The Most Frequent Burdens Church Staff Face

Last week, I posted about burdens pastors often share with our Lawless Group consulting team. Others have since asked what we hear from church staff members. In response to that request, here are topics of pain we often hear from staff. Again, I ask you to use this post as a catalyst to pray for your church’s staff members.

  1. Lacking time with senior leadership – Given the size of some churches, it may be difficult for staff to spend significant time with the senior leader – but that reality seldom lessens the desire of staff to have face-to-face conversations. Staff often struggle when they have no more time with the senior leader than does the typical layperson.
  2. Lacking clear role expectations – Sometimes leaders know in their mind exactly what they expect from staff, but the church has provided no written job descriptions. In other cases, a job description is provided, but expectations are different than the written narrative. In either case, staff are then held accountable to unstated expectations.
  3. Longing for a God-sized vision – Too often, staff cannot answer our question, “What is the vision of this church and its leadership?” When this happens, we usually learn that senior leaders have lost their vision as well. Staff yearn to serve with a leader whose vision compels them each day.
  4. Having few friends, especially among other staff – I am an introvert, but even I am surprised by how many staff members are lonely. Church members become acquaintances, not friends. Staff families seldom spend time together. Staff themselves are sometimes at odds with each other, especially in struggling churches.
  5. Living in a ministry silo – Staff love their sphere of ministry (e.g., students, music), but few others share their level of passion. Others make decisions that affect their ministry without discussion or dialogue. Calendaring events becomes competition rather than cooperation. The silo gets lonely.
  6. Ministering with few funds – Many churches find salary money by decreasing ministry funds. Thus, they hire personnel but provide little money for them to do the work they are called to do. A vision without resources can bring frustration and fatigue.
  7. Perceiving they have no voice – Some staff believe no one in authority listens to their ideas or concerns. In some cases, that perception is based in the church’s history: the staff’s previous attempts to voice their opinion went unheard.
  8. Having no “safe” place to be honest – This burden is obviously connected to the previous one. Our consultant team often hears these concerns simply because staff believe they have no other place to go with their concerns.
  9. Receiving poor salary and/or benefits – Our team has not heard from staff who are ungrateful for their positions, but we have heard from staff who are struggling with their bills. Our salary and benefit evaluations often do show some staff are underpaid when compared with averages for similar positions.
  10. Longing for affirmation – All leaders operate differently, but most staff appreciate a “pat on the back” once in awhile. Even little gestures – a public “thank you,” a lunch invitation, a drop by visit, or a small bonus – can go a long way toward building a strong team.
  11. Competing for volunteers – Every ministry needs workers, but willing volunteers are limited. Because most churches do not have a strategy to enlist and train workers, staff often compete for the same workers. Recruitment thus becomes organizational rivalry.
  12. Seeing and hearing too much – I wish I could ignore this burden, but integrity demands I include it. Too many staff members wrestle internally because they have listened to leader and staff language, overhead jokes, and watched actions that are less than Christian. Typically, they express this burden to us with a heavy heart and deep grief.

To be frank, I wish I had appreciated my staff members more when I served as a full-time pastor. Take time right now to pray for your church staff. If you are a pastor or staff member, direct your folks to this post and ask them to pray for your team. Nobody on the team should carry burdens alone.

21 Comments

  • Brett Faris says:

    Dr. Lawless I agree with all these burdens. Being in ministry over 10 years, I know I have experienced each on a different level. What a great list to use to begin to pray over church staff. Thanks for identifying these for us and the challenge to pray more.

  • “Because most churches do not have a strategy to enlist and train workers, staff often compete for the same workers.”

    So we are talking about congregations that are large enough to support multiple people that are paid ministers, but they are somehow unable to meet one of the basic goals that we have for gathering together.

    Beyond that, most of this just sounds like any other workplace which is a problem in itself.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Not all of these interviewees were paid staff, Dallas, but the problems remained the same. Most churches need to work on their enlistment and training strategy. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  • David says:

    Thanks for this list. I teach a course in our curriculum, Church Staff Relations, and cover many of these issues and really try to stress how to avoid some of these issues or at least deal with them when they are not the senior leader, but they are one of these staff members. They are required to function as a church staff for the duration of the semester and I don’t solve any problems for them when they have them, I help them work those out themselves. Hopefully they will be a little better prepared when they find themselves serving as part of a church staff when they graduate.

  • Jim Evans says:

    You nailed it. I was a staff pastor at a very large and growing church. I resigned because of 10 out of the 12 burdens you listed. During the 10 months after my resignation 15 other staff people resigned. Many of them were very gifted and loyal people. A new HR guy that was placed between the lead pastor and the staff who was unaware of the fragile condition of the staff and began to “prove his ministry” by pushing the staff to increase effectiveness and attempted to squelch the “rumblings of disloyalty” by disciplining those who would not fall in line. The problem wasn’t lack of loyalty or lack of effort by the staff. The real problem was the increasing consequences of the burdens you listed here today. These burdens were multiplied by creating even more distance between the lead pastor and the staff. I am sure the newly recruited staff leader did not realize the condition of the staff.

    I recommend some “Lincoln leadership” for all lead pastors. Lincoln was know for leading by walking around the troops. I would suggest that lead pastors take one day a week, maybe a Tuesday, to stick their heads in doors and over cubicles to say, “Hey, great weekend . . . thanks for being part of the team . . . is there anything you need?” Ninety percent of the time the staffer will not need anything (you just gave him or her what they need most). The pastor may have to spend fifteen minutes or so with a few people to learn of needs or get some input on possible changes. Then take a random staffer to lunch (not the insiders who you always do lunch with). If it is a female staffer, take two. A Tuesday-walk-around and lunch will be the most productive five hours spent that week.

    We were always told, regarding the teams we led, that we should “use ministry to build people, not people to build ministry.” This mentality can be felt by both the leader and the staffer. As we honor people above ministry it seems that ministry grows itself. Let Christ build His church as we build one another.

    Thanks for bringing this discussion to the marketplace.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Jim.

    • Bob says:

      Excellent advice, Jim! The level of heartache in church staff settings is multiplied because we expect things to be better because it is the Body of Christ. But all to often, as you have illustrated, the church operates as a business. That “space’ between senior pastor and other staff is deadly. In two of the settings I served, I had an executive pastor. Not to bash executive pastors; I know there may be a place for them. But in my experience, they served to isolate the senior pastor from the rest of the staff. It was very dysfunctional.

      Thanks again for the sage advice for senior pastors.

      • ACD says:

        That seems to be the primary purpose of executive pastors: to be the enforcer and keep the other staff in line while the senior pastor remains above the frey. Every executive pastor I have known operates this way and it is very dysfunctional.

  • ACD says:

    Another issue is staff thrown under the bus rather than the senior pastor dealing with a situation.

  • david says:

    8, 12

    Unfortunate. So much for leadership following Christ.

    The rest of these look like everyday work problems. Again, poor leadership.

  • {Whew, you threw some math at me so I could comment…TOTALLY not in my job description here.}

    Anyway, this post is spot on. I wonder how many of us did the head-nod at our desk as we read each burden, making people think we were nodding to some music. Lucky for me, I work in a cave and half the time people don’t even know I’m here.

    Praying we each can be a agent of change. I know there are somethings we simply will not be able to solve on our own, but choose one and see what you can do. Maybe it’s inviting a staff member into your circle of friends. True, your circle won’t increase…but hopefully theirs will!

    I am reverting to my toddler years and relearning how to say “No.” I have no job description and only recently (after 10yrs) have started to step up and be my own advocate.

    Praying for all of us as we seek to live out the Call God has put in our lives to serve Him in Ministry.

    Yours in Christ,
    Heather

  • Gayle says:

    As the wife of an associate pastor, it’s encouraging to see these unique challenges acknowledged. Thank you so much!

  • Louise says:

    We observed one situation where even the senior pastor’s SECRETARY would “pull rank” when she needed equipment the “lesser,” associate pastors were using on a Sunday. If they had genuine need for items/equipment for their morning programs–too bad. Secretary would pull what she wanted even at the last minute. Maybe it’s because the senior pastor put her in charge of ministries he wanted the church involved in, but that he did not want to manage himself. It wasn’t exactly a co-pastoring, buuuuut the secretary definitely believed she had more seniority and even authority than the associate pastors, which could be more than a little confusing, and galling for those who had to deal with her. I think that’s representative of a handful of the points made above…..

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