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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

“I Promise…”

Promises from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Christian Ditaputratama, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

“I promise that no one will lose their job unless they really mess up.”

I’ve heard these words, or something like them, twice in the last ten days—once from the chair of a large congregation’s personnel committee and again from the executive director of a social services non-profit created through the merger of two other organizations.

These words scare me.

They scare me because they suggest an organization that is willing to privilege the needs and desires of individual employees over the organization’s mission.

I usually encounter these words in a congregation with multiple staff, some of whom will have been there for years. As senior ministers come and go, sometimes with vigor and effectiveness and sometimes with conflict and controversy, a few staff achieve longevity. They do this, even in the midst of turmoil, by keeping their heads down and building a network of supporters who can be counted on to come to their aid if anyone criticizes their work or threatens their place. Over the years, they become adept at delivering a product—a program, a set of financials, an event—that is sometimes good and sometimes bad but consistently delivered and rarely changed. They can be counted on for this product, whether it’s needed any longer or not, and for that reason alone they may be highly prized.

Inevitably, the congregation changes. Perhaps participation numbers from some key program start to decline, or perhaps the neighborhood changes and the congregation sees that it is being presented with a new set of needs, or perhaps it realizes that its particular culture and way of being faithful is perfectly suited to undertaking a proven program in a new location. It makes plans, it creates budgets, it dreams a new dream…and in the midst of all this, the chair of Personnel, who in her heart of hearts doesn’t really believe in the new thing, says to the staff, “I promise that no one will lose their job unless they really mess up.”

Think about this!

Your staffing positions are a function of your mission. They come into being because you know that you need a particular kind of person with a particular set of skills in order to achieve the specific thing that you think God is calling you to do at this time and in this place. You write a job description that describes exactly what you want this person to do—not a detailed task list but a set of essential functions like “create and communicate a vision…” and “recruit and train a core group…” You hire the person and then you watch that program grow and blossom and mature into something fabulous. And then, inevitably, interests change, the pendulum swings, and a different set of program needs evolves.

Now what?

An alert congregation will, first of all, notice that things have changed. It will keep its eye on metrics like participation numbers or changing neighborhood demographics, and it will keep its ear on the voices of those involved and those in need. It will realize that a program to which it has been deeply committed is no longer necessary and it will move on, which means not only bringing positions to an end but also letting go of staff who may be beloved but are no longer needed. In light of its careful and patient discernment of God’s call, it may very well create new positions, and it may invite former staff to apply, but it will realize the importance of the work to which it is called and it will choose the best person available for any new position based on the extent to which they demonstrate the gifts and skills needed.

The unaware congregation, on the other hand, may not notice for years on end that things have changed. It may not notice that Sunday morning is no longer a convenient time for many families to worship or that, while people are completely willing to serve meals at a shelter, they are no longer willing to serve on the committee that organizes the schedule. It will hold onto staff positions that are no longer needed because continuing to do what it’s always done is easier and less anxiety-provoking than figuring out alternatives.

And because it is unaware, this congregation may hold tight to not only the position but also the person who’s always been in it, because by now there are members who love or depend on this person and who would be deeply hurt and aggressively ugly if that person were let go.

And of course some congregations, knowing that a position is no longer necessary but unwilling to give up the beloved person, will shift him or her into another position, regardless of skills or gifts, resulting in an unhappy but still employed person and an unrealizable mission.

Every congregation’s primary work is to achieve the mission to which God is calling it. Working toward this vision is the responsibility of both members and staff. Holding on to an unnecessary position or to an unsuitable person, especially in a time when virtually all congregations face financial challenges is, in effect, to deny the call of God. If the staff member still needs a salary, or if he or she wouldn’t be able to find another job, then it is better to provide pastoral care and financial support through the mission arm of the congregation than to continue to employ a person without appropriate skills in an unnecessary job. “I promise to help you” does not need to sound like “I promise you will never lose your job.”

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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