Hiring and Firing
You may not love it. In fact, you may be pretty bad at it, but you’re still expected to do it. Seminaries don’t teach it (in my experience), but your church’s health depends on it. And more personally, your own longevity in ministry will often rise or fall because of it.
I’m talking about managing a church staff. I’m not so much referring to the culture of a church staff, though that’s certainly critical. I’m referring more to the scaffolding, the authority structures, the supervisory and subordinate relationships. This subject doesn’t excite me at all. But if managed poorly, it can make your life, your experience of ministry, and the ministry experience of those under you miserable.
So if you’re the lead pastor (or an elder given charge of staff oversight), here are a few hard and humbling lessons I’ve learned along the way. And please keep in mind: much of what I’ll share is more prudential than biblically prescribed.
1. Clearly distinguish between elder and non-elder staff positions.
Most polity structures recognize this difference in some fashion. I pastor a congregational church, so the congregation has the formal authority to call pastors (lead pastor, associate pastors, assistant pastor, i.e. whoever is a pastor). The hiring of pastoral staff (e.g. pastoral assistants) and administrative staff is delegated to other staff elders. Ensure such matters are clearly delineated in your church bylaws or constitution, however your church is structured.
A word of encouragement: as much as possible, align your titles with biblical offices. So if the man is a pastor/elder, make that clear in his title (lead pastor, associate pastor, assistant pastor). It will be a regular reminder to all that he holds the biblical office of elder. If the individual is not in the formal office of pastor/elder, don’t call him a pastor. He can be a pastoral assistant (“assistant” is his role, “pastoral” adjectivally describes what he does). Or he can have some other title, like “director.”
Personally, I would avoid vague terms like “minister” as much as possible. Is the person an elder or not? Do they exercise pastoral authority, or are they merely servants (which is closer to the meaning of the word minister)? Avoid titles that obscure instead of clarify.
2. Clearly delineate lines of authority.
On smaller teams, detailed organizational charts aren’t necessary. But the larger the team, the more important they become. When a staff member has a question about their job, role, expectations, performance, etc., it will serve them if they know who to go to.
Pastoral work can never be perfectly captured on a spreadsheet. And some individuals may work with multiple staff pastors. But seek to avoid a patchwork structure where someone feels as if they have two or three different bosses. That only creates confusion and frustration.
And lead pastor, avoid the temptation to overly insert yourself into conversations and decisions you’ve delegated to others. If you’ve handed authority to them, trust them. If you consistently don’t trust them, then hire someone you do. But don’t say you trust them and then second-guess them at every turn. That’s a wonderful way to discourage them, and it will eventually lead to everything landing on your desk. And, as I’ve sadly learned, that serves nobody well.
3. Clearly communicate expectations.
Pastoral ministry is all-encompassing work. And any valuable staff member will be willing to pitch in and serve wherever there’s need.
That said, a job description is a useful tool in establishing expectations. Individuals should not be confused about what the church has set them apart to do. A clear job description helps them prioritize tasks and allocate time. It keeps them focused and, when necessary, can be used to call them back to their main role.
4. Clearly establish regular feedback loops.
Annual or periodic reviews may be fine, but I’m a fan of more regular and informal feedback loops. Nobody wants to be left wondering if they’re doing their job well. So in staff meetings, weekly check-ins, and intentional conversations, make a habit of encouraging people when they’re working hard and executing well.
And when you observe something amiss, find the right time to address it. Ask questions. Probe. Pursue. And above all, be willing to have hard conversations. Don’t cherish them, but don’t run from them either. No one is perfect at their jobs, and it’s the wise who through instruction gain knowledge (Prov. 21:11). And should the day ever come when you need to terminate a staff member for issues of character or competency, it should never come as a shock. If they’re surprised, it means you’ve failed.
5. Clearly lead through hard decisions.
Ministry often feels like a parade of difficult conversations and decisions, especially for the lead pastor. It’s why it’s so critical that we fear God and not man. Fear man, and we’ll be paralyzed by indecision. Fear God, and we’re freed to move forward with charity, humility, and clarity.
This applies to staffing as well. Though it’s a bit simplistic, I’ve found the old adage to hold true: “Be slow to hire, quick to fire.” As the one at the head of the table, your elders and staff are looking to you to provide leadership and guidance.
And yet, as difficult decisions are made, don’t make them alone. As much as possible, involve your elders. Talk through decisions with them. Help them understand. And if you ever must terminate a staff elder, make sure your lay elders not only understand but support the decision. That ought to be a decision you make with them.
6. Be Patient.
You may have built your staff. But many of us inherit staff, whose philosophy of ministry has been formed over years, often subconsciously. Therefore, it won’t be reformed in days or weeks.
So be patient. Use staff meetings to instruct and reflect together. Constantly drip doctrine, watch, and pray. Look for who’s humble and teachable. And as you lead, recognize everybody goes through hard seasons. Be patient. Remember they’re people, not merely producers.
If the Lord gives you godly laborers who work diligently and humbly, then policies, hierarchies, formal reviews, and other “scaffolding” won’t appear important. But sadly, no church is perfect. No staff is perfect. And no lead pastor is perfect. So may these encouragements bring further clarity, unity, and joy to your work.