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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Creating a Healthy Staff Environment

Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash

Most pastors did not go to seminary with the goal of supervising staff, and lack specific training in it. The solution, however, is not for a personnel committee or governing board to take on these tasks. Instead, the pastor should seek training, and everyone can learn to function appropriately within the boundaries of their roles.

Healthy, thriving congregations, regardless of size, need healthy, thriving staff. And staff, in order to be healthy and thriving, need

  • Fair compensation and benefits
  • Clear and up-to-date expectations regarding the nature of their work
  • Fair and consistent evaluation of their work
  • Policies that provide for their needs and define their behavior
  • Support for their professional growth
  • Recognition of their achievements

Every congregation has a set of actors—a governing body such as a council or session, a personnel committee, and a head of staff—who participate in this work and ensure that it happens in a way that aligns with denominational polity, complies with applicable laws, and is respected by the congregation.

The Role of the Mission

The most important element in creating a healthy staff environment is the congregation’s mission—its shared understanding of what God is calling it to do at this particular time and place. The mission determines which positions are needed by the congregation, both voluntary and paid. The mission shapes committee structures and budgets, influences policy regarding compensation and benefits, and governs how the congregation expects both staff and members to behave. All participants in the creation of a staffing environment are accountable, first and foremost, to the congregation’s mission.

The Role of the Governing Body

The governing body is the primary decision-making group in any congregation. Regarding personnel matters, the governing body should

  • Ensure that the congregation has a specific mission statement and goals that can be used to craft the job description of each staff member in a way that connects their work to the achievement of the congregation’s mission.
  • Adopt personnel policies that are aligned with the denomination’s polity and comply with state and federal law.
  • Adopt supervision and evaluation policies and practices that will be effective in achieving the congregation’s mission.
  • Annually evaluate the head of staff to ensure that all expectations of his or her role are being met successfully.

Except in rare circumstances, it is the head of staff’s task to hire and fire staff, not that of the governing body—it is simply too difficult for a group of members to speak with one voice on a staffing issue, especially when they have friendship or advocacy relationships with staff. The best way for any governing body to address hiring and firing is to

  • Adopt appropriate personnel policies, including policies that establish appropriate search procedures as well as policies for addressing poor performance, employee improvement, and termination.
  • Expect the head of staff to be trained in these policies and capable of implementing them.
  • Evaluate the head of staff annually on his or her performance, including ability to effectively implement the congregation’s policies and manage its staff.
  • Create a leadership environment in which the session and head of staff trust each other to carry out their respective roles.

The Role of the Personnel Committee

The personnel committee is a committee of the governing body. Its purpose is to assist the governing body in ensuring that the mission and goals of the congregation are successfully carried out by its staff. It should

  • Propose personnel and compensation policies to the governing body, which is responsible for adopting them.
  • Ensure the accountability of the staff to the mission by putting in place and monitoring timely compliance with an appropriate performance management process.
  • Oversee compliance with all applicable employment and tax laws.
  • Assist the governing body in its annual evaluation of the head of staff.

If requested to do so by the head of staff, personnel committees may also

  • Assist in the creation of job descriptions.
  • Advise the head of staff on personnel-related issues.
  • Serve as a witness during a disciplinary employment conversation.

In many congregations, personnel committees have traditionally performed additional functions such as conducting annual staff evaluations. However, because it is so difficult for a group of members with conflicting commitments and interests to speak with one voice on staffing issues, personnel committees should not assist in the evaluation of any staff other than the head of staff. Personnel committees also should not

  • Propose increases or decreases in salary for specific employees.
  • Hire or fire employees.
  • Meet with employees to hear their complaints without the presence of the supervisor (unless the complaint involves assertions of misconduct that involve the supervisor).

The Role of the Head of Staff

The head of staff is charged with guiding all aspects of the life of the congregation in such a way that the congregation can achieve the mission to which it has been called by God. He or she does this by supervising the staff, inspiring committees, managing revenue and expense, and being a partner with the governing body in reminding the congregation of who they are and what God is calling them to do.

 Regarding supervision of the staff, the head of staff’s duties include

  • Creating job descriptions that align with the mission and goals of the congregation
  • Supervising performance, including offering encouragement or responding to challenges
  • Annually evaluating all direct reports based on the specifics of each person’s job description
  • Ensuring that, in larger congregations where there are multiple supervisors, all other supervisors are also engaged in daily supervision and annual evaluation
  • Hiring and terminating employees as needed
  • Setting compensation in accordance with the congregation’s compensation policy
  • Ensuring compliance with all congregational employment policies and relevant tax and employment law

While it is true that many pastors do not feel well-prepared to do supervision and evaluation, the solution is for pastors to be trained, not to assign their responsibilities to others. When all the actors understand their responsibilities and respect their boundaries, both the staff and the congregation are more likely to enjoy a healthy staff environment.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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