There is a consistent theme in the conversations I have with clergy and laity alike about what frustrates or challenges them most. Without a doubt, it is staff.
Every pastor’s gathering in which we ask for issues that need attention inevitably leads to a conversation about some aspect of staff. Nearly every layperson who calls ends up needing help with a staff situation.

This epidemic of conflict and frustration holds true regardless of denominational affiliation, theological orientation, worship style, size, location and so on.

I recently conversed with a leadership team from a very large church (staff in the dozens) and their primary concern was staff communication/conflict.

Later that week, the pastor of a small church pulled me aside at a meeting to voice concern about an issue with his only other staff member, who was part-time and his wife!

Dozens of books, workshops, coaching, degree programs and the like are devoted to this specific arena of congregational life. Why, then, is it the part of congregational life that seems to be chronically ill?

As with any complex issue, there are no simple answers.

Flawed human beings attempting to do divine work in an increasingly secular culture with limited resources is a start.

Congregational models that seem imported from another era without adapting to a changing landscape don’t help.

Leadership styles copied from corporate culture rather than built upon spiritual values don’t help.

Too often our staff cultures mirror the disharmony and dysfunction of our culture rather than transform it with a vibrant alternative.

So, where do we start with a healthy alternative for congregational staff?

At the Center for Congregational Health, we base our conversations in this realm on our conviction that healthy congregations/staffs/Christians engage in at least four consistent practices. We call them the Four Cs:

  1. They constantly clarify identity and mission.
  2. They manage conflict in a proactive and redemptive fashion.
  3. They communicate clearly, regularly and honestly.
  4. They build authentic community intentionally.

When staffers practice these four habits, they produce higher levels of satisfaction, effectiveness and genuine leadership. When they fail to pay attention to any of the four, dysfunction results.

By the way, the first of the four is the most indispensable. It is the most internal and difficult to observe and quantify. It is the easiest to skip. It is the one we are tempted to assume is self-evident. It is also the one most frequently missing.

Without it, you invite confusion and frustration into your life, your staff and the life of your congregation.

Clarity of mission and vision for a staff member starts with a sense of personal and individual divine call. Your primary motive for ministry matters.

If working at a church is simply a job, a way to make money, a way to work out your unmet needs, a way to impress your grandmother, or anything other than your response to God’s personal and profound call upon your life, then you will find ministry to be a source of constant frustration.

Even then, the life of a divinely called minister is by its very definition a challenging journey to bring hope and life into the hard and difficult places of life.

Along with bringing deep joy and satisfaction, it will cause you to doubt your sanity, your calling and your faith. Without clarity around his or her personal call, any minister is a candidate for a host of missteps.

The same is true for a staff team.

Being clear about why you are on the journey, where your congregation is headed, and what the objective of your congregation actually is will prove indispensable.

When the mission and vision are fuzzy or unfocused, staff discord is imminent. When the mission and vision are lacking, others will supply it, and it will usually be self-serving rather than kingdom-serving.

When mission and vision are incongruent with a church’s DNA or the biblical witness, then conflict will erupt.

Before staffers need to worry about programs or strategies or creative ideas for being relevant, they need to get clear about the deeper question of clarity of purpose.

Healthy staffs spend concentrated and regular time clarifying not only the broad mission of the Church, but the specific call of the church in staffers’ time and place of service.

While it is easy to trot out the Great Commandments and Great Commission, what we are talking about is a deeper understanding and articulation of what those mean in your ZIP code.

Healthy staffs quickly learn that such conversations must include the congregation if they are to be sustainable and truly shared.

Once substantial clarity is reached in the larger community, then staffers assume their roles and goals based upon this shared vision of the future.

Let’s start with this antidote for the epidemic of staff conflict: clarify your mission and vision.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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