Congregational Consulting Group logo

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

Succeeding in a Paid Position

Each year, thousands of musicians, educators, clergy, office workers, and custodians start new jobs in congregations. If all goes well, the new staff member will eventually become an energetic, well-respected, and productive member of the team. The staff member helps to make this happen, but so do the governing board, the head of staff, and other supervisors. I will share some thoughts first for the top leadership, then for the new staff member directly.

For boards and supervisors:

High on any congregation’s list of goals should be a unified, effective staff. Strangely, governing boards and senior clergy often undermine this goal. Governing boards set up all kinds of power structures—personnel committees, liaisons, ombudspersons, program and advisory committees—that can become a tempting alternative for supervisors and staff members who want to avoid working issues out within the staff.

All staff members need to honor the leadership of their supervisors. Supervisors, in turn, must be loyal to those they lead. A minister or administrator who plays favorites among staff or speaks of them with scorn to others undermines staff unity. The first obligation of the head of staff is to make sure staff members have what they need to do their jobs effectively: resources, political support, and a sense of direction.

When hiring staff, congregation leaders often ask, “Is it wise to hire a member?” Hiring members has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that members are apt to be familiar with the congregation, committed to its mission, and used to working hard without pay. The drawbacks are that a former lay leader may have difficulty accepting supervision, and a minister or board that tries to fire a member may wind up in hot soup with the member’s friends and family.

Looking at the disadvantages, some congregations resolve “never again” to hire a member for a staff role. This is a workable policy, especially in large metropolitan areas, but in other settings, it can be difficult to maintain. In any case, after a few successful years, staff members hired from outside begin to have a lot of the same traits as members—zealous, connected, hard to supervise, and hard to fire. So more important than whether you hire “in” or “out,” is how good a job you do of bringing new staff members in.

By orienting applicants and lay leaders in advance to the potential pitfalls new staff face, leaders can head off some of the worst problems. In the next section of this article offers some thoughts for new staff members that would be worth discussing during a job interview.

For applicants and paid staff members:

A staff member is both a leader and an employee. Even more than a committee chair or board member, a paid staff member works for the congregation and must follow established policies and accept supervision. Staff members should not also hold lay leadership positions in the congregation. Your spouse, if he or she belongs to this congregation, needs to avoid voting on matters that affect you personally. You may advocate for your program area as part of the staff team’s support of the congregation’s mission, even if this differs from what you personally prefer.

There’s a lot to learn about any new job, and a lot to learn also about the role you will play. In a church or synagogue, the role—how the person fits into the group—comes first. Making the right connections, setting the right boundaries, establishing the right loyalties: these matter just as much to a successful start as getting the job done.

A staff member belongs to the staff team. Especially in small congregations, this may seem a little odd. Doesn’t the sexton work for the Building Committee, and the musicians for the choir? Every staff member has a natural constituency, but must support unity within the staff as well. No one should accept a paid job who does not expect to balance loyalty to one’s “department” with a positive relationship to the whole staff team.

A staff member may need to find another pastor. Your pastor is still your pastor for weddings, funerals, and other public functions. For the more private, pastoral aspects of ministry there are some limits. The minister’s first role is to lead the team. This means articulating the mission and goals of the congregation to you, seeing that you have the support you need to do your job, and giving you frank feedback about how you are doing. These roles may not be compatible with intense pastoral care or counseling, in which case you may have to look elsewhere for the ministry you need.

A staff member may need to find a new peer group. Your enjoyment of your peer group in the church may be part of what moved you to apply for a staff job. For a time, the satisfactions of group membership continue, but eventually you will be more a leader than a peer. As a staff member, you cannot be casually available to anyone who wants to chat. In time, your relationship with fellow members will shift, and you will find that to feel truly relaxed and “off work” you need to find friends who are not part of your congregation.

As a paid staff member, you bring special experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm to the congregation. Over time you will gain influence and respect, and transform lives in many ways. The limitations that go with a staff role make all this possible, and so I hope you will consider them with care and feel free to discuss any questions you may have with your supervisor and the other members of your team.

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.

Books by Dan Hotchkiss

Dan Hotchkiss, Governance and Ministry
Share this article