When a congregation is in search for a new professional staff member to fill a key and important role in the congregation, whether it is that of a custodian or that of a membership director, an important consideration is how well potential applicants understand and have personal values that are in-tune with Unitarian Universalism. Often professional staff play a role in representing the mission, values, and principles of the congregation to the wider world. Whether it is the congregational administrator who greets people at the door during the week, or the Religious Educator who is designing educational experiences for children and youth, we rely on the staff members of our congregations to express the values, mission, and vision of the congregation.
Professional staff members also need to have clear boundaries within the congregation, and to practice within clear lines of supervision and accountability. A good congregational staff member is adept at avoiding being drawn into conflicts within the congregation and helping people to practice our shared faith in healthy ways. Congregational staff members need to be accountable to senior Congregational Staff, and through them to congregational lay-leadership.
And so, congregations are faced with a conundrum. To have clear boundaries around the proper role and relationships of a staff member to the congregation, many congregations make it a practice to hire staff who are not and have not been members of the congregation. And, for staff to be effective in helping the congregation to live the congregation’s values, principles, and mission, staff members often need to be able to live and express those values, principles, and mission themselves.
Sometimes congregations have found that they cannot find someone qualified for the position who is not already connected to their Unitarian Universalist congregation. This may be because the congregation is in an isolated area, or a community whose core values vary greatly from the values and principles of Unitarian Universalism. Some congregations have also experienced having someone in the congregation who would make a wonderful candidate for the position, but as a member has what is, in essence, a series of conflicts of interest that would make transitioning to the necessary boundaries of a staff member a difficult transition to make.
And yet, at times the “right” answer to a staffing hire can be to hire a member of the congregation for the position. In making such a decision, there are a few questions and a few agreements that need to be asked and made.
Questions to ask before opening up a search process to congregational member-applicants:
1. How important is it for this position that the staff member be able to express the values, principles and practices of Unitarian Universalism to be effective in the position’s responsibilities?
Not all staff positions at a congregation require the same level of concurrence with values, principles, and practices of Unitarian Universalism. As a general rule, positions that relate more to the congregation’s program and public presence require a greater concurrence with the congregation’s values, principles and practices for the professional staff member.
2. Are there any qualified and appropriate candidates who are not currently members or friends of the congregation?
Because healthy boundaries are far easier to develop and maintain if a staff member is new to the congregation, it is appropriate that priority be given to seeking a qualified and appropriate candidate from outside of the congregation first. Accepting member-applicants should only occur after assessing potential candidates from outside the congregation.
3. How well does your congregation engage healthy and appropriate boundaries?
It is not only the member who is applying to join the staff who will have to change the boundaries of relationships, but also the rest of the congregation. Some congregations are good at managing healthy and appropriate boundaries, and others are not. Before deciding to open up a search to member-applicants, you should think about the history of the congregation in maintaining good and healthy boundaries. This will tell you whether the congregation has the capacity to allow a member to transition to serving as professional staff.
4. Does your congregation have a consolidated supervision model, as well as a formal personnel policy and healthy staff practices and relationships?
The more structured the relationship is between the congregation and its professional staff, the more likely a member is to be able to make a successful transition from member to professional staff. Such structure should include appropriate supervisory relationships amongst the staff, good personnel policies that are evenly applied, and a partnership sense of relationship among the congregation’s professional staff. For a member to transition from being a member to being professional staff, there must be enough structure among the professional staff for them to transition into.
5. Will potential member-applicants be able to remain in the congregation in a healthy way if they are not selected for the position?
One of the more difficult circumstances congregations can face is when a member applies for a congregational staff position and is not selected. These members are often then in the position of working closely, as a volunteer, with the individual selected for the position. Sometimes this is a selection between more than one member-applicant. Before a congregation makes a decision to open a search process to member-applicants, an assessment should be done of who is likely to apply, and how well they would handle not being selected for the position.
If after asking these questions it seems that opening the search process to member-applicants seems the right answer for the congregation, then the congregation should invite specific members to apply for the position. I would recommend strongly against making an “open call” for a position amongst the membership of the congregation. Unlike the general public who might apply, members of the congregation have already shown their ability, skills, and commitment within their volunteer roles in the congregation.
It is also commonly good practice to consider only one member-applicant at a time for a congregational professional staff position. In practice, this looks like inviting one member of the congregation to apply, considering that member fully for the position, and only inviting another member of the congregation to apply after deciding against hiring the first member-applicant. The goal is to avoid creating a sense of competition for the position among members of the congregation. For similar reasons, it is also good practice to conduct this application process within boundaries of confidentiality and invite member-applicants to abide by that confidentiality both during and after the application process.
Once the congregational hiring team or chief of staff has offered a professional staff position to a member-applicant and it has been accepted, then intentional agreements must be reached about how that now professional staff member’s role in the congregation will change. In some cases, this will involve the member formally resigning their membership in the congregation to fully enter into their role as a professional staff member. Whether this step is taken or not, there are some other agreements that the new professional staff member should make with their staff supervisor.
- The new professional staff member should resign from all volunteer or lay-leadership roles they may hold in the congregation that are separate from their official duties and responsibilities of their new staff position.
- The new professional staff member should agree to a period of complete separation from the congregation (usually 1 year) when they leave their professional staff position at some point in the future. This agreement should be made at the time of hire, and documented in the hiring agreement or job description.
- If the new professional staff member is remaining a member of the congregation, they should agree to refrain from voting in any congregational meeting on congregational business, as well as refrain from engaging with the congregational governing board in any way outside of their duties and responsibilities as a professional staff member.
- The new professional staff member should take personal responsibility for helping members of the congregation to accept the transition and relate to them primarily through their professional staff role. This may mean stepping back from some congregational participation and even some friendships within the congregation.
- The new professional staff member should be careful about potential situations of triangulation, where members seek to leverage previous relationships into the new professional staff relationship. They should commit to being transparent with their supervisor when such triangulation happens.
- The new professional staff member should hold the position provisionally for a period of 6 months, while it is determined if the new professional staff member and the congregation can make the transition successfully.
Making the transition from a member of a congregation into a well boundaried professional staff member for the same congregation is a difficult one. I know. I once made that transition myself. It can be difficult and even painful. And, at times, it is the right answer for a congregation to have the dedicated professional staff member that the congregation needs.