Preventing Staff Infection — A Senior Pastor’s View
One of the most important decisions senior pastors make is who to bring onto their leadership team. A pastor who impulsively chooses his staff walks on dangerous ground. The larger the congregation the more important it is to build a staff that complements and supports the senior pastor’s biblical priorities.
What Causes Staff Infection?
When a new senior pastor arrives, there can be hidden or direct conflict among the staff he inherits. This difficulty accompanies transitions in leadership in almost every church. Conflict can be created in a variety of ways. It can arise during the search process when the church has a leadership void. This may stem from the competitiveness of the staff members. It can also be created when one of the staff ministers wants to be senior pastor but was not considered or chosen.
Conflict can come because the new senior pastor did not have the privilege of interviewing his new staff before they were hired. In many cases, he might not have selected some of the people he inherited.
Another factor is personality issues. The associates might not like the new pastor, so they do not immediately support him. This creates a loyalty problem. One pastor overheard a conversation between two staff pastors: “He will catch on to how we do things here. Until then, let’s pretend to agree with him.” These conflicts cause immediate tension, undermine the pastor, and usually last 3 to 12 months. Congregations and pastoral staff need to understand this delicate time of adjustment.
Significant staff turnover is common within the first 2 to 4 years following the selection of a new senior pastor. Job descriptions may change that affect staff pastors as ministry positions are reorganized or replaced. It is important that the pastor, a consultant, or a coach explain to church leadership that this is a normal process.
Pastoral transition is challenging because senior and associate pastors have built loyal relationships in the congregation. Staff pastors who leave during this time need to do so with extreme care and impeccable ethics. They can leave in an ethical manner and help the church’s future, or they can leave in an unethical manner and hurt the church’s future. When inherited staff members leave, it does not reflect a weakness in the senior pastor’s ability to get along with people. Lay leadership and key congregational people need to understand that:
- It is normal and predictable institutional behavior for staff to change positions or to find other employment during leadership transitions and the subsequent adjustments.
- This is a product of the unique characteristics of larger congregations — the dominance of relational values over functional concerns.
- Most senior pastors feel more comfortable if they have seniority over the other pastors.
- It is the new pastor’s responsibility and privilege to build a staff/team he feels comfortable with, and one he believes is favorable for the health of the church.
Preventing Staff Infection
Do your homework
I am often surprised when I hear of a pastor hiring a staff member because he has a decent résumé. When a senior pastor does little research, does not call a perspective staff pastor’s references, and conducts a short interview, it is no wonder many staff relationships fail. In the 14 years I have been a senior pastor, I lost only one associate that I hired.
My wife and I do our homework and pray about each staff person we hire. We spend at least a weekend with the candidate, usually in our home, during the interview process. This gives the candidate and us enough information to decide whether or not it will work.
I always ask, “Is there anything you have done or are doing that would injure the witness of this church?” This question immediately brings to mind pornography issues, moral problems, marital difficulties, and ethical concerns. Settle these issues before you hire anyone.
It is important that the pastor and staff members have good rapport with each other. Though there will be difficult times, pastor-staff relationships must be built on trust and mutual cooperation.
The well-adjusted two-pastor or multiple-staff team requires the senior pastor to do 80 percent of the getting along with the associate and the associate to do 80 percent of the getting along with the senior pastor. The result is a surplus of getting along. In dysfunctional arrangements, each contributes 10 to 20 percent to the process, and the resulting deficit causes unhappiness.1
Communicate, communicate, communicate! Talk about personal issues: “How’s your family?”; their dreams, “Are you feeling fulfilled and happy in your job?”; their development, “Is there anything I can do to help you meet your goals?”; your expectations, “How can I help you reach the goals we have set for your department? Do you see any barriers keeping you from getting there?” Staff meetings, luncheons, visiting staff offices, and leaving your office door open all go a long way in facilitating open communication.
It takes time to build trust, but trust between staff members is critical. If the team does not trust the leader, or vice versa, it will eventually damage the team.
The staff pastor needs to be loyal to the senior pastor, and the senior pastor must be loyal to the associate. Remember, the associate works for the pastor, not for the board or anyone else in the church. People can say, “Get rid of that staff pastor” for whatever reason.
The pastor’s response is, “He works for me, and I trust him and will help him grow in what he does.” The staff pastor needs to feel that the senior pastor supports him.
Tell the truth
When there are difficulties, we should always tell the truth. People grow with the truth. If the associate feels the pastor shoots straight with him and tries to help him with what he needs to do, then correction is often accepted. If the associate does not get along with someone else on staff, then the pastor needs to explain that the high road is to work it out, or the team will be compromised.
Major issues pastors can improve on to cure staff conflict
- Coherence (harmony): Build personal and professional compatibility among the staff team.
- Endurance: Long-term relationships and long pastorates are important. Most rapidly growing congregations that sustain their growth have long-term pastors and associates.
- Compatibility: When I ask someone to join the team, I hire spirit before I hire talent. A teachable spirit is critical. I have met too many associates just out of college or seminary who think they are going to fix the church or the pastor. The rule I go by is: are they humble (Do they trust God for their ability?), hard working (Do they have a good work ethic or are they lazy?), are they smart? (Do they get it? Do they understand the position they have and the personal and professional priorities of ministry?)
- Trust: Build trust in other staff and from the members of the congregation. Trust is not automatic; it grows over time as we make one good decision after another.
- Agreement and adhesion: Is there consistency among staff members in professional relationships? Are their programs and ministries based on priorities that fulfill the role to which God has called that congregation? In other words, does the team stick together and agree with the pastor’s goals?
- Team: The staff members complement one another and make a well-rounded team. Team members are not carbon copies of the senior pastor. They understand their unique roles and gifts and work together to promote church health.
- Understanding: Is there agreement on vision, goals, strategies, purposes, or are staff members competing with each other?
When there is staff conflict, how should it be handled? When the senior pastor adds a staff pastor or multiple staff pastors, there will be disagreement and conflict. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, perspectives, and birth orders. Everyone has opinions. We want their opinions, but we also need their cooperation and desire to get along with other staff members.
Disagreements are normal
Paul and Barnabas “had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:39). However, we see their maturity in that they were “commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” and Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:40,41). A disagreement and a disagreeable person are two different things. As the leader, we must try to understand and talk through disagreements with all involved.
Let staff pastors lead
Associates are not just yes people; they are leaders who have ideas. Permit the staff to discuss their various ideas with the goal of finding a balanced, healthy opinion. This is a skill into which we grow. The church will enjoy a variety of strong ministries when staff pastors are permitted to lead while being loyal.
Let them disagree, debate, discuss, but not divide
I remember hearing of a large staff that yelled at one another in staff meetings. On one occasion an associate became so angry he threw his glass of water at the senior pastor. This is not healthy disagreement, but reason for dismissal. I have also seen associate pastors try to one-up each other to get next to the senior pastor. I have heard divisive comments from associates who were competing over ministry or personal goals. This is not healthy and will harm the church. It is the senior pastor’s responsibility to permit healthy debate and to let staff disagree, but he must never let them become divided. Meetings must end with everyone on the team.
Find out where conflict is coming from and who is the primary leader of the conflict
Sit down with each person individually (both sides) and sort it out. Once the pastor understands the situation, he can determine the best direction to go.
Understand if the conflict is a personal issue or a professional opinion
Personal issues on how to do church are different than opinions. Personal opinions should be handled in the way God prescribed (especially leaders), “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). “How many times shall I forgive my brother? … not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21,22).
The staff needs to understand that a congregation has elephant-size ears. They hear and see a great deal of what happens. As ministers of the gospel, we are responsible to work out our differences.
It is sometimes profitable to bring together those in conflict and let them air it out. If the senior pastor can serve as a coach without personal bias, then he can assist these valuable leaders in finding middle ground, or he can help them agree to disagree. But pray for each other and demonstrate loyalty to each other for the sake of the church and the team.
See the big picture
Sometimes staff members forget the big picture. We are part of an incredible Kingdom, and the church is the most powerful organization on earth. We are honored to be leaders in God’s church, and our hearts and opinions need to reflect that perspective. When we do not work out the issues we have with others, we hurt God’s kingdom.
Act like Christians
Before we are leaders, we are Christians. When the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest (Mark 9:33–37), they were competing with each other. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Helping the associate team understand Kingdom leadership rules is part of a pastor’s responsibility.
Remember, the world is watching
The congregation, community, Christians, and non-Christians know whether or not the team is getting along. Our goal is to win our city for Christ. We cannot do it alone, but we can develop a team that prays, dreams, and develops strategy together about how to reach the community. It always amazes me when I receive a phone call from the newspaper or television station, or I receive a letter from a neighbor saying, “We heard that your church is planning an activity.” How did they know? They are always watching us. The church lives in a fishbowl.
I allow team members to discuss, debate, and disagree, but when I feel they could injure themselves, the team, or the congregation, I get involved.
I often watch the Wake Forest University basketball team. They are often rated in the top 10 in the country. Their goal is to win. The coach determines the strategy used to win the game, but to win he must let each player be his best while working together as a team. If one member isn’t a team player, the coach has a problem. He could lose the game because this one person is arrogant and does not see the big picture. The coach needs to correct this person’s approach while appreciating his zeal. Talking, following through, and being sensitive to the challenges of multiple-staff leadership is part of what we do. Conflict among the staff is normal, but the senior pastor must be a conflict manager and peacemaker.
- Lyle E. Schaller. The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980), 102.