What is Staff?

The question seems almost too obvious, doesn’t it? When asked this question, most church leaders respond that the staff of the church is the group of people that the church employs.  And this response is more or less accurate. However, many congregations have volunteers who effectively serve as staff members of the church and don’t get paid; volunteers who devote significant, dedicated and predictable hours in service to the congregation, and do not expect or accept compensation for what they do. Churches also employ some very part time employees who are only minimally tied to the missional outcomes of the congregation (e.g. a part time landscape worker) who don’t really function as members of the staff team.

So what is staff, and what role does it play in the large church? Dictionary.com provides this definition of staff.  Staff (noun): a group of persons, as employees, charged with carrying out the work of an establishment, or executing some undertaking on its behalf.   Many church leaders assume this rather secular definition with regard to their staff teams. The staff is here to engage in ministry on our behalf. The problem with this definition is that the staff team of a congregation does not undertake the work of ministry in place of the congregation; it exists to organize and orchestrate the laity in pursuit of the congregation’s mission. When a staff team and its leaders confuse the difference between the work of the laity and the work that is theirs to do, the congregation loses missional impact. A staff team of 25 cannot accomplish what a congregation of 800 can accomplish within a community. The staff team works in service to the mission, and works on behalf of the congregation, but does not carry out the work of the congregation. The work of the congregation always belongs to the laity.

Some congregations become very fearful about the staff team taking away work that legitimately belongs to the laity. A definition of staff that may work its way into the psyche of these congregations is more along the lines of the military definition of staff. “A body of officers without command authority, appointed to assist a commanding officer; or, the parts of any army concerned with administrative matters, planning, etc. rather than with actual participation in combat.”  If we eliminate the references to army and combat, we actually have a pretty good working definition of how some congregations view their staff teams. The staff is here to administer and execute the ministry that the boards and committees of the church craft for them to do. This definition of staff often keeps staff out of critical planning and decision making conversations, ultimately limiting their ministry impact and sidelining them in strategic direction setting.

How, then, should we be thinking about staff in the large congregation? Once a congregation passes the 400 threshold in weekend worship attendance, the orientation of the congregation around the staff team begins to shift. Below the 400 mark, the energy center of the congregation is the governing board. The staff works under the guidance of the governing body. Laity is central to the organization and execution of ministry in the small to medium sized congregation. In the attendance zone between 400 and 800 the staff team becomes more centrally positioned as the energy zone of congregational life. The governing board still maintains responsibility for the strategic direction of the congregation and the oversight of the head of staff, but the staff team becomes the central organizing force through which ministry ideas are conceived and executed. This shift oftentimes causes confusion among lay leadership, who report feeling sidelined by the staff. If the staff team is the organizing center of the congregation, what is the role of laity?

Consider this working definition of staff as an alternative to both the secular and military definitions. The staff of a congregation exists to organize the human, financial and capital resources of the congregation, in pursuit of the congregation’s mission. Staff are those individuals, paid and unpaid, who commit to working regularly scheduled hours, and agree to be subject to the performance management/supervisory system of the congregation. This definition provides for the existence of volunteer staff that are willing to work without pay, but are willing to subject themselves to the accountability systems of a staff team (i.e. job description, performance evaluations, supervisory relationships, and participation in staff team meetings). It also helps to distinguish between staff members who are committed to the missional outcomes of the congregation and those part time contract employees for whom there are no missional expectations. (I would argue that these employees are not technically staff). Furthermore, this definition empowers members of the staff to participate freely and fully in the decision making and strategic direction setting of the congregation, provided that their participation serves the congregation’s mission and strategic direction.

Which of these definitions is most closely aligned with how your congregation views its staff? Is it time to revisit and overhaul the congregations expectations about why the staff exists?

Photo Credit: mattneighbour

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