How to Keep Your Minister A Guide for the Thoughtful Layperson

By Sharon Wylie

This week we feature a blog from the blog, Ministry in Steel Toe Shoes written by Rev. Sharon Wylie.

Church 102 in white letters on a red background

As the church year came to a close this past June, Facebook groups of UU ministers filled with stories of congregations treating their ministers poorly. What ministers define as poor treatment can take many different forms, but the result is usually the same: the minister determines it’s time to move on and announces their departure OR begins to plan for moving on next year.

All this is business as usual in many ways, but the current moment feels a little different. The stresses of the pandemic are surely impacting all of us. Congregations and their ministers are collectively tired and traumatized. The early emergence stage of the pandemic, followed by the ongoing threat of variants, has prompted rowdy and aggressive behavior in many areas of society (airplanes, ballparks). It is not surprising that some of this behavior has made its way into our congregational life. (Read an article from May 2021 describing an exodus of ministers leaving Christian congregations)

This concerns me as a Unitarian Universalist because I think our congregations benefit from long-term ministries. And I don’t mean “long-term” as 15 or 20 years; these days, a long-term ministry seems to be 6 years or more. (I’d love to know some concrete data about this from the UUA—what’s the average length of settled ministry these days?)

If there is a wave of high ministerial turnover in 2021 and 2022, so be it. But I fear that congregations are too often surprised when a minister decides to leave, and that many laypeople have no idea how to support their minister to help ensure they are inclined to stay put rather than move on.

Who am I? I’m a minister entering my 10th year of settled ministry with the same congregation. I write from a place of privilege, being a minister not in conflict with my congregation, not experiencing abusive behavior. When ministers are experiencing the kind of behavior that prompts them to leave, they can’t really write about it or address it publicly. So I felt that this is something that it takes someone in my position to write about.

So here it is: what a Thoughtful Layperson can do to help your minister stay.

What Can the Thoughtful Layperson Do?

Pay Your Minister Fairly, and Preferably Generously

Look, I get it. Our congregations are not rolling in money. The place where many congregations save money is by underpaying their minister, never offering a raise. The passive aggressive way that unhealthy congregations get rid of their ministers is to cut the minister’s hours to save money in the annual budget. Bye, bye, minister!

Ministers are usually deeply involved with the budget creation process and are in the difficult position of needing to propose their own raise and benefits. It is difficult for ministers to advocate for themselves through this process, especially if there are other staff who deserve raises too. When difficult budget decisions are being made, it is hard for the minister to propose cuts in order to give themselves a raise.

But this is what prompts ministers to move on, because the best way to achieve a raise is to move to a new congregation. Congregations are usually trying to do their best when they are seeking a new minister, and the raise that was never available before is suddenly available when it’s time to attract a new minister.

Save yourself the trouble and expense of the search process and pay your minister what you would offer someone else with their skills and experience. The UUA provides salary ranges based on geographic location and congregational size; they also provide information on what benefits are considered fair.

If you like your minister and want them to stay, approach your Board president and advocate for a raise for the minister. Make sure that their benefits include professional expenses, healthcare insurance, and congregation contributions to a retirement plan. Be sure that sabbaticals and vacations are written in all your agreements and the congregation knows and honors these commitments.

It’s not a matter of how much money the minister needs. It’s a matter of showing your minister that the congregation values and appreciates them.

Stand Up to the Haters

Every minister has their detractors. That’s okay; that’s part of ministry. But you, the Thoughtful Layperson, need to be concerned when you hear congregants speaking openly in ways that undermine the minister’s authority and role in the congregation. This is how Church Drama begins.

It only takes a group as small as 15 people or so in a congregation to come together, to generate ill-will toward the minister, and to create conflict that results in the minister feeling forced to leave (in our UU faith, this is called a “negotiated resignation”). Many congregants have been surprised to come to a congregational meeting, to feel like things are happening fast and that it’s not quite clear WHAT’S happening, and next thing you know the congregation has voted to remove the minister. OR, even if the congregation votes to keep the minister, the minister resigns anyway, because who wants to serve a church where they just had a vote to remove you, even if the vote didn’t pass?

If a small group of disrupters can create that much trouble, then surely a small (or large!) group of the minister’s supporters can counteract that trouble. None of us expect to find conflict in our religious communities; that’s not why we come to church, and that’s why we’re often caught off guard when conflict and drama appear. It’s natural to want to withdraw from community when that happens. But that’s actually when it’s time to step up, to be vocal in support of a healthy congregational life.

What does healthy congregational life look like? Here are some tips:

  • Take responsibility for protecting the congregation’s health—don’t make the minister the only one who calls people back into healthy behavior and healthy communication
  • Have a disruptive behavior policy and follow it. (Here is UUA information on disruptive behavior.)
  • Speak directly to your minister if you have concerns; don’t foment unrest behind closed doors in small groups.
  • Don’t allow anonymous surveys or secret surveys.
  • Don’t pass along anonymous feedback—it is impossible to act upon.

Take Congregational Leadership Seriously

It can feel hard at times to find congregants willing to serve on the Board and to fill committee chair positions. When this happens, there’s a tendency to treat these positions as something to cajole people into doing, claiming that not much is required and that these leadership positions are easy to hold.

In fact, church leadership positions ARE easy to hold—for non-anxious, emotionally mature church members. For these folks, leading the congregation is a privilege and, often, a time of spiritual deepening. The friendships forged among a congregational leadership team are often life-changing.

Conversely, having emotionally immature people in congregational leadership can undermine the health of the congregation and make things difficult for the minister in ways that are usually invisible to the rest of the congregation.

Volunteer! If you are reading this blogpost, you are likely just the kind of congregant needed in leadership positions. If you are already serving (and even if you’re not), encourage your non-anxious, emotionally mature church friends to volunteer.

We imagine that leadership takes a mysterious blend of dynamic charisma and specialized knowledge. But leadership is not that arcane. This 7-minute video describes the most important quality of a leader. I show this video to church staff and leaders every year.

Show Your Appreciation

Every time you let your minister know that something they said or did was helpful or meaningful to you, you help shore them up for this difficult, draining work. There is no working minister who could not give you a list of things they think they are not doing well enough, or should do more of. Ministry is work that is never done, and ministers are incredibly hard on ourselves.

An email, a notecard, remembering a birthday or ordination anniversary…small gestures make a big impact.

What Else Can You Do?

So much more could be written. I have touched on the issues I think are the most significant, that I hear about most often when a minister has decided to leave. When I asked a group of UU parish ministers on Facebook what things were important to them (besides what I’ve written about above), they added these items to the list of behaviors that are supportive:

  • Let your minister know directly when you would like pastoral care
  • Respect that the minister cannot come to every birthday party or play or concert
  • Please don’t remark on the minister’s body, clothing, makeup, hair, size, shape, health, family decisions…please just leave their personal life to them.
  • Recognize that ideas are a dime a dozen, but helping hands to make them come true are exceedingly rare. Don’t expect your minister (or staff) to be able to make every good idea happen alone
  • Don’t eliminate other staff positions and expect your minister to cover the extra work

The Thoughtful Layperson Can Make a Difference

No matter the size of your congregation, you can make a difference. Congregations are communities, circles of friendship and connection. Share this writing with your church friends. Talk together about how you can support your minister and help your minister feel valued, appreciated, and happy to continue serving a healthy congregation.