Creating Positive Staff Dynamics

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Jesus made it look easy. Pick some folks (anyone will do), spend intentional time with them, give them chances to lead, and Bam! A team of nobodies turns the world upside down.

So what’s wrong with me? In my first year at my church, three staff members quit. The only thing my staff was turning upside down was our church. Before we could change the world, I had to change my staff. What I learned from Jesus helped me turn a burnt-out staff into a group of people who imbue joy, life, and vitality into the congregation.

Jesus apparently hired on character and soul more than raw skills. So we decided to do the same.

No more panicked hires

I began where Jesus did — with hiring. Jesus took time to build his team. There are those first call narratives where he sees a tax collector and invites him on the journey or where an excited Philip runs to tell Nathanael they have found the Christ. But more than a year passed before they joined the apostle “staff.” Jesus spent a long time on the interview process.

Few of us have an entire year to decide on our next children’s minister or music director. But we need to spend much more time than we do. Paul told Timothy, “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader” (1 Tim 5:22). When our music director quit a few months before Easter, I panicked. But a retired pastor talked me off the ledge. “Remember,” she said, “this is a gift. You get input into this hiring. So don’t rush it.” We reframed the entire process. We got volunteers to fill in and doubled the interview time.

Jesus’ team had some strange hires: commercial fishermen, a radical zealot, a customs official, and commoners. Jesus apparently hired on character and soul more than raw skills. So we decided to do the same. We started to screen for values and personality, not just skill sets. Our job descriptions now include two sections: what we expect you to do and who we expect you to be. We look for basic skills, but interview for personality and passion as well. Our hiring process now includes both formal and informal interactions, such as lunch around a picnic table with the staff. Personality and fit are no longer a matter of crossed fingers.

Enjoying one another’s company

I want our church staff to enjoy not just our work but each other. You spend half your waking hours with these folks, so it helps if you actually like them. It began with our staff meeting. We start with a devotional and discussion. Then we share prayer concerns and celebrations. Over the years, we have shed tears together, brought concerns before each other, and prayed for each other by name. Church staffs minister from their own spiritual depth. Jesus had private instruction time with his closest followers. I’m convinced they drew on this daily.

Business is important, but what brings any relationship alive is the fun. So make room for fun. Instead of the traditional staff Christmas potluck, our staff went to dinner before cutting a rug at a dancehall in Austin. Instead of trust falls at a ropes course, we spend an afternoon on the lake. For birthdays, we go to lunch, putt-putt, or the pool together. The result is our staff actually likes each other. Our friendship is the backbone of the ministry of our church.

Creative compensation

Jesus was pretty up front about compensation: “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Few of us do church work for epic salaries. Yet compensation is a basic and important way to recognize good work. We pay our staff appropriately, but they could make much more in the secular world. So we get creative, knowing that compensation is much more than a check. It includes recognition, affirmation, time, and respect.

When I told our Director of Ministry that we wanted to give him the free spot on our church’s trip to the Holy Land, it was the best news he had heard all year. Even small amounts of money can have an impact. This year, our personnel committee used just $600 to encourage staff. They bought gift cards and sent them to staff, spouses, and kids on their birthdays, thanking them for the ways they support our church. I will never forget how my daughter’s eyes popped when the church sent her a birthday present. Remember special days, anniversaries, birthdays, and days of loss. Take time to check in, write a note, or have a small present on those days.

Finally, be generous with praise. After big wins, we mention the event and praise the staff responsible. Sometimes this is done in church, but also at leadership and staff meetings and in private. Speak well of your coworkers, build them up, and you will be amazed at how they return the favor.

If you want a vital church, invest in your staff. Help them to shine, to love their jobs, and to trust each other. It is well worth the effort.


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About Author

Laura Heikes is pastor of Bee Creek United Methodist Church in Spicewood, Texas. She participated in the Lewis Center for Church Leadership’s Lewis Fellows leadership development program for young clergy in 2008-2009.


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