How Many People Can a Pastor Supervise?

Only the largest congregations have the resources to hire full-time supervisors. The average congregation employs a “head of staff” who also preaches, teaches, provides pastoral care, leads mission and ministry, and guides the work of the board. Given this breadth of responsibility, how many employees can a pastor effectively supervise? What happens when a supervisor has too many direct reports?

Supervision is performance management. The effective supervisor manages a simple, but challenging communication loop between the employee and the organization. She sets clear expectations for each employee and provides ongoing feedback about whether those expectations have been satisfied.

Let’s examine the components of effective performance management and determine the time it takes to supervise well. Only then can we speculate about the number of employees that a pastor can manage.

Setting Expectations: The primary tool used to set employee expectations is the job description. The job description outlines the core duties and tasks associated with the role. These are called the essential functions. The job description also outlines the skills, abilities and attributes that we expect an employee to demonstrate as they engage their duties. These are referred to as the core competencies.

In addition to defining essential functions and core competencies, a supervisor helps to create two or three performance goals for each employee. The goals shape the employee’s focus in the current performance cycle. The performance goals link the employee’s efforts with the immediate priorities of the congregation. For example, congregation A is focused this year on getting 50% of its active members engaged in small groups. Every member of the staff team has a performance goal aligning their energy with this congregational goal.

Setting expectations requires time beyond creating a job description and performance goals. The congregation operates in a dynamic environment. Employees need regular check-ins around shifting expectations. Should this still be my priority? Given limited time, should I focus primarily on this or that?

The ongoing clarification of expectations happens best in one-on-one meetings with our employees. We bring emerging priorities to their attention. They check assumptions about priorities with us and they bring concerns about things that stand in the way of their performance. We help shape their decision making so they can satisfy our shared objectives.

Providing Feedback: Accountability in employment relationships happens through conversation. We hold employees accountable by reminding them of expectations and discussing how their performance measures up. Did the employee meet, exceed, or fail to satisfy our expectations this past week, month and year? We affirm their good work or we ask them to step up their performance and close the gap.

Fairness and justice require that we provide feedback frequently, not storing up resentments and disappointments for the annual performance review. We give employees opportunities to correct their performance and satisfy our expectations on an ongoing basis.

Evaluating the Whole: Effective supervision also requires a periodic evaluation of the whole person in the whole role. Typically, a full performance evaluation takes place once a year.

Throughout the year we focus on individual components of the job as they arise. Annually, we pause to consider how the role is evolving, how the employee is shaping the role, whether the employee has been neglecting aspects of the job, whether a salary adjustment is appropriate because the role has significantly expanded.

The supervisor must take primary responsibility for leading the annual employment appraisal. Others, including the employee, may provide input. A personnel committee or human resource function may assist with the synthesis of feedback, but the supervisor must shape and deliver the message.

The Role of the Staff Meeting

Regular staff meetings are an important component of performance management. Staff meetings serve several important supervisory functions.

Staff meetings help with mission alignment. The clergy leader can regularly ground the team in the larger vision and mission of the congregation and emphasize the core values of the congregation.

Staff meetings help to develop community and resolve conflicts. They provide a venue for sharing information, so that team members share a common base of knowledge about what is happening in the life of the congregation.

During staff meetings, we work on the oversight of joint work. The supervisor helps the team negotiate shared boundaries of work, identify overlapping responsibilities, and coordinate efforts that involve multiple team members.

Staff meetings are also effective for developing the culture of the team. We establish acceptable group norms and challenge unhelpful group behaviors. We proactively shape attitudes.

The staff meeting is NOT an appropriate venue for individual performance management. We should not use team meetings to set individual expectations, establish individual priorities or offer corrective feedback. These things are best accomplished in individual conversations.

Intentional One-on-Ones

Ineffective supervisors rely only on group meetings and an “open door” policy for supervisory work. They trust employees to ask for help when needed. This shifts the burden for expectation setting and feedback to the employee.

Unless we are intentional about one-on-one supervisory sessions, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Our best supervisory energy goes into our most problematic employees. Effective employees rarely interrupt our work to seek guidance. They get the least amount of our attention when, in fact, they should get our best energy.

In a strong performance-management culture, every member of the team has a regularly scheduled and honored appointment with their supervisor. For most employees, this one-on-one conversation happens weekly or biweekly. Employees may require more or less frequent meetings depending on the nature of the role, the length of time the employee has been in the position, and the extent to which the employee and supervisor share a common mindset. Effective employees value the time and energy invested in oversight of their work.

Protecting these appointed one-on-one meetings shows respect for the employee and their contributions.

Managing Your Limits

How many supervisory relationships can you maintain and still tend the rest of your responsibilities? It depends. You need to have enough time with each employee to guide the full communication cycle described above. If you can’t sustain the necessary schedule of individual and group meetings—and get the rest of your job done—you have too many direct reports.

In general, pastors cannot effectively supervise more than five employees. Some pastors should have fewer direct reports because of the needs of those employees and the other demands of the pastor’s role. A pastor with five direct reports will generally have to spend 25 to 30 percent of their time on supervisory related activities. Senior pastors of large congregations must limit their direct supervisory relationships to a smaller number.

Supervision doesn’t just happen while you are busy doing other things. Effective performance management requires intentionality and time. Only you can determine whether there is enough time in your day for effective supervision. If not, it’s time to develop other supervisors on the team.

Inside the Large Congregation cover

Susan Beaumont specializes in the unique leadership needs of large churches and synagogues. Her areas of expertise include staff team health, strategic planning, size transitions, pastoral transitions and adaptive leadership. She is the author of the Alban book Inside the Large Congregation.

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