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Understanding and Managing Staffing Transitions in the Church
Membership Growth & Outreach

Angela Merkert and Ken Brown

Angela Merkert, congregational consultant, and the Rev. Ken Brown, District Executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Pacific Southwest District, presented a program designed to help conference participants understand, plan for, and manage staff transitions in the church.

They pointed out the importance of evaluating staffing decisions based on vision and mission. They said, "Don't assume that when a vacancy occurs, you need to hire for the same position."

They encourage program attendees to think about possibilities for volunteer staff positions. A person might work for eight to ten hours a week, but be filling a key role. This individual could be a visitor coordinator, allowing for ways to better ensure that important connections can be made in congregations. After six months to a year of testing this model in a mid size church, it may be almost guaranteed that such a position is incorporated into the budget for the congregation in the following year.

They said that if a congregation decides to hire a member of the congregation as a staff person, "You need to have a clear job description and need to have a lay leader who is working in a structure where the minister is their boss, meaning that they lose the minister as their pastor…so it take s a unique person to function successfully in this role. But a number of congregations are functioning successfully in this way."

Brown clarified that hiring a member of the congregation as staff is never his first preference, but there are some situations where—if needs are clarified and reporting relationships are clear—it can work. The Oakland, CA, Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation, for instance, has a member employee covenant, outlining both what you gain and what you lose if you chose to be employed as a member of the church (Kathy Huff). Merkert and Brown suggested that if members serve as staff, they report to the minister or the DRE.

Mid size congregations need multiple staffs in order to operate effectively, they said. Congregations need to have a clear vision for what they wish to achieve, and they need to be willing to take the risk to put money out to hire staff. They pointed out that UUs are the most conservative people when it comes to finances. Evangelicals will take these risks, because they have a clear vision of where they want to go. UUs tend to insist on seeing the hard figures for five years out before we are willing to even engage in the conversation about staffing. Merkert said, "My experience shows me that where the risk is taken, the money comes."

Staffing for ministry areas is important…and if you staff in those areas, people in the congregation will experience the growth and accomplishment that comes from support for things they care about. In a congregation where there had been an interim MRE, for example, the congregation decided that they wanted a portion of their ministry team to focus on ministry in the community. Such a focus comes out of intentional conversations and knowing what areas of ministry a congregation wants to address in the community as it goes forward.

Personnel issues and how we function around personnel issues is one of the stickier issues in our congregations. Brown said, "We have to gain clarity about where responsibility lies. Some congregations put a line item in the budget for an additional staff person and they say that it's not clear what the person might do, but they ask for support. And if the plan is put out, the congregation is continually reminded of the end goals without all the specifics being worked out."

Staffing needs to be approached as a team effort. "You are better off hiring people who can work as a team than those who have deep skills in one area but who can't work in a team model." It is important to examine other positions in the congregation that you want (they referenced a handout on staffing models)…because "we tend to think that we don't need people in the role of worship leader. But your staffing needs to support the people you are serving during the weekend worship service and other programs, not the membership number of the church."

Brown reflected on Willow Creek church's  (a mega-church in Illinois ) leadership development program, and how important it is in nurturing new leadership. He also noted that theological schools are training people to be pastors, not administrators. "But we need to see working with people," he said, "working with the board is spiritual work and we need to embrace it. We need to pull people into the community and empower them to be part of the ministry team."

Importance of being a team and of collaboration: Shared leadership in working in a partnership is critically important. Covenant work with staff teams is also very important. Understanding staff relationships and accountability, and knowing the gifts each person brings to a team, can help to shape the ministry of the congregation. How to develop the collaborative working relationships is the focus, not a model where everyone works in their silos and makes things happen on Sundays. We have to hold the vision of the community; not everyone does all parts, and there may be an ‘upstairs and downstairs,' but we need to all hold the same vision of why we are doing this and how we will make it happen.

Merkert noted barriers to getting this done as a team:

  • absence of trust
  • fear of conflict
  • lack of commitment
  • avoiding accountability
  • lack of attention to results

Book Recommendation: Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2002).

Merkert and Brown emphasized the importance of establishing priorities: important to remember that you are putting out a plan and taking a step rather than no step at all; that way, it's less likely that things will devolve into a turf battle. The congregation's moves have to advance the congregation forward toward its goal.

Fair compensation is key to the congregation's ultimate success, and such a principle has to be part of the congregation three to five year plan. This is also a justice issue, and where better do we challenge ourselves about living out our values than where we compensate our staff? Me rkert talked about the " Madison model" for adding a new minister: The congregation advertised for an assistant minister with a three year contract, knowing that the congregation might ask the minister if s/he was interested in staying, and the congregation would be asked if they were interested in calling the minister. That has worked well, and there is now a strong ministry team of three ministers in that church. There was a bit lower compensation in the first year, it went up in the second year, and the third year, the year of call, moved the salaries into the fair compensation area. Although the process involved asking someone to work, in the beginning, at a little lower compensation, it was a means to a very positive end that got this new ministry model established in the church.

The presenters fielded a question on church personnel committees. They said, "Personnel committees do not hire, fire, or supervise. They develop policies, help to make sure that fair practices are being used in the congregation and that people's appraisals are being done, salaries are being adjusted and benefits accrued, but they are not used for supervising." Brown suggests that a personnel task force might be used to write policies or consult on different matters, but that day-to-day matters should be handled among members of the staff. Having a complete set of policies and job descriptions is essential, however.

Reported by Deborah Weiner.

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