Ken Lay and Bernard Ebbers, former CEOs of Enron and Worldcom respectively, tried to tell the world and the courts they didn’t know what was going on in their companies. Contending they were leaders of their organizations, rather than daily managers, they claimed innocence regarding the rampant fraud in their corporations. Nobody bought their arguments. Ebbers was given a twenty-five-year prison sentence; Lay, who died before being sentenced, was convicted on ten counts of violating laws.  

When things go terribly wrong in the life of a congregation, pastors who say they are leaders and not managers won’t go to jail. However, their ministries probably won’t survive the crisis. Their pleas that they weren’t involved in the management decisions will rightly fall upon deaf ears. Many will end up leaving their congregations saying they were victims of “misunderstandings” or complaining that they took the fall for someone else’s failure. It doesn’t have to end this way.  

The closest thing a congregation has to a CEO is its head of staff—the pastor. I do not confine the term head of staff to churches with multiple clergy. Solo pastors are also heads of staff. In small congregations, the staff may be all volunteer. However, the volunteer gardeners, Sunday school teachers, and building people definitely form a staff, and they all need a person to whom they report. Indeed, managing volunteers can be a greater challenge than managing paid staff.  

A head of staff position is shaped by a number of different factors. Certainly, every denomination and each independent congregation has different expectations and regulations regarding the role of head of staff. In addition, the size of both the congregation and its staff changes the management issues confronting a head of staff. Many of the people the head of staff manages are volunteers. They may not be on payroll, but they are key to successfully implementing a strategic plan. 

To seize the opportunity of being a head of staff, pastors need to assume managerial responsibility to the extent it is appropriate. “Appropriate” is determined by the possibilities and constraints of managerial expectations for pastors, which will vary widely from denomination to denomination, and from local congregation to local congregation. One thing is true in every denomination: When a problem occurs in a congregational system where managerial responsibility is not well defined, the buck stops on the head of staff’s desk. For this reason it is important to define who has final authority on managerial issues before a crisis presents itself.  

Within a congregational system, does an individual or group have the management responsibility? Is it a staff person or a committee? Does the congregation’s governing board function as a leadership group, a management group, or a bit of both? If both, in what areas is the board supposed to lead? What areas should it manage? 

Who has the final managerial responsibility for personnel, finances, and building issues? In many polities, the managerial responsibility and authority for these may be divided among boards, committees, the pastor, and even individual church members. There is nothing wrong with these responsibilities being divided, as long as the divisions are made clear so everyone knows who is managing what. 

In many congregations managerial responsibility and authority assigned constitutionally to a particular group can be delegated elsewhere. For example, in the Presbyterian system the trustees are responsible for management of the building. However, preferring oversight to a managerial role, trustees often delegate their managerial responsibility to the pastor, business manager, or church janitor.  

Allocation of managerial responsibilities will also be shaped by the size of the congregation and its staff. For example, in a small congregation, by default, the pastor is usually the primary manager. However, if a small congregation has a secretary, a staff person who cleans and maintains the building, or both, those individuals usually do some management in their discrete areas. In small congregations, laypeople play important management roles. Defining management responsibilities among the pastor, other staff, and key laypeople needs to be done carefully and clearly. 

In a midsize congregation with two clergy on staff, the management responsibilities, if undefined, can get fuzzy. Failure to make clear definitions and divisions of labor leads to problems, including a lack of management or overmanagement in certain subsystems.  

In one congregation I served as an associate pastor, the pastor’s secretary had been handling the management of building staff. When I arrived, the head of staff wanted me to assume management of the building and its staff. Predictably, it didn’t take long for the secretary and me to develop an adversarial relationship (despite liking each other personally). We finally sat down and sorted out who was in charge of what. With management responsibilities clarified, we lived happily ever after (more or less).  

In a large congregation, management assignments are even more complicated. For example, while an executive pastor or business manager might oversee the staff, the senior pastor remains the head of staff. Again, that will become clear when a crisis occurs. Additionally, in large congregations, the layers of management necessarily increase. Associate pastors may become midlevel managers who oversee other part- or full-time workers such as youth or music ministers. As the layers of responsibility increase, the opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication increase. Knowing who is responsible for what becomes a major task in such a complicated staff system. 

Communication is especially important among larger staffs. Staff meetings are an important time to ensure communication throughout the system. They can also be a time to coordinate the management of various subsystems of the larger congregational system. If such communication and coordination doesn’t happen, parts of the system will quickly start working against one another or will overlap in ways that create significant inefficiencies and irritation.  

In congregations of every size, clarity about the managerial role of the church board and congregational members is extremely important. In every church I have served, I have had some conflicts with members as I explained to them that I am the manager of the church’s secretaries and building personnel. It is unfair to expect staff to respond to the management requests of hundreds of members; in effect, these staff members end up with hundreds of bosses. Church members who want a staff person to do something need to go to the head of staff or his or her clearly defined agent who can pass along the request (if it is reasonable and needs to be done).  

Managers need to make sure any wannabe managers in congregations understand  (1) who has responsibility to assign work and (2) how to process work requests. When such management lines are clear, I have found that 95 percent of church members are glad to work within those defined rules. As for the other 5 percent  . . . well, there is always that other 5 percent. 

Comments welcome on the  Alban Roundtable blog 


Adapted from The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management by John W. Wimberly, Jr., copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.   




AL404_SMThe Business of the Church:
The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry
Requires Effective Management
by John. W. Wimberly, Jr. 

Pastors are called to be not only leaders with vision but also managers of congregational systems, says John Wimberly in The Business of the Church. Drawing on his thirty-six years in ordained ministry, Wimberly weaves the realities of congregational dynamics and faith-centered purpose together with practical, proven approaches to business management, helping readers avoid common pitfalls and put into practice effective techniques of congregational management. The author’s conversational writing style and many real-life examples make what is for some a seemingly complicated, mysterious topic an engaging and easily applicable read. 

AL341_SMWhen Moses Meets Aaron:
Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations
by Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont 

In When Moses Meets Aaron, Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont help clergy responsible for several-member staff teams learn to be both Moses and Aaron—both a visionary and a detail-oriented leader—in order for their large congregations to thrive. They immerse the best of corporate human resource tools in a congregational context, providing a comprehensive manual for supervising, motivating, and coordinating staff teams.

AL199_SMBehavioral Covenants in Congregations:
A Handbook for Honoring Differences
by Gilbert R. Rendle 

This down-to-earth workbook gets to the heart of modern congregational life: how to live creatively together despite differences of age, race, culture, opinion, gender, or theological or political position. Gil Rendle explains how to grow by valuing our differences rather than trying to ignore or blend them. He describes a method of establishing behavioral covenants that includes leadership instruction, training tools, resources, small-group exercises, and plans for meetings and retreats.  

AL205_SMThe Alban Personnel Handbook for Congregations 
by Erwin Berry 

Today’s congregational leaders increasingly serve as human resource managers for ordained and nonordained persons. This handbook provides practical and proven strategies for managing church staff and addresses the particular ethical issues that faith communities need to consider to serve as effective stewards of those whom they employ. 



Peers,Larry 120xClergy Wellbeing: How to Balance Ministry and Life
February 1-3, 2011, Santa Barbara, California
Facilitator: Larry Peers, Alban senior consultant 

Could you use just a little help in balancing your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health as a clergy person? Join Larry Peers for a workshop designed to guide you through a review of your ministry with the aid of self-assessment instruments, coaching tools and processes, and peer- and individual-coaching as needed. 

Beaumont,Susan 120x Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision
March 1-3, 2011, Jacksonville, FloridaFacilitator: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant 

Supervising the work of others requires learning new skill sets.  No one is born knowing them, and yet supervisory skills are seldom learned during professional formation. Join Susan Beaumont at this important seminar for the pastoral leader who is stepping up into a supervisory role for the first time, or for the long time supervisor who wants to revisit best practices. 


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