplaces. Both people acknowledge that they both serve the one master, Jesus, and that before him, they are equal. This leads many assistants to not primarily think of their boss as a boss. They expect graciousness from him. Perhaps a parent’s understanding. A pastor. They are put out if he draws lines and speaks heavy. The senior too, is often reluctant to give the direction that’s needed. He says too little at first, then in frustration says too much.  

2. The assistant, fresh from training college, has more confidence in himself and his abilities than most graduate teachers, engineers etc do. Likely he was something of a leader in the church before he started his formal training. During his years at college he has read many books and gone to many conferences on church leadership etc. These are like testosterone injections, making you feel particularly manly and competent - which is great when you are on the job, ministering to real people and only too aware of your short comings, but dangerous when you’re sitting in a room by yourself. A graduate, puffed up on Driscoll et al can do quite a bit of relational damage in his first few months on the job, imagining himself as part of the solution to the church’s problems rather than part of the problem  - as he sees the senior.

3. The mission of the church is a particularly difficult one. Proclaiming the gospel to a world that doesn’t want to hear it is hard. The senior minister is discouraged. At best, the church is growing, and he can’t keep the depth thing happening with the increase in numbers. He needs help. The thought of employing someone gives him hope that his job will get easier. But it doesn’t work like that. More staff = more responsibility = more conflict = more hard. When, 6 months into the appointment, he is as stressed as ever, he can blame the new guy for not carrying his share etc.

4. Churches generally employ a pretty small staff team. Maybe 3 or 4 people. This means that everyone has a lot to do with eachother. In a school or shop staff of 70, my interactions with the boss are limited. She watches from further away. If I dislike her, it’s not such a big deal. Others probably do too. In a church, the senior minister can’t carry on like a CEO if he is only employing a couple of people. It has to be more a partnership model. Almost a marriage. If we don’t get along, it’s going to be hard.

5. Management is a different skill to pastoring/preaching. When engineers move into management, they generally stop doing the stuff they were doing before. Same with teachers. Ministers are expected to do management on the side of everything else. It can be poorly done and other staff find this frustrating.

6. Church matters more than secular work. We are so committed to the gospel that every thing that detracts from it, every inadequacy in church, every conflict with our co-workers etc is amplified in importance. We find it hard to be satisfied with okay. We want to do the best that we can and it hurts us when we feel that others don't think we are working for the kingdom in the best way, or when we think that others aren't working as hard or smart as they could.

7. Families are involved in church staff relationships. If Andrew was a bank manager I wouldn't care about his workers' wives. I'd probably only see them once a year at the christmas party. We'd exchange pleasantries and that would be it. In church staff relationships, the pressure is on from all directions. Wives have to get along. Any tensions between the guys comes out in tension between the wives. Tension between the wives can influence the guys' work. It can all get quite complicated. 

There's more to be said of the problem but that's enough for now. I'd offer solutions but I don't really have any. (No simple ones anyway except #1 - Define the authority structure, #2 - be humble, #3 - trust God.) Do you?

* I'm writing about guys here. I think that the issues with female employees/employers are slightly different.


  1. Ooooooooooh, yes. You say it so well, Simone.

  2. And think this particular relationship is one that Satan meddles in. It's frontline. My observation of partnerships that have worked well are undergirded by lots of time spent praying together. Which is implicit in your solutions #2 and 3.

  3. Solution: only take a job when you know you click with the senior minister. It's worked for me twice. This is first base; unless this is in place, it doesn't matter how much the theological/missional/facial hair/whatever planets align, it won't work.

    Corollary: only employ someone who you click with. You can shape the rest.

  4. Interesting post. I've wondered before about the "job as a stepping stone to something better" in relation to ministry. It seems to me a bit like making your career into an idol...

  5. And what Meredith said was good. I think praying is really important.

  6. I asked a ministry friend recently how everyone on the staff team she's part of works so well together. After thinking carefully, her answer was something like this:

    "We've all made a commitment in our various roles to relate primarily around God's word, letting that shape our own personal responses and discipleship as followers of Jesus. We talk about what God's teaching us, we confess sin to each other and we work hard to forgive each other quickly from the heart."

    I think she's on to something and I haven't been able to stop thinking about her words ever since.

  7. This sounds spot-on to me, although I go to a church which has had the same rector and assistant for 20 years - perhaps that's because one of them is a woman :). Other staff have come and gone at a much greater rate. All the things you say are true. In addition, I think assistant ministers tend to often be more mature than other graduates - they have usually already at least had an embryonic career at something else. And also, the work is just really stressful and church bodies and local churches have very poor systems for supporting and caring for ministers.

  8. Sadly, I have noticed the same. I'm wondering if there's a "God's called me to do this" factor going on, too. Divine calling and vision can get mixed up with "I'll do my thing, my way."

  9. Makes me realise I'm certainly on a good wicket.

    I think people are so focussed on where they want to be, that they don't give proper attention to where they are & how they might glorify God in their current position.That hunger to be higher up the food chain is so prevalent, that I got questioned by a bishop because he couldn't understand why I'd turn down a job as the senior minister, so I could be the associate in another parish.
    Best decision I've ever made!

  10. C'mon Simone. Give me the solutions too! Seriously, a great article and I've been part of all of this in the past, from both sides. With some new staff additions happening soon (God willing) a great article to help all of us go into things with eyes wide open.