How to Manage a Church Staff When the Org Chart is a Family Tree
by Harvey Mitchell Jr.
My family represents four generations of Assemblies of God ministers. My father served on staff with his father, and I served on staff with my father. One day I was sitting in one of my classes in seminary, and I realized that my family is crazy! But the good news is, so is everyone else’s.
To a certain extent, every family has some form of dysfunction when it comes to interpersonal relationships. What is normal for you may not be normal for me. We may have similar situations and experiences because of our shared culture, environment, and background in the Assemblies of God, but for the most part we are all different.
Similarly, every autonomous church has a unique ministry style, organizational structure, and congregation. So if every family has some form of dysfunction, how do we do ministry when family members serve together on staff in the church?
Consider these seven tips for managing a church staff that includes family members.
Members of the board, ministry and support staff, and the church will all have questions and concerns when family members serve together on the ministry staff of a local church. The board wants to know how to evaluate family members on staff. The staff wants to know how to manage and work with family on staff. And the church wants to know where to take concerns about family members on staff. By being clear and transparent, the pastor alleviates many of the concerns and uncertainty that family staff serving together breeds in a church.
Include everyone in the discussion. Allow the board and the staff to share input and voice concerns. Hear and address the congregation’s questions and concerns.
Write Job Descriptions for Everyone on Staff
I have worked for five different churches and parachurch ministries. The extent of my hiring experience was a brief talk about what the pastor or director wanted me to accomplish, followed by a handshake and a prayer. Skipping the step of preparing job descriptions seems to be a standard operating practice in many churches. Unfortunately, this can lead to ambiguity and hurt feelings.
Church leaders should consider this question: Are we hiring strategic staff members or just warm bodies? A job description takes all the guessing and ambiguity out of managing and evaluating staff members.
Make the job descriptions of all paid employees available to the staff and board. The job descriptions should include expectations, details about to whom to report, evaluation procedures, and a list of actions that may result in termination.
While working with my family at my dad’s church, I noticed a growing number of families in the church that also started serving together. It was not uncommon to see whole families working together in various ministries in the church.
Navigating between related staff and volunteers posed some challenges. Fair and equitable treatment was essential. We established a resolution process before difficulties arose. Drafting and communicating management procedures in advance fosters an atmosphere of fairness. The moment one person is treated differently than another is the moment family in ministry becomes problematic.
When it comes to managing church staff where there are families involved — yours or someone else’s — you need boundaries and clear expectations in writing. Conflict in interpersonal communication usually boils down to unspoken expectations with no real plan of evaluating and holding staff accountable. Establish clear boundaries at the board level. Share these boundaries with the staff, volunteers, and congregation by developing a church employee handbook and church policy and procedures manual. Write a policy that explains the role, function, and relationship of family serving as either employees or staff at the church. Remember, there is a difference between what is considered normal practice in a family business and what is considered normal practice in a 501(c)(3) nonprofit business.
Establish an Objective Voice
Encourage objective people to evaluate the working relationships of the family members serving on staff together. They can hold leaders accountable for applying the same standards to family members and other staff members. They should have the freedom to tell the pastor when the family members are not cutting it. In a smaller church, the board could do this if there is a healthy relationship between the pastor and the board. In such an arrangement, the pastor could set up a portfolio for each board member to help share in the overseeing of the various administrative needs of the church.
If the relationship between the board and the pastor is not healthy, the pastor can seek a trusted, outside, objective voice. This person must love the church enough to speak up when family relationships on staff are not working. In a larger church, this could be an executive pastor who oversees the managing and development of all staff.
In any case, the pastor should listen to objective voices and respond to what they have to say.
Understand Family Allegiances
The last thing we want to do is create a Survivor Island culture on the church staff. Family allegiances are both good and bad. They are good because of the loyalty involved, but they can become bad when you have to deal with one of the family members. When managing someone else’s family member on staff, take the time to understand how their relationships interconnect with one another and their ministries. Regardless of the maturity of the individuals involved, family emotions can bleed over into work matters. When family loyalty wins out and related co-workers side with one another, an atmosphere of division can develop as others in the church begin choosing sides.
Mark 10:35–45 presents a picture of Jesus dealing with a request for favoritism by two brothers from His inner circle. The request was for James and John to sit at Jesus’ right and left. The other 10 disciples heard the request and formed a perception that could have led them to taking sides. Scripture says they became indignant with James and John.
We need to understand the popular cliché that what we don’t confront we condone. People sometimes walk away from conversations in which they are passively involved (eavesdropping) with a wrong perception of the reality because they did not take the time to confront what was wrong in that moment. People’s perceptions can easily lead them to take sides. Jesus was willing to confront His disciples. In that confrontation, He revealed that in His kingdom the first must become last. To be served, you must serve.
Watch Out for Jealousy on the Staff
John 1:35–42 tells of the calling of Andrew and Peter. Interestingly, Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, and his brother apparently became more powerful and successful, and a closer companion of Jesus. Do you think Andrew ever struggled with jealousy? Do staff members experience such feelings?
When I joined the ministry staff of my dad’s church following Bible college, the staff at the church included three part-time staff members and a full-time youth pastor. I came in as the full-time young adult pastor. During one of the staff meetings, the youth pastor shared a frustration. He was upset that my father and I were frequently going to lunch and hanging out together. When I first heard it, I was shocked. I thought, Well, duh. That’s what fathers and sons do!
As I thought about it, however, a few issues became clear. The youth pastor wanted the same father-son/mentor relationship with my father that I had. My family did a poor job of offering relationship outside of ministry with our youth pastor. My sister and her roommate were on staff, which meant that most of the staff members, by nature of proximity, were already part of the family. But the youth pastor and his wife had no connection with us other than the ministry, so I could only imagine how left out they felt.
Once staff members begin feeling left out, it is easy for them to struggle with jealousy. This leads to conflict in decision making and staff relationships.
Know When to Let the Family Go
Family members should realize that family relationships — not ministry relationships — are the ones that last. When ministry relationships, that are family relationships, part ways, they will forever remain connected to the family through holidays, birthdays, reunions, family get-togethers, and vacations. Family relationships should take priority over ministry relationships, every time. If the ministry relationship begins to strain the family relationship, seriously consider reinventing or ending the ministry relationship. When you serve with your family, you bring both good and not-so-good dynamics into the relationship.
Reasons for terminating a family ministry relationship can include the following:
• When the family member is unable to handle legitimate constructive criticism.
• When the family member can’t separate family life from church life.
• When the family member can’t treat other staff members the same.
• When the family member resists correction.
Terminating staff is never easy, especially when the staff member is a family member. Give time and consideration to help people leave well. Is the person being terminated in a lease agreement? If so, should the church help him or her break it? What time of year is it? Most churches hire in the fall, late spring, or early summer. If you let someone go near the Christmas holiday, he or she could be out of work for six to eight months. Also, keep in mind that holiday and seasonal employment starts around mid-September through October. If the staff member is let go in November or December, seasonal employment may not be available.
Serving with family on staff can be one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable experiences in ministry. However, it can also become an experience that severely hurts the family and the church when things don’t go as planned.
By following the seven steps outlined in this article, pastors and churches can make family staff relationships a win-win experience for both the family and the church.