5 Reasons Churches Suffer Management Chaos


Focused on ministry, churches often give too little attention to organizational management. Church consultant Rich Sider outlines five common management problems that can result in confusion and conflict.

This article was originally published on May 23, 2018.

Churches correctly give priority to ministry to their members and their communities. However, if they don’t also give priority to how they are managed and to the systems needed in any organization to function efficiently and effectively, they will not be able to meet their ministry goals and they will be consumed by confusion, chaos, and conflict. Here are five of the top management problems churches ignore at their peril.

1. Lack of clear lines of responsibility and accountability

Church staff sometimes joke that they have as many bosses as there are members. While that’s an exaggeration, there is always a subset of the membership that feels entitled to ask or even demand that staff do this or that for them. Sometimes those requests don’t have much to do with the job description. The member doesn’t really know which person to ask so they just contact someone they think might help them. On the other hand, in congregations with a small staff that is primarily managed by the leaders of volunteer boards or committees, members often don’t know who is responsible for what and a lot of things fall through the cracks.

Efficient communication, administration, and basic management are critical for congregational success. Without these, things don’t get done, there is duplication, and toes get stepped on, which causes a lot of frustration and even conflict. Congregations need to make sure there is a clear governance structure with lines of authority and responsibility that are effectively communicated to everyone. The division of responsibility between staff and lay leadership — usually the board — needs to be clearly defined as well.

2. Poor continuity in leadership

One of the factors that works against having clear lines of responsibility and accountability is the constant turnover in lay leadership. Board members usually serve 3-year terms and they may or may not be eligible for reelection. Where new board members are elected each year in the normal board term rotation, the typical “storming, norming, forming, and performing” group process never gets to the performing stage. In small congregations where board members — especially the treasurer — do most of the operational work, this becomes an even greater problem. A great deal of knowledge and even basic functionality can be lost when key leaders rotate out of their positions.

If a congregation doesn’t want to consider longer lay leadership terms or can’t get people to agree to longer service, it must hire staff and delegate operational authority to them to ensure that basic administrative systems don’t break down every time there’s a change in lay leadership. Staff turnover can also be a problem that works against continuity. But addressing these management issues will go a long way in creating a positive work environment that contributes to staff longevity.

3. Unwillingness to delegate and trust

One of the biggest challenges church boards face is to stay focused on the big picture — the congregation’s mission, vision, and goals — while delegating the day-to-day operational decisions to staff and committees. Without strong orientation to the contrary, the tendency of many board members is to get involved in day-to-day matters that seem more urgent and concrete than the big picture issues. Even worse is another common scenario in which the governance structure is set up to delegate decision-making, but the board doesn’t trust those to whom decisions are delegated to handle matters appropriately. So, board members meddle and undermine what staff, lay leaders, or committees try to do, which creates confusion and conflict.

4. Lack of strong policies and procedures that are communicated and followed

Policies and procedures provide the foundation for establishing clear lines of authority and responsibility and for defining how the congregation handles matters it faces. For many congregations, very little is written down, so policies and procedures are known only to those “in the know.” It’s not hard to imagine the problems this can cause — confusion, conflict, and marginalizing those who don’t know how “things are done.” In some congregations, policies and procedures aren’t updated regularly and there is no consistent and known way of making updates available to congregants.

5. Poor administrative systems that don’t consistently deliver basic products and services

Every church needs to have a few basic administrative systems in place to ensure that the congregation can focus on its mission and vision. There needs to be a good system to manage:

  • Finances. How are donations, banking, paying bills, payroll and financial reporting handled?
  • Membership. How are classifying and tracking congregants as visitors, friends, members, etc. handled? Is there good reporting capability?
  • Groups within the congregation. Who are the members of governance groups, committees, small groups, etc., and how are they selected and replaced?
  • Facilities. Who is responsible for maintenance and record keeping of building systems and how are long-term maintenance/replacement needs managed and funded?
  • Staff. Is there an up-to-date personnel policy manual? Are there clear staff reporting lines? Are staff supervisors providing good management oversight and evaluation?
  • Communications. Is information readily available to members about what’s happening in the congregation and about what and how decisions are being made? Does the congregation have a visible public media presence?

None of these needs are difficult to implement but they do take time to establish. Perhaps even more challenging is maintaining and utilizing them consistently over time. However, the first steps in solving administrative chaos are to recognize that a church needs good management practices to be effective, just like any other organization, and to be willing to dedicate time and resources to making it happen.

Related Resources


About Author

Rich Sider’s consulting service, Church Management Services, offers administrative and management support to congregations. For nine years, Rich was Director of Administration at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, Virginia; and he is currently President of the Association of UU Administrators.

Cover of Discovering God's Future for Your Church showing a blank wooden signpostLewis Center video tool kit resource
Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.