There is a revolution taking place in the way traditional congregations hire, manage and compensate their staff. Some of it is healthy and overdue; some of it is painful and shortsighted.
As traditional congregations entered the 21st century, they walked into a perfect storm of factors negatively impacting staffing.
Attractional, programmatic congregational life was waning in many settings. Missional leadership required a set of skills and a mentality that was foreign to those who had been trained and taught in another era.
The Great Recession put unprecedented strain on church operating budgets. Scapegoating among congregational leaders seeking to explain a suddenly clear pattern of plateau and decline became the norm.
The results are striking.
â— Clergy benefits are shrinking. Retirement contributions, medical insurance provisions, continuing education funds are all being watered down or jettisoned in an attempt to balance the books.
â— In many congregations, long-standing ministerial and support positions are being eliminated or downsized to part-time status with no benefits.
â— Many clergy have gone backward in terms of salary.
â— Clergy, like everyone else, have found themselves underwater on mortgages and are unable to move, or to sell their homes when they do move. Years of equity have been erased.
Some new realities are emerging.
First, congregations have come to understand that building a staff exclusively around an attractional, programmatic model is not sustainable.
We have awakened to the concept of staffing to a dynamic and compelling vision, rather than to a program.
When there is clarity about a congregation’s identity and intended destination, staffing questions take on a new focus and are more likely to result in energy and vitality.
Second, healthy congregations are discovering that a significant part of their staff’s time must be devoted to engagement with their community, rather than simply servicing the wants and desires of the congregation’s members.
Being a congregation on a mission to transform a community requires staff that ventures outside the property lines of the church daily. Healthy congregations encourage this and welcome it.
Third, clergy are awakening to the fact that their future in ministry may require them to be bivocational.
Many congregations find themselves transitioning from full-time clergy positions to part-time or contract positions hoping for reasonable performance at a more affordable cost.
Fourth, financial shortfalls will continue to create opportunities for creative and innovative staffing models.
Entrepreneurial clergy will find ways to package ministry leadership to fit the financial constraints of the congregation. These jobs will not look like the previous generation.
Fifth, collaborative leadership between clergy and laity has taken on added urgency.
There are numerous implications for congregations and for staff and clergy in this new era of congregational life. If you are a congregation facing staffing dilemmas, consider this sample:
- Be ethical and fair. I’m amazed at how congregations rationalize un-Christian behavior and actions toward their staff. Calling a minister is a covenant relationship that demands a higher standard than simply managing the bottom line. Clergy deserve better than to be treated like disposable property.
- Beware the quick fix. You may think you can solve your fiscal problems by cutting benefits, positions or continuing education funds, but in the long run, you may find yourself exacerbating the underlying issues.
- When you find yourself facing inevitable reductions, treat your staff by Christ’s Golden Rule. Communicate often and openly with them. Operate out of an ethic of respect and generosity.
- Use your imagination! God’s people can be incredibly innovative and creative when given the opportunity. Thinking outside the box is a divine endeavor that most of us have long neglected.
- If you haven’t revisited your staffing model, do so now. Too many congregations are structured for a 1970s world that no longer exists.
- If you want to improve your staff’s performance, make sure you have a clear and compelling mission/vision that everyone understands. Clarity is so rare and so needed in this regard.
- The grass really isn’t greener over there. Getting rid of yours and hiring a new minister of music or pastor or youth minister because of unreasonable expectations or outdated metrics will usually cost you more than you’ll gain.
- Get help from someone who knows the world of congregations. What works at the manufacturing plant or the school system or the local nonprofit may not align with the unique life of a congregation.
I’m reminded again and again that God’s people have always been at our best when the headwinds were strongest.
I have no doubt that we will find our way through this season of upheaval with a renewed sense of God’s leadership and provision.
Blessings to you in that struggle.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.