Q: I am on the personnel committee of my church.We expect to fill two staff positions soon, and wonder what our policy should be about accepting applications from members of the congregation.
A: When hiring staff, congregation leaders often ask this question. Hiring members has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that members are apt to be familiar with the congregation, committed to its mission, and used to working hard without pay. The drawbacks are that a former lay leader may have difficulty accepting supervision, and a minister or board that tries to fire a member may wind up in hot soup with the member’s friends and family. After experiencing such problems, some congregations resolve “never again” to hire a member for a staff role. But what if the best candidate is a member? Perhaps the safest policy is to exclude members from “support” positions but to allow them to apply for “program” positions, where the advantage of a candidate in sympathy with the congregation’s unique style and theology is likely to be most important.
Keep in mind that congregation members who join the paid staff can expect important changes in their relationship to the church, so it may be helpful to share the following document with member applicants:
As a congregation member thinking about joining the paid staff, please consider the following expectations. Please raise any doubts or questions at your interview.
1. A staff member is both a leader and an employee. Unlike a committee chair or board member, a paid staff member works for the congregation and must follow established policies and accept supervision. Staff members should not also hold lay leadership positions in the congregation. Your spouse, if he or she belongs to this congregation, needs to avoid voting on matters that affect you personally. You will advocate for your program area as part of the congregation’s larger mission, not necessarily for what you personally prefer.
2. A staff member belongs to the staff team. Especially in small congregations, this may seem a little odd. Doesn’t the sexton work for the Building Committee, and the musicians for the choir? Every staff member has a natural constituency, but must support unity within the staff as well. No one should accept a paid job who does not expect to balance loyalty to one’s “department” with a positive relationship to the whole staff team.
3. A staff member may need to find another pastor. Your pastor is still your pastor for weddings, funerals, and other public functions. For the more private, pastoral aspects of ministry there are some limits. The minister’s first role is to lead the team. This means articulating the mission and goals of the congregation to you, seeing that you have the support you need to do your job, and giving you frank feedback about how you are doing. These roles may not be compatible with intense pastoral care or counseling, in which case you may have to look elsewhere for the ministry you need.
4. A staff member may need to find a new peer group. Your enjoyment of your peer group in the church may be part of what moved you to apply for a staff job. For a time, the satisfactions of group membership continue, but eventually you will be more a leader than a peer. As a staff member, you cannot be casually available to anyone who wants to chat. In time, your relationship with fellow members will shift, and you will find that to feel truly relaxed and “off work” you need to find friends who are not part of your congregation.
As a member of the congregation, you bring unique experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm to the paid staff. If you say “yes” to a staff position, you will join thousands of others who have moved from lay membership to professional service. Best wishes!
Rev. Dan Hotchkiss is a Unitarian Universalist minister and an Alban Institute senior consultant who speaks, writes, and consults widely on clergy transition, conflict management, fundraising, and financial and strategic planning. He is also the author of Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends (Alban Institute, 2002).