Leaders of small congregations often say, “We can’t afford to hire as many people as we need.” Leaders of large congregations say the same thing! If your vision is ambitious, you will always need more staff than you can afford, no matter what resources you have at your disposal. Fortunately, there is another way.
I was visiting a small church in Louisiana, and the pastor introduced me to his “senior staff.” Seated around the table were the director of administration, minister of pastoral care, directors of education and music, and the building superintendent. They apologized that the whole staff couldn’t be there—the information technology director couldn’t get a sitter and the PR director was out on a consulting job.
After the meeting, I asked the pastor, “How can you afford so many staff positions? You see only about 150 people on a Sunday.” Smiling, he said, “I can’t afford them. Except for the educator and the choir director, all my staff are volunteers.”
Staffing with Volunteers
This pastor had sought out people who had skills the church could use and asked them to accept major jobs as volunteers. Some of his senior staff were truly “seniors”: young retirees with long experience gaining skills they now were using for the church. The IT director was a self-employed consultant—she folded the church neatly into her client list, with no fee. The PR director was a recent community college graduate who hoped to parlay his experience at the church into a paid job later.
Lay leaders have long held major responsibilities in congregations, and businesspeople sometimes have done work for churches without charging them. But in some ways this arrangement felt quite new to me:
- The volunteers’ job titles sounded like staff titles. As “directors,” they expected to be held accountable for their work—and for the work of others.
- The volunteers were integrated into the staff structure. Observing the staff meeting, it was hard to tell who was and was not paid. One paid staff person, the organist, reported to a volunteer, the music director.
- The volunteers had written contracts that defined their role, responsibilities, authority, and term of office, which ran anywhere from three months to three years. Each had a supervisor, who was responsible for making sure they had the support they needed to succeed.
If I had one concern about this staff group, it was that the pastor—like many other pastors—had too many “direct reports” to supervise. It’s a challenge to fix this, as it means teaching other staff to supervise. But that’s a challenge in paid staff structures too.
Dependent on paid staff
Since my first encounter in Louisiana, I have discovered that this kind of staff is not rare at all. It seemed rare to me because most of my experience at the time had been in mainline Protestant and Jewish congregations. For whatever reason, this subset of faith communities has become quite dependent on paid staff. If you consider the denominational staff ultimately paid for by such congregations, we seem to have invented a high-overhead approach to congregational life.
But in whole swaths of the religious landscape, unpaid volunteer staff roles are commonplace. I’ve seen them among white Evangelicals, Black Protestants, and young-adult communities. Congregations that serve low-income people usually hire less staff, just as low-income families are less apt to pay for help with home repairs or cleaning.
By contrast, many congregations live by an unwritten rule that hampers their ability to make full use of volunteers. The rule is this: Lay volunteers can play any role, hold any level of authority, and exercise unlimited creative leadership—so long as they are accountable to other volunteers and not to the head of staff. Under this unfortunate rule, high-level volunteers must always report to the governing board and never to the clergy leader or another member of the staff.
Origins of an Unfortunate Rule
Why is this? I suspect it may date from the time when “flagship” Protestant churches set the tone for much of American religious life, especially among white Northerners. At these high-status churches, wealthy men held top lay leadership positions. It would have been unthinkable to suggest that they submit to supervision, and certainly not by the minister, whom they regarded as a sort of butler—well-dressed, dignified, and courteously spoken to, but still a servant.
Till 1900, few churches employed staff other than the pastor, but as the scope of congregational activity expanded, other staff positions emerged: musicians, educators, sextons, secretaries. Rather than putting the staff team in charge of managing the activity of volunteers, as most other growing organizations did, congregations formed committees.
Often the result is a dual structure, with staff reporting to the clergy leader and committees to the board. Because staff and committees are responsible for managing the same activity, it is difficult to get decisions made. Because boards and committees are poor supervisors, volunteers are left to sink or swim in their own silos. No wonder many people find church life exhausting!
Paid and Unpaid Staff
A better way, I think, is to let boards and committees set the overall direction, and create a single, staff-led structure to manage daily work. Anyone responsible for programs, finances, buildings, and personnel—high or low, paid or unpaid—fits somewhere in that structure. That’s what that Louisiana church was doing.
When I asked the roomful directors how they felt about the structure, they said, “We love it! Our board and committees have time to think about the future, knowing that the present is in good hands. When you want something, you know whom to ask. And—this was the big surprise—you can expect an answer!”
When I asked members of the governing board the same question, they said they liked it too: “We get to spend time thinking about the future, which seems so much more worthwhile than listening to committee reports.”
If your congregation can’t afford the staff it needs, you’re not alone. Any congregation with a good enough imagination needs more staff than it can afford to pay. Volunteers are the solution—and you’ll get more volunteers if you can promise them clear job descriptions and a way to get their questions answered quickly. Whether you need someone to sweep the floor two times a week or to direct a major part of your congregation’s work, perhaps it’s time to “hire” a volunteer as a full member of your staff.
Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.
Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.