Unintended consequences of employing church staff

Minister

Most churches in first world countries employ staff these days. Small churches may have just a Minister or Pastor, but larger churches commonly have several pastors, an office secretary and a youth minister, and perhaps other staff as well.

It is an obvious step and perhaps the only way to get things done, especially when western christians are asset rich and time poor. But I think it has some drawbacks and unintended consequences that should be considered – many of them I have observed happening.

It can be bad for the staff

Work pressure

Because they are paid, Ministers are often expected to be able to do everything, and to do far too much. This leads to strain on themselves and their health as well as their spouses and families.

Over-use of authority

Jesus said those who aspire to big things in the kingdom of God should learn to serve, and he demonstrated how a servant life could be lived. Leadership in the New Testament church was generally shared – there were many apostles and Paul appointed elders (plural) in the churches he established.

Shared leadership emphasises consensus, cooperation and serving, but solo “presidential” leadership, as is the case in many churches, can lead to abuse of authority and sometimes even sexual abuses. Ministers can believe they are the ones hearing from God, and so ignore other opinions and offer coercive advice that can adversely impact people’s lives. I’ve seen it happen.

Clergy can see it as a job

Most clergy go into the ministry to serve Jesus and his people, but it is possible that it can become just a job. Then the paid minister may sometimes just work to his contract, doing the hours required and taking home his pay.

Because of the pressures on clergy, denominations can strongly emphasise the need for the Pastor to disengage on his time off, and avoid getting caught up in issues at the expense of family and self. This is good advice, but can result in staff refusing to work on their day off, despite the fact that this is the only option most ordinary members have to do volunteer ministry. It can make them seem uncommitted (I’ve seen it happen).

Pressure to succeed

The more a leader takes authority and makes solo decisions, the more their own reputation and self esteem are on the line. This can accentuate the pressures a senior pastor or youth minister may feel to succeed in building up numbers and budget and be popular.

These pressures will generally lead to decisions based on self esteem and success rather than doing the mission of Jesus.

Getting out of touch

The clergy can get out of touch with the community around them because they work in a christian context, and when they are involved in the community people can treat them differently.

If this happens, it is important that there are “ordinary people” on the ministry team to bring that wider perspective and avoid decisions that can be unrealistic.

As an example, recently the ministers in our church decided to hold several evangelistic services, invite outside preachers who would present the evangelical gospel, and encourage everyone in the congregation to invite a friend so the congregation would “double in a day”. Very few took this up, the congregations on those days were no larger than normal (perhaps even a little less). One of the ministers I spoke to was extremely upset by the lack of response, but it could have been avoided if honest laypeople were involved in the original decision.

It can be bad for the congregation

Ordinary members become passive consumers

If churches appoint a number of paid staff and services are run almost totally by those staff, especially if the services are built around monologue sermons, lay members become passive, demotivated and less involved.

In this state, they may behave more like consumers who have paid their dues and now expect “good service”, and complain about what they don’t like.

Laity don’t use their gifts

The New Testament makes it clear that the role of christian leaders is to equip the congregation to do ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). If paid staff do this, they will mobilise a large, gifted body of “lay” ministers.

But if they perform most of the tasks themselves, and don’t equip and encourage the members to use their gifts in ministry, and don’t value that ministry, then they will have wasted a God-given valuable resource, including gifts which the pastoral team may not have themseleves.

As an example, I have been in my present church (which has about 7-8 equivalent full time staff) for 13 years, and never once has any of them asked me what my gifts and experience are and how they could be used in the church’s mission. I don’t imagine I am the only one!

Volunteers can wonder why they should work if they don’t get paid

Some christians report that volunteers serving in the church can become disillusioned that staff get paid when they don’t. I haven’t observed that myself, but I can see it may happen in very “corporate” churches.

It can be bad for the church

It can make the church more like a corporation than a missional community

The more a church “goes professional”, the more efficient and streamlined its programs may be. But generally this will make it less like a community, and lay people may feel like they are unimportant.

It isn’t inevitable that this will happen as more paid staff are appointed, but it is certainly a danger – again, I have seen it.

It can gobble up resources

The more a church “goes professional”, the more it requires a high level of financial giving. Studies show personnel, buildings and administration consume more than 80% of church budgets in the US, money which could go to mission work if staff, buildings and organisation were more streamlined and focused.

It can create a clergy-laity divide

Protestant christians claim to believe in “the priesthood of all believers”, but all the above pressures can easily create a divide where clergy are seen as more spiritual and more important than “ordinary” christians.

If this occurs, we are contradicting our theology by our actions. In addition, it can so elevate the status of paid staff in younger christians’ minds that they think that is really the only option if they want to be serious about their faith.

Laity leave it all to Ministers

There is a double problem in all this. The Ministers take to much to themselves and the congregation can expect this is the way it should be. And each will tend to see it as a situation caused by the other.

Paid staff can be a blessing

It doesn’t have to be this way. While “simple churches” are growing in number and attractiveness to christians, most churches are still larger and with significant property assets, which probably requires full time staff to organise and manage.

But churches should recognise the potential problems and beware of unintended consequences!

Photo Credit: Rachel Ford James via Compfight cc

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3 thoughts on “Unintended consequences of employing church staff

  1. carmen says:

    Hi UnkleE –

    Good topic, and one people struggle with – the idea that church is a business, just like others. It has bills to pay and, as such, must be supported financially. Then one gets into this whole idea of what makes one job a ‘paid’ job and others unpaid (such as the janitor {paid}, versus the Treasurer {unpaid})– tough decisions and lots of room for disagreement. It’s one of the things that many people here where I live (rural area of Canada) are finding to be a great dichotomy. It seems that, the higher costs go, the less people go to church; hence, the financial resources that are brought in, go to maintaining the building and paying for staff. Very little ‘outreach’ can be accomplished – which is what many people think of as ‘church’.

    I have seen, first-hand, the pressure these financial constraints put on dedicated members of churches as they struggle to keep the doors open in their churches, in light of the fact of declining enrolment and no younger people to fill their spaces in the pews. Here where I live, it has resulted in many churches (all denominations) being closed for good – a sign of the times, I think. So much so, that when I see a mega-church going up I think, “Hubris?”

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  2. unkleE says:

    Hi Carmen, it is interesting to hear your perspective, based I guess on a smaller church. I think the problems would be different in different sizes of churches. Where you live, are there declining numbers of young people in the area generally or is this just the churches? (In Australia, some rural communities face the problem, not just the churches.)

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  3. carmen says:

    I see your point here, UnkleE – yes, there are less and less young people (many must leave to find jobs) but, with the rising number of ‘Nones’ (particularly in the under-30 crowd), churches are finding it more difficult to keep their doors open. The closest church to us, for instance, has gone to only having Sunday School once a month. .. few young children and it’s harder to find willing teachers. Also, something else I have discovered – the younger people are not so inclined to volunteer their time/talents. (This is not just a problem for churches – it’s any organization)

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