Ethics & Christian living

Why churches manage their staff badly

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 depressingly 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 progress – good 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.

Related article: The Seven Deadly Sins of Managing People Badly

24 thoughts on “Why churches manage their staff badly”

  1. Another excellent article and very pertinent. Too often some churches and Christian organisations employ the “head in the sand” approach, deliberately at times choosing not to see the reality of the situation chanting two mantras – “all is well” and “don’t rock the boat”. Church leaders, like the rest of us, aren’t superhuman and cannot manage everything. Your point about leaders not utillising the management or organisational skills in the congregation is so true, perhaps because of ego, a sense of failure or feeling threatened. It takes an emotionally mature leader to be open about the skills they do and don’t have and have the wisdom to ask others to step in.


  2. Thanks Girda! As my first ever line manager (oh for the heady summer of 1993…) it is very appropriate that you leave the first reply!

    I don’t think that there is anything more important than emotionally mature leaders. Sadly church leaders do feel pressure to be superheroes and super-Holy when of course they have strengths and weaknesses like any of us. They urgently need space to be honest and reflect on these issues and how they will manage them best with the support of others. Sometimes I despair of how unaccountable and unsupported some church leaders are. God bless you and thanks for all you taught me way back!


  3. Great post John. As one of the larger Christian organisations around (probably?!) this is something we’ve definitely talked a lot about at Tearfund: getting the balance between the professional and the pastoral right, and ensuring that we take a rigorous approach to appraisals and personal development. Personally it feels like we’re not doing a bad job, but I’m sure there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

    On reflection, my experience of being managed within the private sector was not radically different to that within the Christian sector – there are plenty of managers out there from all walks of life who could benefit from these tips!

    One thing that I have noticed within a Christian context, though, is the bonus of being able to pray with the people that we’re working with and managing – or being managed by. I feel that this helps to build strong and honest relationships and communication patterns and is something that – if done right – is really helpful. But I’d be interested if others agree.


    1. Hi Laura – yes its good to reminded of the good practice there is – I don’t want to be a doom mongerer!

      I too have found that praying with Christian colleagues to be great bonus – especially in times of difficulty and to offer up challenging situations to God. I will never forget Tearfund’s (then) Director of the Disaster Response Team praying with me after not giving me a job back around 1998. It felt really helpful and encouraging that we could pray together despite the outcome of the interview and I left feeling encouraged and inspired.

      Praying does of course add another layer of complexity – especially if people misuse prayer or have another agenda which I have seen happen. Prayers said together should be said to God – not to carry loaded statements into or manipulate others. Spirituality should never be used to fast-forward over complexity or hide disagreement. I think the key thing is that prayer follows honest discussion – if people are not being honest (or you could say faithful) then prayer can become a bit of minefield.


  4. I would add “A tendency amongst certain churches to expect that their pastoral staff can do anything asked of them (manage, administrate, preach, pastor, disciple and lead the music) at any time, and complain if they don’t.
    An example I recently experienced was a church advertising for a youth pastor. They wanted a contract for the them to work 12 1/2 hours, because under the law in Germany, this is the maximum you can employ people without the employer making social security & health insurance contributions, and the church didn’t want to pay those.
    When I looked at the job description, it was clear that the duties of the yputh pastor couldn’t be fulfilled in this time (they couldn’t be fulfilled by one person, but that’s another issue). When I pointed this out several trustees said they “Expected that the youth pastor would work voluntarily fors everal hours a week”
    In other words, “we won’t help or support this person beyond the minimum, but we expect them to work as long as we ask”.


  5. Dear Jonathan,

    This is great. Would you send it to the Church Times? If they don’t bite, would you try the CEN? Also Fulcrum!




    1. Great and spot on.
      What would the twin of this article look like: things Christian organisations tend to get right and not celebrate or build on enough.
      I was struck on my experience working within Christian organisations of a fear of conflict which was negative in just the way you lay out but also a massive absence of gossiping – the remarkableness of which often seemed to go unnoticed.


      1. Good question Jon – we need to think about renewal as well as resistance!

        I would add to the lack of gossip the following strengths I have seen: kindness and willingness to see the best in people, to recruit bravely and take a chance on people with a ‘past’ and a general integrity to not intentionally stitch people up (normally)! Anyone else got others?


  6. Recently heard of a case where an HR professional was at interview with a national church group supporting a pastor whose marriage had broken down. Process was described as the ‘least compassionate’ the HR professional had ever seen.


  7. Great post Jon. I fear my own experience of churches and Christian organisations in this respect is not a terribly positive one on the whole.
    I have been involved as a specialist service provider to christian charities and churches for over 20 years and I have also been employed full time in two Christian organisations working at the national headquarters of each for almost half my career to date.
    I would say my experience of managers (or clients) has been varied – and I would add the caviate they we are all human, have bad days and make mistakes. That said I could largely group those I have been line managed by into two groups. One is the ‘nice guys’ who avoid any conflict ad generally use the head in the sand / don’t rock the boat. ( usually middle management I observe) Or the driven go-getters, who I have generally found to lack the signs of a Christian mindset in their dealing with staff and could almost be claimed to be bullying or at the very least overbearing.
    I will site examples without naming names.
    I have witnessed people being made to ‘take the blame’ for the mistakes of the manager and being belittled and berated (in open plan offices I would add, not privately) for things that were not of there doing or under their control. These were not one off occasions but repeated it appeared almost systematic of the management style adopted.
    I have seen outside suppliers treated similarly and made to ‘pick up the costs’ simply because the organisation in question placed a considerable amount with the supplier and the manager in question did not wish to ‘loose face’ and accept their own error in the commissioning process.
    I can also bear testimony to staff who are seriously overworked and pulling considerable overtime simply to stay on top of the workload swho are everely let down my their direct management and indeed by the very pepole responsible for promoting the staff work /life balance – because they either had a direct vested interest in the work required – or were simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the workload to know what to do themselves.
    When people are working overtime regularly and the time in lue system cannot cope with the additional hours worked (ie they simply can’t recoup them within the system) then any effective manager should surely address the underlying problem. It is soul destroying to have people with one breath tell you to take time off, go home you look tired etc and then in the next breath say ‘oh we need such and such my 10 tomorrow’.
    I can site aspecific personal example where after a meeting with the manager doing through ever piece of scheduled work we agreed that there was over 5 weeks worth of work to be done the 3 weeks. This following several of months of similar pressure. There was to suggestion of how this was to be done – but one assumed that after some thought the manager would address the issue. Instead, within an hour of that meeting and under pressure from other members of staff he added a number of other urgent jobs the that work list. I guess my point here is two-fold: often churches and Christian organisations (from my experience) are simply unrealistic. They try to do to much – or spread resources too thinly. Prioritising and focusing on core work is not something I have often witnesses – but under resourcing seems all too common. (ie the above sited situation would not have become so compounded if proper realistic budgets and timeframes had been set against the projects and therefore negated the pressure for all the work to be done by the small in-house team).
    This also leads on to another frustration from my years in this field. If you are going to employ a specialist then listen to them. I’ll site two very different cases here.
    The first: A youth worker with full professional accreditation and a number of years experience in county council youth dept was tempted back to work for a church – doing work in the church, in the community and relating and working with the wider county council youth initiatives. He was given the full backing and set about creating a set of working practices that met with best practice guidelines and fulfilled the child projection criteria etc. Over time the church seemed to resent these practices and flaunted them. They probably did make things a little trickier to work out but often doing things well and professionally does come at a price. The youth worker felt he had to challenge this ~ especially as it was his professional standing and accreditation on the line. If best practice was not followed and something had gone wrong it was he would have been the one held responsible, so his careers was potentially at stake as he was the responsible professional in charge. The church chose to continue to ignore him and he eventually felt he had to resign. The dispute process was badly managed from the start, with several changes of line manager, prayer times used abusively and a distinct lack of dialogue or accountability. The professional and the person of the. Individual youth worker was not honoured in any real way.
    The second is a personal testimony: whilst working in one organisation, I was the sole person who could do my job. I know this as the job had not existed before I was employed. I was brought in as a specialist to modernise the approach – and I assume to cut costs also as I had previously been one of several people fulfilling this area of expertise for them in a freelance capacity. My line manager openly admitted he could not do my job – the only one in the department he could not cover in a crisis he said. Again the department was under resourced and drastically under funded ~ trying to do things on a shoe string often doubles the time needed as creative work-arounds need to be employed. The workload was conciderably more than could be achieved in the contracted hours but no genuine concern was shown for the additional overtime worked. Most frustrating was simply being ignored when I advise that something could not be achieved the way they intended nor that the knock on implications made something impractical – but I was ordered to do it. Why employ a specialist and ignore them completely. It’s not sore grapes – I’ve been ignored before, but when the implications compound on the work and cost me personally in additional overtime (unpaid I should add) then it does grate. I eventually felt I could not attend prayer times with my manager present as I could not pretend that all was well and that peace reined. I do thank God for other colleagues who supported and stopped any serious hurt. Eventually I too felt that I had to leave for my own sanity – the manager in question moved shortly after.
    Sorry this as been long and probably a bit ranty.
    In closing I’d say the CEO of the first Christian charity I worked for was exceptional – drew alongside when he saw I was struggling and took an interest in my work, aspirations and also me personally. He was foundational in how I understand being a Christian in the workplace. He gave people the room to prove what they could do, liberating them creatively and personally whilst still maintaining his hands on the reigns to ensure direction was maintained. He honoured the individual skills of his team and took the time to discuss, debate and explain the final reasoning. In short he lead a team by drawing people into the vision and releasing them to do their best. I think he modelled a management style that then (pretty much) existed throughout the organisation. I have tried to adopt this style in managing my own staff and the teams I have payed at part in within my own local church.


  8. Thanks for the article it was helpful in lots of ways.
    I have seen much good managment in churches but sadly the worst nmanagment I’ve seen has also been in a church!

    In a similar situation to Andy, I was a youth pastor at a group of churches where the Senior leader changed employees roles without any consultation with staff or other leaders. When this was challenged it was never correctly dealt with and ended up with the senior leader doing some incredibly dishonest things to cover up this situation as well as previous ones that came to light.
    The main issue was that the senior leader had no accountability. Once there was an official grievance written it was refused – it was heard by a committee that was run by the senior leader and not allowed to be heard by anyone else. It escalated to the situation where I was advised to have legal assistance (by more senior leaders within the church structure, but who could not directly do anything). Sadly when the solicitors investigated the process and saw what had happened and continued to happen they made the comment “this is the worst employment case we have ever seen outside of the US”. Apparently in the US large companies get away with treating people badly and throw money at it to make it go away… what an awful witness to them that this employment specialist firm saw the worst case in the UK from within a church!

    Accountability for staff is essential – but also this must also apply to the senior leaders otherwise they have the potential to do serious damage to the staff. This was not an isolated incident several staff were forced to leave after not being allowed to have any hearing of their poor treatment. This also must be addressed to help churches serve the staff well.

    Fortunately I am now in a church which has good structures, clear lines of management and systems of accountability for all levels of staff and leaders – praise the Lord!


  9. In small baptist churches every willing candidate is given an opportunity to use their secular expertise in a faith context. However ,many retired ‘professionals’ are often advised not to take on volunteer posts in their own ‘discipline’ but use their skills? Our Treasuer is a retired Elec engineer, and Myself ( Sec) was a scietist/technologist with some computer experience.


  10. Jon

    Interesting article. It applies not only to religious organizations but also to the vast majority of non-profit organizations too where there seems to exist a culture of lack of accountability and responsibility. Simply because an organization doesnt have shareholders or directors to report to does not mean the organization is unaccountable. All organizations have a variety of stakeholders who they must be accountable to. The difficulty in non profit orgs is shifting perception that profit=accountability.

    If more non profit orgs were run with an ethos similar to the business world then in my opinion they would be more effective


    1. Hi Steve – I am sure there are similarities with other non-profit organisations and I would agree with you but I don’t think profit necessarily brings accountability. What about the banks and the example they have set with their terrible track record of poor accountability?

      I think good and bad practice happens anywhere – the thing is that the non-profit/community sectors can afford this kind of dysfunction less than the business world.


    2. Disagree with the ethos comment. I believe you have to separate ministry and organisational processes in a clear way to ensure neither encroaches or is overly dominant where it is not appropriate for it to be. The business world lacks this mix but I understand the thrust of your point. There are definitely elements of the business world that could be engaged with to benefit from.


  11. Excellent article but it doesn’t tackle one issue: managing volunteers – and most churches depend on those. How does one challenge a culture which says, “X is doing his best and you mustn’t criticise”, or where you know you’ve got the wrong people in certain jobs but you can’t do anything about it because of the ructions it will cause?

    It is one thing for paid staff to have an accountable management structure – but it gets much more difficult with volunteers who react negatively when “managed” (however sensitively) and just walk away from their job and even the church! Especially as most churches don’t have a row of Sunday school teachers/caterers/musicians waiting to be asked to help!


    1. Thanks Andrew – yes in a way the oversight of volunteers is an even more important issue. I think that the concepts to management of staff are similar – e.g. Clear expectations and dealing with issues assertively but you are right that volunteers need a different emphasis of approach which has to take them with you more. At livability we designed a course called ‘Motivation or Manipulation?’ on this very issue. Volunteer managers have to be good motivators in order to see change in how their team’s develop. Thanks for the comment!


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