This past weekend we said goodbye to one of our country’s greatest legislators, Senator Ted Kennedy, who died at age 77.  Kennedy devoted his life to public service, working tirelessly to give a voice to the voiceless and ensure that the very least of God’s children were represented well.  What many people don’t realize, however, is that Kennedy was also known for assembling and nurturing the very best staff in the Senate.  Many of his staffers went on enjoy successful political careers as well. 

As Labor Day approaches, I have been pondering what it is that makes labor meaningful.  One critical element of fulfilling work is to be well supervised.  If work is to engage our minds, creativity and imagination, we need to have a great boss!  Among our many roles as clergy, supervising staff is one of our most important but underrated responsibilities.  Consider these scenarios:

  • Arriving at your new church, you discover that the Christian education director is accustomed to doing whatever she wants without consulting with anyone.
  • The church secretary is young and inexperienced and is having difficulty keeping up with the demands of a large church.
  • The music director has a full-time secular job, and it is a challenge to find time for the pastor and musician to keep in touch and also plan worship.
  • Everyone in the congregation believes that he/she knows what the custodian should be doing and is not afraid to direct his work.

What to do?  Supervision literally means “looking over” or “a critical watching or directing.”  The definition of supervision that I have come to like is “the manner of providing a job environment that encourages employee accomplishment.”  Most of us did not sign up to be a supervisor when we felt called into professional ministry.  Preaching, teaching, pastoral care and administering the sacraments are often much more fulfilling than directing someone else’s work.  In addition, many pastors don’t understand the necessity of forming a staff team or how a well-functioning staff is integral to fulfilling the mission and vision of the congregation.  I believe that careful and compassionate supervision of church staff is a key factor in healthy, vital churches.  

What is the foundation of good supervision?

  • Relationship building: you must take the time to get to know your staff members
  • Trust: staff need to trust that you want them to be successful in their ministries
  • Communication: continual face to face interaction is a necessity
  • Collegiality: staff need to know that they are valued members of a team and that their contributions matter to you and the church

What all is involved in supervising staff?

  • Have an accurate and written job description.  You can prevent needless conflict by being clear about the specific responsibilities of staff members’ jobs.  Review and update the job description every year.
  • Meet with staff regularly.  In a larger church, there should be weekly staff meetings for coordination, communication, planning and team-building.  In addition, you should meet on a regular basis with the staff you supervise in order to guide, mentor, coach and support.
  • Do a written performance evaluation once a year.  That evaluation should include goal setting, discussion about continuing education, a self-evaluation and perhaps peer reviews.
  • Every staff person needs a direct supervisor. No one can adequately supervise more than 4-5 staff members.  If you are in a church with a larger staff, the senior staff that you supervise must supervise those who report to them.  Remember Jethro’s words to Moses in Exodus 18, “The task is too heavy for you.  You cannot do it alone.”
  • Involve the staff in creating a written “staff covenant,” which expresses how staff relate to one another.  Include a clear complaint process for staff members who feel that their supervisor has treated them unfairly. 

What is the relationship between the Staff Parish Relations Committee and paid staff?

The SPRC does not normally do direct supervision.  That responsibility is for the pastor or other senior staff members, with the SPRC playing an advisory role.  However, every staff member should have a liaison on the SPRC who is their support person.  The entire SPRC may meet with each staff member once a year for encouragement.  If staff issues arise, the pastor, SPRC chair and staff liaison might deal with the issue before it is brought before the entire committee. 

One of the SPRC’s primary responsibilities is to ensure that the church has an updated Personnel Handbook.  This handbook, of which every staff member should have a copy, should include policies on vacations, benefits, bereavement leave, computer usage, standards of conduct, etc. 

Use good hiring practices!  Create a job application that includes a background check and references.  Call the references, and when you offer the job, include an employment letter with specifics of the hiring.

What if things are not working out with a staff member?

Church staff members are at-will employees, which should be made clear in the Personnel Handbook.  It’s also wise to have a policy on progressive discipline.  Fairness dictates giving employees a chance to improve if they are not meeting expectations.  It should never be a surprise if a staff member is let go.  Your job as a supervisor is to deal with issues as they come up.  Be clear about what is not working and document, document, document.

Before terminating an employee, test your assumptions with the SPRC because the SPRC is ultimately responsible for hiring and firing.  It is very important to have a complete and diverse SPRC Committee with between 5-9 people, some of whom should have experience in human resource management.  Balancing grace toward a staff person and seeking the good of the congregation is easier when you seek the wisdom of others.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t do your staff members’ jobs!  Remember, you hired them so that you would be free to focus on your strengths and they would be free to develop their own ministry.
  • Don’t assume that if things are going well, you don’t need to meet with those you supervise.
  • Don’t think you’re too busy to provide a work environment that encourages employee accomplishments.  If you don’t thank staff regularly, you’ll pay the price with unhappy employees who feel alienated, unappreciated and may undermine your ministry.
  • Don’t forget that at the same time as we are called to act in a business-like manner with staff, we are also the church.

Churches and pastors are only as effective as their staff.  Ted Kennedy would have been the first person to echo that sentiment.  Church staff members are dedicated servants of God who work out of love for Christ and the church.  We must treat them well, value their contributions, and ensure that we deal with concerns in a sensitive and compassionate way.  Please feel free to consult with me at any time if you have questions.  In the meantime, enjoy your supervision.  It really is fun!

Blessings, Laurie

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