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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

We Need to Talk about Staff Size Differently

How many people should your church hire? At least since the 1980s, when Lyle Schaller proposed average worship attendance as a useful indicator of program staff size, churches (and church consultants) have used ratios to decide how many staff to hire. This mathematical approach has merit, but as a nonprofit executive I never used it—instead I made staffing decisions based on the specific work that needed to be done and what I hoped each staff member would contribute.

The “ratio” approach assumes that the right number of paid staff depends on average attendance, total budget, or some other number. For example:

  • One full-time equivalent (FTE) of program staff for every 100–150 in average weekly worship attendance
  • One FTE of any kind of staff for every 76 persons in average weekly worship attendance (based on a 2018 study of large congregations from Vanderbloemen Search Group and Pushpay)
  • A benchmark of 40-60% of annual operating budget spent on personnel costs

Other Factors to Consider

As helpful as these metrics are, other factors have always driven staff size up or down. For example, a congregation might see:

  • Lower custodial staff cost if a building is new, small, or not heavily used by the community
  • Higher program staff hours if the congregation’s members are older
  • Higher program staff cost if the church is investing in programs designed to produce growth
  • Higher staff numbers if a church has a significant endowment or a wealthy membership
  • Lower staff cost if the congregation is new and stretching to catch up with its members’ needs

These considerations have always confounded simple “ratio” approach. More recently, the math of staff size and cost faces two additional challenges:

  • A shift in attendance behavior members of all ages may still identify as active but are now attending only once a month instead of the three or more times. This change affects not only churches but also other membership organizations.
  • A generational shift in the understanding of what constitutes appropriate work-life balance. Millennial and younger ministers and other staff are no longer willing to work the 60-hour weeks that undergirded previous calculations.

But even with all these ambiguities and exceptions, two things continue to be true whenever churches think about staff size—we want certainty, and we use math.

I recently took a dive down the math rabbit hole myself. Starting with the assumption that the ratio of one FTE program staff for every 100–150 in worship was true at some point in 80s or 90s, and that at that point congregations typically saw about half their membership in church on Sunday, I tried to calculate what the staffing ratio would be now that members may attend only once a month. The math got messy, at least in part because that’s how my brain does math, but after a couple of hours to mulling, I pulled out of my dive when I realized that, as a non-profit executive responsible for a $4–5 million annual budget, this was never how I approached staffing!

A Different Starting Place

Instead of ratios or percentages, I started with an understanding of the work that needed to be done. If I didn’t have a clear understanding of the work, I kept listening to clients, watching the existing staff, and talking with board members and other experts. When I could write an affordable, measurable job description that could be done by competent people in the number of hours specified without violating our shared understanding of appropriate work-life balance—and when I could offer sustainable, respectful compensation and benefits—then, and only then, was I ready to start hiring.

I often started small, creating a part-time position that might grow into something full-time if the need grew or if the assumptions behind the position proved to be true.

Sometimes I took risks, creating full-time positions before I could pay for them because sometimes doing a thing full-time generated funding that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

I reevaluated every position every year in light of a variety of factors, including shifting client needs, an increasingly partisan political climate, and changing donor expectations. In other words, everything was always on the table, from minor elements of individual job descriptions to the overall staffing design. Nothing was guaranteed.

What would happen if we approached church staff size similarly? What would happen if we:

  • Started from the bottom up, with the work needing to be done rather than the people and positions we already have?
  • Designed positions based on the congregation’s sense of the work God is calling it to do, now and in the future, as determined by decisions of the congregation and its governing board?
  • Committed ourselves to providing adequate and respectful compensation and benefits for each member of the staff?
  • Considered what the congregation could sustainably afford while still leaving space for occasional risks?
  • Evaluated each position and job description annually for continuing relevance in the congregation’s changing context?

This kind of conversation about staffing will not satisfy our need for certainty. That will be a challenge for those leaders who suspect their congregation may be overstaffed but have no way to talk about it. Nor will it make life easy for leaders who suspect their congregation needs additional positions. Hard conversations need to happen about how the congregation’s current work has changed, and about how new work the congregation may be called to do can be incorporated in an affordable way.

Necessary Conversations

This approach requires pastors and congregations to talk about things we often take for granted, such as the purpose of the church, the work to which God is calling this particular church, and the specific tasks involved in accomplishing such work. Pastoral ministry, for example, now requires raising money, using technology, and understanding data in addition to praying and preaching. Christian education now looks more like creating family experiences than like writing curricula for classrooms. Yet too many congregations still use job descriptions that could have been written in the 1980s. So long as we continue to rely on mid-century job titles and position descriptions, our need for emotional familiarity will blind us to God’s new thing.

This approach also requires pastors to clearly describe and effectively evaluate their church’s work—tasks for which most have not been trained. The nature of the church is changing, and so pastors need to learn additional skills.

Finally, this approach will require that congregation members let go of their conviction that positions—and the persons who hold them—define the congregation’s life in perpetuity. We must embrace the reality that changing circumstances have always required changes in positions and personnel. We just haven’t been good at it.

As a consultant, I know that I will need to continue to deploy percentages and ratios when I talk with my clients about staff size. But it is time to have a different conversation about staff, one that begins with the nature of our work rather than the strength of our numbers.

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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