Who Leads Your Church?

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Pastor Stu’s first clue that it might be a long Monday came in an e-mail from Jane, one of the deacons at Friendly CRC. Jane had participated in the Sunday-morning worship service and was asking, not for the first time, why worship planning takes 20 hours a week.

The next clue was a knock on Pastor Stu’s office door. Harry, the church’s half-time director of worship, had a burning question to ask. Harry wondered why the worship service he had so thoughtfully planned had been changed so dramatically during the rehearsal, at Jane’s insistence. Harry wanted to know whose side Pastor Stu was on.

This scenario is not unusual. There is a growing awareness in the CRC that the relationship between members of the church council and members of the church staff can present challenging dynamics.

Why is this, and why is it happening now?

On the face of it, the second question is easier to answer.

More and more, congregations are adding paid staff, in addition to pastors, to help meet the ministry challenges they face. These staff may have specialties in worship, youth, children, outreach, education, or administration, but they all fall under the category of paid staff. As such they receive paychecks, evaluations, vacation, and, at times, termination of employment. They are “employees” of the congregation, and they are given job descriptions that suggest they are to provide leadership in a particular aspect of congregational life.

On the other hand, the council consists of elders and deacons, none of whom are paid for their service, but who, from a historical point of view, are the recognized “leaders” of the church. Through a congregational selection process this group of elders and deacons is entrusted with providing oversight to the congregation and its ministries. To complicate matters, they rotate in and out of office every two to four years.

The natural question then arises: who, besides the pastor, is leading the church? In most cases, the pastor is both a member (perhaps chair) of the council and the leader of the staff. It’s no wonder that the relationship between council and staff is not always clear and simple! And it’s no wonder that the lead pastor often feels like the connecting ligament between competing forces.

Best Practices

Additional complicating factors arise. In many cases church staff are members of the church whose participation in the church did not begin with being hired as staff, nor will their participation necessarily end if they no longer continue on staff. Furthermore, it is not unusual that staff persons are wives, husbands, sons, daughters, cousins, or in-laws of persons on the council. A conversation between a council member and a staff member might also be a conversation between a brother and a sister-in-law.

Whether you compare this situation to an extended blended family or to a family business, the challenge of navigating the relationship between council members and staff is daunting. So how do congregations provide effective guidelines and protocols to ensure healthy interaction?

There are “best practices” that can strengthen this complex interaction:

Writing clear job descriptions not only for staff members but also for elders, deacons, and pastors is a place to start. Clarifying who has responsibility and authority over what can be a daunting task, but it is always a big help in the long run.

Providing contexts in which council members and staff get to know each other, hear each other’s stories, and celebrate ministry together is an important aspect of these relationships. The pastor can provide leadership in this and can make sure that council meetings include prayers for staff and that staff meetings include prayers for the council. In all of this, it’s wise to provide frequent reminders that the leadership of a congregation, both by staff and council, is team leadership. Strengthening the team with all its members needs to remain a high priority.

Forming a personnel committee that helps the church wear the “employee hat” fairly and proactively is essential. When staff members are hired, it is important they know the permissions and limits of the job, how and by whom evaluations will be done, who they can talk with about employee/employer dynamics, and what the established termination procedure is. Although this may seem awkward with congregational members who become paid staff, it is doubly important in such situations. Evaluations, promotions, and terminations can be awkward if handled in a less-than-professional manner.

Behavioral covenants can also be helpful. These covenants identify the kinds of behaviors that are supportive of key relationships, as well as what kinds of behaviors undermine healthy relationships. These covenants can be written for staff, council members, and congregations. Many helpful examples are available, but there is often added value when teams work together to develop their own behavioral covenants.

An executive committee or personnel committee can also help guard against relational binds. For example, congregations will often include extended families. It is very difficult to do employee evaluations when it involves family members. Setting up qualified ad hoc teams to address particular tasks and situations is one way to address this potential problem.

The good news is that there are a growing number of congregations where the staff/council relationship is rich, vital, and encouraging to these key leaders’ congregational ministry. And when the leaders of the church are doing well, congregations also seem to flourish.


Growing Trend

More and more Christian Reformed churches in North America are hiring ministry staff other than pastors. Most of these staff members are not ordained, and many are part-time employees. The Staff Ministry Committee (part of the CRC’s Office of Pastor-Church Relations) created a database of non-ordained church staff ministry leaders several years ago and updates it regularly. The following charts the number of staff members from five ministry areas:

STAFF POSITION (full or part time)

  •  Administration/Ministry Coordination
    October 2007: 120
    January 2009: 130 
    Increase:  8%
  • Education (not including youth ministry)
    October 2007: 229
    January 2009: 243
    Increase:  5%
  • Outreach/Evangelism
    October 2007: 85
    January 2009: 98 
    Increase:  15%
  • Worship/Music
    October 2007: 284
    January 2009: 299 
    Increase:  5%
  • Youth (middle/high school)
    October 2007: 347
    January 2009: 376 
    Increase:  8%


About the Author

Norm Thomasma is director of Pastor-Church Relations. This CRC ministry offers retreats and seminars that help build healthy relationships between church staffs and councils.