Think Twice Before Hiring Members for Certain Posts

Should members of a congregation be hired for staff positions? Members bring enthusiasm and insights to a job that an outsider might not have. But if the relationship goes sour, the situation can be difficult. InterConnections put this question to the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) district staff, who have seen the best and worst of these situations.

There are advantages and risks either way, says Rev. Stefan Jonasson, coordinator of services for large congregations. For professional or program positions, do hire active Unitarian Universalists (UUs), says Jonasson, but for support staff positions don't hire members. "It is my experience that UUs are hard on their staff, especially support staff, and that retaining members often leads to heartache and disappointment."

Rev. William Zelazny, Ballou-Channing district executive, also recommends hiring nonmembers for administrator, secretary, bookkeeper, and custodian. "I strongly recommend that a church keep the roles separate, and in the long-term there will be less potential for employee-employer problems, hurt feelings, false expectations, power plays, and resentments. With a nonmember there are clearer lines of authority and boundaries."

Roger Comstock, acting district executive in the Northeast District, says, "It is okay to hire church members as well as non-church members. Any staff person (member or not) who has been on board a while will develop a constituency, which can be hard to deal with if it becomes necessary to let that person go. The only difference I've seen is that the member stays a member after being fired, and that can be difficult. The problem is not in who you hire, it's in how you conduct the dismissal if such is needed."

If you're hiring a member be sure they understand that they're changing roles, says Dori Davenport, religious education director for the Central Midwest District. It is most important that the change in roles from member to employee be discussed prior to employment, an agreement reached on how to resolve conflicts, and a confidentiality covenant made.

Davenport adds that problems can develop when members become religious educators, if care is not taken. "I often find there is resistance on the part of the new Director of Religious Education (DRE) to the idea she will lose her congregation and minister. It seems to take about a year for the calls to start. When a church is about to hire a member for this position, I talk with the minister about being very intentional with the new DRE around boundary issues and changing relationships. I talk with the DRE about needing to shift his or her role."

Nancy Heege, Prairie Star district executive, says members who are hired "need to know that in a very real way, they are giving up some of the rights they've had as members, and others will see them differently. We do people a disservice if we hire them without telling them the consequences."

A related issue is whether members who are employees should be permitted to vote on congregational boards and committees. Most respondents said no. "Employment and church politics blend about as well as oil and water," says Jonasson. Davenport adds, "If an employee is a voting member he/she must abstain if the vote has anything to do with their area of responsibility, and they must not use insider information to affect the outcome." All church business affects all members, says Zelazny, and is a potential conflict of interest.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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