How Can I Supervise People Whose Jobs I Don’t Know How to Do?

Albert Einstein

Most clergy have not been trained to direct a choir, run a sound system, maintain a furnace, conduct a social media campaign, choose and operate church management software, or keep books according to the rules of GAAP accounting. This means that most of us will eventually be expected to supervise a person whose job we couldn’t do ourselves.

Many pastors first encounter this challenge when they try to supervise a music director. My own initiation came when I became the supervisor of a fundraising employee of a non-profit organization. I needed information about fundraising outcomes—I was pretty sure such reports existed, but I didn’t know exactly what to ask for or how to run the software. I could also see that the employee’s interactions with other others weren’t going well, if only by the way other staff members looked down and didn’t talk when the whole group met together.

My first response was to spend hours watching webinars and reading books about fundraising so I would feel more qualified to talk with my employee about job performance. But the months it took to learn the rudiments of fundraising convinced me that no supervisor has time to become proficient at every job for which they are responsible. There has to be an alternative.

For me, that alternative is a good job description. With a well-written job descriptions, I could have addressed the organization’s needs without having to learn each job myself.

Supervision made easier

As my colleague Susan Beaumont explains , a good job description has three elements that are especially helpful when you’re supervising someone whose work you cannot do yourself—essential functions, core competencies, and performance goals.

Essential functions are the central tasks of any job. They describe what the staff member is supposed to do. A communications manager’s essential functions, for example, might include creating daily social media posts and measuring how they are received; ensuring that all congregational communications, from posters to websites, comply with the congregation’s style guide; and editing all written content for focus, accuracy, and clarity. In the case of my fundraising employee, essential functions included reporting at least annually about basic outcomes such as donor retention rates, the number of new and lapsed donors, and average individual giving.

Core competencies are the basic character attributes and behaviors of the person doing the job. They describe how staff members should conduct themselves. A communications manager’s core competencies might include writing clearly with correct grammar and punctuation, attention to detail, using verbal and non-verbal skills to generate engagement and commitment, and prioritizing tasks under pressure. For my fundraiser, the list of core competencies would have included showing commitment to the success of the team and demonstrating empathy and understanding when dealing with colleagues.

Performance goals are specific goals for the next 6–12 months that align with the mission and priorities of the congregation. They should be measurable and intended to help staff stretch and grow in their own or a related area of work—not to help them fulfill the existing essential functions and core competencies. A communications manager’s performance goals might include creating a searchable catalog of the congregation’s photography assets or acquiring and gaining proficiency in new videography hardware and software. In the case of my employee, an appropriate performance goal might have been to increase donor retention by 10% beyond its current rate by the end of the next fiscal year.

Had I been equipped with a better job description, I wouldn’t have had to research the kinds of reports appropriate to fundraising. I could have just pointed to the expectation for such reports in the job description and expected that they be produced. If—as I believe was the case with my employee—the necessary knowledge just wasn’t there, we could have agreed on a timeframe within which the new but necessary skill would be learned. But the essential function of annual reporting still must be achieved within the year and the stretch goal of raising retention rates must still attempted and measured. In the same way, defining team spirit as a core competency would have given me the tools to supervise and evaluate the employee’s interactions with other staff.

Missed opportunities

Supervision and evaluation are never easy. I spent months struggling with my recalcitrant staff person before I finally realized that the poorest performer was me—I just couldn’t bring myself to hold my staff person accountable. When I finally realized that the organization was paying a higher price in missed opportunities than I was paying in discomfort and fear, I forced myself to improve. Having the right tools could have helped us all to be clearer about the problem and dramatically shortened the time spent solving it.

Determining which essential functions and core competencies to include in a good job description is still challenging if you don’t personally know hot to do a job.  Search engines are helpful, as is consultation with board or council members and local providers with expertise in the field.  Remember, too, that it’s always possible to change a job description as part of the annual review process if the current version isn’t leading to the necessary outcomes.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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