Designing a Staff Team for Ministry

by Susan Beaumont

Whether you’re working from the ground up to build an organizational structure where none existed or working with a broken structure inherited from a predecessor, four basic design features need to be addressed and resolved.

Division of Labor

How is the work that needs to be accomplished going to be divided among the available workers? And how will those divided tasks be grouped together?

In a structure with a horizontal orientation, staff functions are added on the same organizational level as the needs of the community grow. Jobs are grouped at the same level of the hierarchy according to processes or functional needs of the community.

The advantage of a horizontal structure is that people stay well connected to the vision of the leader. There isn’t much that goes on without the knowledge or involvement of the primary leader.

Of course, this is also the weakness of a horizontal structure. The size of the organization will be limited by the oversight capacity of its primary leader as the leader struggles to keep pace with the number of direct relationships that must be managed. This type of structure also struggles with communication barriers between functional areas. Each functional area tends to develop a silo mentality, seeing itself as distinct from each of the other functional areas.

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A second division of labor option is to take a vertical approach to design. An organization with a vertical orientation might also be thought of as a tall organization. This type of design builds checks and balances into the system by adding levels of oversight. A disadvantage of vertical organizations is that they tend to be slower at decision making, and they do not develop critical decision-making skills at lower levels of the organization. The taller the structure, the longer it takes to work change through the system.

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A third option is to take a spatial approach. This approach groups leaders and workers according to geographical locations or according to the natural groupings of constituents being served. The strength of this type of structure is that it allows leaders to respond very effectively to the unique needs of their constituency groups. Organizations with spatial structures tend to be very flexible and adaptable. A disadvantage is that they may have built-in redundancies. In an effort to serve the needs of their unique constituencies, leaders often reinvent functions and processes already offered in other areas of the organization.

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Ultimately, the choice that a leader makes about the division of labor on the staff team should be reflective of the mission of the congregation. As you make decisions about the division of labor on your staff team you need to consider what is unique about your context, the constituencies that you serve, and the values that you embrace.

Integrating the Work

Integration refers to the extent and means by which an organization holds together its various parts and helps them work together to accomplish a shared goal. The primary ways that an organization’s design can contribute to the coordination of work efforts is through mutual adjustment, direct supervision, and the standardization of processes (drawing on the work of Judith Gordon, Organizational Behavior: A Diagnostic Approach).

  • Mutual adjustments are the informal but direct communication links that develop between individuals within the organization. For example, the youth director and children’s director meet over coffee once a week to talk about family dynamics that are impacting students in both of their ministries. The amount of mutual adjustment within a staffing structure is as much a function of the culture of an organization as its design. However, a poor organizational design can prevent natural communication links from developing by creating arbitrary barriers.
  • Shared direct supervision creates linkages within your system. When a supervisor has direct responsibility for two or more employees, the grouping of employees that he or she supervises will form natural linkages to one another. If the youth director and children’s director both report to the same supervisor, they are more likely to coordinate their work, either in joint meetings with that supervisor or informally, because both are operating from the same set of shared expectations. Each of these direct reports receives consistent messages about vision, approach, and outcomes because each goes back to the same source.
  • Standardization of work processes. Two functions within your congregation that share the same database are more likely to develop natural linkages with one another than two functions that develop their own systems. Likewise, two functions that share a common leadership development pool will form natural points of connection. For example, if the youth director and the children’s director both engage the same processes for tracking attendance and participation, their work will more naturally align because both will be operating with a shared set of data.

Level of Centralization in Decision Making

The third major dimension of organizational design that should influence your staff-team design is the extent to which you desire centralized or decentralized decision making. In a centralized structure decision making is limited to the top post(s). In a decentralized structure the responsibility for decision making is disseminated throughout the organization.

Certain organizational designs will reinforce a centralized approach to decision making. The more vertical the organization, the greater the degree of centralized decision making. The flatter an organization, the greater the degree of decentralization. Why is this? The layers of an organization are decision-making repositories. The middle levels of organizations exist primarily to handle out-of-the-ordinary decision making and problem solving. When we reduce the number of levels in the structure, employees at all levels are forced to take on more decision-making responsibility.

Managerial Span of Control

The fourth and final dimension of organizational design is the managerial span of control. What is the optimum number of people and functions that a supervisor can oversee effectively? This question is basically concerned with the volume of interpersonal relationships that a supervisor can reasonably expect to maintain. The answer is different for every organization and for different parts of the same organization, so there is no easily prescribed answer.

As you consider the span of control for any individual manager, you need to consider both the number of formal and informal relationships that the supervisor is likely to have. This is important because the number of potential interpersonal relationships between a manager and subordinates increases geometrically as the number of subordinates increases arithmetically. Managers have to handle three types of relationships among their direct reports.

  • First, they manage the one-on-one relationship between themselves and the direct subordinate.
  • Second, they must manage their relationship with the group as a whole.
  • Third, they manage the interpersonal relationships that unfold between members of their team.

Considering the span of control requires thought about the level of contact that a particular group of subordinates need. Employees that need more oversight will of course need to work for managers that have fewer direct reports. Greater one-on-one contact time is required for roles that have a greater level of ambiguity in design. Greater one-on-one contact time is generally required for staff members who are newer on the job. Supervisors who oversee these types of employees need to have fewer direct reports.

Jobs at lower levels of the organization tend to be more specialized and less complicated than jobs higher in the organization. Supervisors at lower levels of the organization can generally oversee the work of more employees because the jobs they are overseeing are less complex. At higher levels of the organization roles tend to become much broader and less specialized. Overseeing jobs at this level requires a much greater scope of knowledge and information. The higher you go in the organization, the fewer the number of direct reports that can be supervised effectively.

Finally, the ease of communication between the leader and subordinates will determine the number of direct reports. If some of the employees that the leader oversees are located at another physical site or work on a different schedule or come from a different cultural background, it may be difficult to establish easy lines of communication. Reduce the number of direct reports that an employee is responsible for if the lines of communication between supervisor and subordinate are difficult for any reason.

What’s the ‘Right’ Answer for Your Organization?

When it comes to the tricky work of staff-team design there are few right answers or formulas to follow. The four design features presented here are intended to provoke dialogue among the leaders of a congregation about what might work best in their setting. Ultimately, the leadership of a congregation is the only group that can decide whether the staff-team configuration is appropriate or not. Is it working well? Why? Does it seem broken? What might be changed to make it more effective? In all likelihood, the conversations about staff-team design will be more beneficial than whatever chart is drawn to depict that design.

Adapted from a forthcoming book on leading staff by Alban consultants Susan Beaumont and Gil Rendle. Copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to our permissions form.