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What happens when bad HR practices develop?

When I was in my first congregation I regularly invited church members to review my sermons, knowing that I had a lot to learn and, at the same time, cringing at the thought of hearing real feedback from real people. Pushing aside all feelings of dread, I asked the church secretary to select, at random, a few people every month, send them copies of the seminary-approved evaluation form, ask them to fill the forms out anonymously, and put them on my desk when they were returned.  

Virtually all of the forms came back with something helpful. Some contained detailed responses to all of the questions. Some had just one or two lines behind one or two questions. Some came back with signatures. Some did not.  

The most memorable form had almost nothing on it. The first side of the page was empty. The second side was just about empty. At the very bottom, in the white space below the last question, someone had scrawled, “Don’t worry. You’re doing fine. If there’s a problem I’ll let you know.” 

Great. That probably meant that I would rarely hear encouragement from this person. The only feedback I would get would be in the form of criticism. I pictured him in a sermon complaint line, like the lines you see at customer service counters. You might never hear from these people until they’re ready to get in line and tell you their grievances. 

Churches can be like that – places of one-sided, or inconsistent, or unreliable feedback for staff members. Staff members, both ordained and unordained, are often left wondering how well they are doing at their jobs – until they get complaints about this or that. 

To make life even more complicated, staff members in churches often experience a lack of clarity about who they are truly accountable to and what they are actually accountable for. Do they answer to every member of the congregation? Just the pastor? Or the council, the parents of the youth group, the worship committee, or the Vacation Bible School planning team? All of the above?

Are they accountable for this project or that one, for meeting those unspoken expectations as well as the items on their job descriptions, for checking off that loud voice's to do list? Are they responsible for keeping a certain person/leader/group happy? For bringing back the church’s glory days? For being available 24-7? All of the above? And how are they to know?

Churches can be places of good-hearted people doing beautiful things and being appreciated for their work. But they can also be rough places for ministry staff, with few protections against ambiguous expectations, critical members, and unclear lines of accountability, leaving staff people feeling like the poor clerk standing behind the customer service counter. 

What is a church to do? 

A lot of this falls to the council. Councils can bless church staff members when they:

  1. Create a vision for each church position, and then develop a clear job description to operationalize that vision. The vision should grab your staff person’s heart. The job description should guide your staff person’s hands, so to speak.
  2. Communicate vision and job descriptions widely so that everyone is clear about what they can and cannot expect from each staff person. 
  3. Clarify to whom each staff person is directly accountable.
  4. Communicate this widely as well, so that everyone is clear about who gets to evaluate a staff person’s work performance and who does not have the right to do so.
  5. Provide supervision, directly or through others, that provides staff members with both support and accountability. 

At Thrive we love equipping and encouraging congregations across our denomination, and one of the clear needs that we keep seeing is in the area commonly referred to as “human resources” issues (eg. hiring, firing, evaluating, compensation, job descriptions, and routine supervision). Poor “HR practice” undermines good ministry, generates conflict, and causes significant pain. We are thankful that we also see churches in which good HR practice has helped mitigate challenges, reduced conflict, and encouraged more vibrant ministry. If you have more good ideas related to human resources or know of other helpful practices for leading church staff then please put them in the comments section below. 



Thanks for the good thoughts here! I like the paragraphs about accountability – they're kinda funny yet hold a lot of unspoken truth. I plan to share this with our church staff. ~Stanley

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