Monday, August 31, 2009

Managing staff well

There is an X-factor in church ministry that sort of fits into the "transitions" category, but it also really doesn't in some ways. That is the category of staff.

By staff, I mean administrative and support staff. Ministry staff should be viewed and treated essentially in the same way that ordained pastoral staff are, at least from the perspective of calling, terms of call, evaluation, etc. But administrative and support staff are a different ballgame, in many ways.

I want to reflect a bit on managing staff well. I have seen and known of staff being mis-handled in some ways, and I think the topic deserves at least one post! And some of these lessons have been learned the hard way. Here are some things to think about when it comes to managing staff well.

Team Members
Are staff members part of the ministry team? In some ways, yes. Obviously, they fulfill functions that are vital to ministry execution. They often are responsible for significant logistical and front-line aspects of ministry. And anyone who has had a staff member with an obvious weakness will acknowledge how quickly that weakness can become substantial in slowing the progress of ministry.

So, yes-- in many ways they are team members. And to the extent to which they are, they need to be treated like it. Their value needs to be emphasized, and they need to be recognized and appreciated before others. Their input should be sought on appropriate topics, and their opinions taken seriously on all topics. They need to be attended to spiritually just as the rest of the ministry team does.

And, no-- in some ways they are not team members. Staffers should recognize the boundaries of where their participation with the team ends-- and they should respect those boundaries. It is reasonable to expect them to keep their nose out of business that they don't have a part in. They have the authority and right to make some decisions-- but not just any decision. They need to rightly understand their place as support for those who have been called to be the pastors and ministers of the congregation they serve, and realize that their value as part of the team extends only as far as they are able to fulfill that role of support.

If you want a great picture of what this looks like-- of what it looks like to be a significant part of a team without having to be the one who gets all the recognition-- read this remarkable piece from the NY Times on basketball player Shane Battier.

Works in Progress
Every staff member has weaknesses. In fact, every pastor does, too-- and it's likely that part of the reason why you have support staff is because your congregation recognized some of yours, and hired someone to fill the gaps. But those support staffers will have their own weaknesses, as well. How will you deal with them?

One of the best descriptions of how to work with staff members on an ongoing basis-- particularly with regard to their weaknesses and addressing them-- is from two guys named Mike Auzenne and Mark Horstman, whose organization is called Manager Tools. They detail the fundamentals of their methods in the "Manager Tools 'Basics'" audio discussions. I think so much of their approach is valuable in church staff management, as well. Here's the gist of what they advocate:
Open communication-- the first thing that Mike and Mark talk about is how vital it is that open lines of communication be established BEFORE there is a problem with weakness, etc. They talk about doing weekly "One-on-Ones" with each staff member under you (or "direct report" as they call them), wherein you briefly check in with them on personal things, family matters, etc.-- and let them get to know you in a similar way.
Appropriate feedback-- giving guidance for corrections is crucial, but knowing HOW to do that is sometimes difficult. Mike and Mark have developed their "feedback model" into a boilerplate approach, which lends helpful structure to the difficult task of correcting and re-directing. Notice, too, that this starts early-- so that problems aren't allowed to persist and fester.
Room to grow-- every staff member will respond well to feedback in some areas, and continue to struggle in other areas. What happens then? Mike and Mark have a model for that, too-- "coaching." They outline the benefits and strategies for creating constructive situations for staffers to learn and grow in the areas where they are weak.

One of the underlying premises that Mike and Mark emphasize, which I find so valuable, is the idea that firing someone is a last resort and an admission of failure on the manager's part. I've known many whose attitude is almost the opposite: "be glad you have a job, shape up and figure out how I want things done fast enough so that you don't get fired, and when the first mistake comes my way you're gone." That's unproductive and not helpful, for one thing-- but it's also wrong (as I'll get to in a moment).

Be assured of this, too: if they understand their role and place as they should (and as you can, in a pastoral manner, continue to instruct them in through one-on-ones, feedback, and coaching), they will not need you to shame them when their work falls short-- they will long to do better before you ever mention it.

If you have staff under you at any level-- even volunteers-- I urge you to give these audio discussions a listen.

Children of God
It is vital that the dignity of the staff member be kept in view at all times. This, sadly, is one of the greatest shortcomings of staff management in many churches.

Frequently, the leadership of the church is chosen from those who are successful in the business world. A corporate executive obviously knows something about running organizations, right? As a result, those execs bring their corporate expertise into a Session or Board meeting, and apply the same principles in the church as they do in the business world. The only problem with that is that the church isn't a business.

Now, in fairness to businessmen, many Christians who are in the business world conduct themselves in a manner that is distinct from their unbelieving counterparts. Nevertheless, 99% of the time that I have seen a Christian businessman who is in leadership attempt to apply his business expertise to the leadership of the church, it doesn't fit-- but he will push and work to shoe-horn it into fitting, resulting in a leadership fiasco. Leaders: if your only model for leadership has been the corporate business world, you must re-learn how to lead!

Never is this more important than in dealing with staff. In the business world, the bottom-line controls everything. All other principles are driven by profitability, which means that if someone isn't "pulling their weight" then they have to go. This is sometimes presented more coldly, while other times it is couched in more positive language (Jim Collins talks about "getting the right people on the bus"). Regardless, the mindset from the business world is, if your support staff is ineffective, then let them go.

This isn't the business world. Your staffing decisions aren't made by measures of efficiency alone. They are not just another paycheck that has to be distributed. These are people-- and they are children of God, created in His image, and granted all of the dignity of heirs of the Kingdom.

Your calling as pastor is to treat them as such. If it helps, employ this imagery when dealing with your staff: imagine that your administrative assistant is actually someone else-- think of the matronly widow whose husband was an officer in the church long before you came, whose children grew up and professed their faith in your congregation, who faithfully attends every worship service even when her health is frail, whose service as a prayer warrior on your behalf has been a frequent encouragement to you. Imagine that she has come in to volunteer in the role of your administrative assistant. How would you treat her? How would you deal with her?

I have a sense of how I would: I would find ways to muster greater degrees of patience than I knew I could. I would be grateful for her willingness and desire for service. I would offer correction gently, quietly, and tactfully. I would ask of her, not demand of her. I would try to let every encounter give attention to the needs of her soul, and not focus only on my own needs. I would give thanks in prayer for her before, during, and after she came each day.

What would the work atmosphere in your church offices be like if you, as pastor, treated every staff member that way? Your staffers have all of the dignity of heaven-- and while (as I said above) their value as part of the team extends only as far as they are able to fulfill that role of support, their value as children of God is something you can never strip from them. And you must be supremely cautious that you do not do so.

This dignity must never be forgotten or misplaced. It is your job, as a pastor, to constantly restore it. Remember the words between Caspian and Aslan, as Caspian was about to be crowned king of Narnia:

"I was wishing that I came of a more honorable lineage."

"You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve," said Aslan, "and that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content."

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