Why churches manage their staff badly

Jon Kuhrt offers a succinct and insightful analysis of managing people in the community of God.

Why Churches manage their staff badly

by Jon Kuhrt

First published on Resistance and Renewal

The other day I was talking with four friends, all of whom are committed to their local churches and also work for Christian organisations. As we chatted, someone shared a situation in their work where a blatantly unjust situation was not being tackled. She outlined the grief it was causing and her frustration about how it was being allowed to continue.

It led to a torrent of similar examples coming from the others.

It was all depressing familiar to me. Over the last 20 years I have worked for and alongside many churches and Christian organisations and I have consistently seen the same picture.

We have to be honest. And the truth is that, too often, churches manage their staff badly.

Symptoms of poor management

Of course bad management can occur anywhere. But I think there are some common symptoms which are manifested in Christian culture which are worth examining. It is common to find the following factors:

  • A deep reluctance to challenge poorly performing members of staff
  • Staff with dangerous levels of pent up frustration which is unexpressed through fear of being disloyal
  • Confusions between pastoral care and professional accountability (especially when roles of minister and manager are combined)
  • A reluctance to utilise the professional experience of experienced managers in the congregation
  • That many church leaders themselves feel unsupported and isolated – when you are not managed yourself ‘it’s hard to give what you don’t get’

Three underlying causes

These kind of symptoms are like dysfunctional weeds which strangle the health of church work. Nothing is more stressful than dealing with a tricky staff issue. However these weeds flourish in environments created by these underlying factors:

1. Absence of structures

Too often churches do not have the basics in place such as Job Descriptions, Contracts and clear reporting processes. Too often they are not given any regular 1-1 supervision by their manager. I met someone recently in a church who in 17 years had never had any form of Appraisal. These kind of structures are not bureaucracy– they are vital to someone knowing what their job is and being able to be accountable to others.

2. Unassertive culture

Unassertiveness appears in many guises. Often churches employ what could be called the ‘Pac-Man’ approach to people management: whenever you hit a barrier you simply change direction. Christian culture can be good at ‘dressing the wounds’ of dysfunction, pretending things are OK when they are not: “‘Peace, peace’, they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

There is frequently a deep reluctance to confront issues and challenge people who are underperforming or not doing what is required. Many tread on eggshells around their staff, fearing that the relationships are too brittle to bear any form of criticism. In doing so they condemn their working relationships to remains immature and shallow, untested by honest discussion. In reality, good staff expect and appreciate being challenged – they find it motivating because it shows that what they do matters and is noticed.

3. Lack of integrated theology

Most deeply there is a failure to integrate good theology in people management. Christians should be aware more than anyone of human frailty, our tendency to struggle, our need for guidance, support and accountability. Even if staff have the deepest Christian faith, we should never have a blind optimism about their behaviour or their ability to do a job. The Bible is brutally honest about the sinfulness of God’s people and we don’t have to look far for evidence of this in today’s Church.

Good management is a spiritual task. It helps reduce the negative effects of pride, insecurity and other ‘self-regarding tendencies’ and can help release and truly encourage people in their work.

Top tips for change

The good news is becoming a better manager is possible! And most of it is not rocket science. These are my top tips:

1. Invest time in your team. If you cannot give an hour of dedicated, uninterrupted, quality time to meet 1-1 with those you line manage every month then you should expect problems. Nothing is more important than giving people time to talk.

2. Be honest about the current situation. Open things up with a simple review process – ask the staff for their views – what do we do well? What could be done better? What would you recommend? As my friend Adam Bonner always says ‘Reality is Liberating’. Unless you are honest about the current situation, nothing will change.

3. Make a plan to tackle the issues that are raised. Draft it up and share the plan with everyone for their comments. There does not need to be any hidden agenda and right from the start this will build trust, honesty and ownership in the process of better management.

4. Get the right structures in place. Make sure you have up to date job descriptions and use a simple structure for supervisions and appraisals to ensure consistency and fairness.

5. Use the support availableChurch Urban Fund’s Just Employment is a useful resource and Livability’s Community Mission team run events focussed on these issues. Many Dioceses and the central offices of denominations have sensible procedures that can be used and adapted. Also many congregations have experienced managers who could offer great advice.

6. Review and celebrate progressgood systems help tackle issues and improve relationships. Build in a review period in advance and ask someone independent to come in to check in on how everything is going. Make a list of the good things that have happened and celebrate them. Use the areas where further improvement is needed as the basis for the next plan of action.

Change is possible!

The cycle of poor management can be broken.

If you know someone who manages people within a church setting why not send them the link to this article on email ? Let’s get the comments going and have an honest debate about these issues: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Reality is liberating – and the truth will set us free.


Jon Kuhrt lives in Streatham and works for the West London Mission

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