Speak the truth about staffing problems

This is an expanded version of a previous R&R post Why churches manage people badly which was published in The Church Times last week:

Managing people decently is an essential part of Christian work – not a bureaucratic luxury, argues Jon Kuhrt

The organisational dysfunction exposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s commissaries’ interim report on the diocese of Chichester is shocking. This case is focused on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, but in many ways it is an extreme example of a wider problem in the Church: that of poor management of people.

The “bad fruit” (Matthew 7.17) that is exposed has not emerged from nowhere. It grows in dysfunctional settings, where clear expectations are not established, proper structures are not in place, and where robust action is not taken against those who ignore requirements.

“Management” is not a concept that sits well within the Church. The phrase “managerialism” is used by many as code for all that the Church does wrong. The clergy are called to be priests, pastors, and preachers, not CEOs of mini-corporations.

Yet, over the past 20 years, in working for and with many churches and Christian organisations, I have consistently seen the bitter cost of poor staff management. Whether it is curates, youth workers, choirmasters, administrators, caretakers, or others, time and again I have seen the problems and sadness it causes.

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

• A reluctance to challenge poorly performing members of staff. Too often, it is considered pastorally insensitive or even “unchristian” to challenge unsatisfactory quality of work. Unresolved issues can back up behind a poorly performing person like heavy traffic, and cause immense frustration and anger among the congregation.

• Staff who have accumulated dangerous levels of pent-up frustration, which is unexpressed through fear of being disloyal. Many Christians have a low guilt-threshold about complaining, and see the situation as a cross to bear rather than something that can be improved.

• Confusion between pastoral care and professional accountability. When the roles of minister and manager are combined, where are the lines drawn?

• A reluctance to use the professional experience of experienced managers in the congregation. A strange, unbiblical tendency to draw a sacred/ secular divide can afflict both clergy and lay people, who can be guilty of assuming that things are different in a church, and will thus fail to engage with good employment practice.

• The reluctance of clergy to accept their management position. Many church leaders themselves feel unsupported, and have not had adequate training. When you are not managed yourself, it can be hard to give what you don’t get.

It is obvious how destructive these forms of dysfunction are. Nothing is more damaging to a church community, or stressful to a leader, than a botched staffing situation. Such dysfunction flourishes in contexts where these underlying factors exist.

An absence of structures. Too often, churches do not have the basics in place, such as job descriptions, contracts, and clear reporting processes. Too often, staff are not given regular individual supervision by their manager. I met someone recently in a church who, in 17 years, had never had any form of appraisal. These kinds of structures should never be dismissed as mere bureaucracy: they are vital to people’s knowing what their job is, having clear expectations, and being able to be accountable to others.

Unassertive culture. Unassertiveness appears in many guises. For those familiar with the 1980s video game, many church leaders employ what could be called the “Pac-Man” approach to people management: whenever you hit an obstacle, you simply change direction.

Being fearful of challenging others, such managers hope that problems will go away without any action being required. Christian culture can be good at dressing the wounds of dysfunction, and pretending that things are all right, when they are not. “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14).

There is frequently a reluctance to confront issues and challenge people who are 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 remain immature and shallow, untested by honest discussion. Good staff expect to be, and appreciate being, challenged; it motivates them because it shows that what they do matters.

Lack of integrated theology. There is a failure to integrate good theology in people-management. Christians should be aware more than anyone of human frailty. However strong people’s faith is, there should never be a blind optimism about their ability to do a job.

The example for good management is the transformative blend of grace and truth that Jesus embodied in his ministry – encouraging and empowering his disciples, but being willing to challenge them sharply when necessary. Instead, church culture too often displays what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously described as “cheap grace”, which skirts over the real issues, and is too keen to move ahead to a false resolution that has not really addressed the issues. It seeks a shallow conversion of the situation without any repentance.

Our fragile human nature provides the theological basis for structures that help to build a culture of transparency, support, and accountability. We need to recover the idea that good management of people is a spiritual task. It holds a mirror up to help assess how people are doing and what areas of their work need attention. It should help reduce the negative effects of pride, insecurity, and other self-regarding tendencies, and truly encourage people in their work.

The good news is that becoming a better manager is possible, and most of it is common sense. It is not a case of swallowing management science uncritically, or bringing in inappropriate bureaucracy, but it is about providing appropriate support, and being accountable to everyone who is employed.

Here are some suggestions for ways forward:

1) Invest time in your team. If you cannot give an hour of uninterrupted time to meet one-to-one with those whom you line-manage every month, then you should expect problems.

2) Be honest about the current situation. Open things up with a simple review process. Ask staff for their views: what do we do well? What could be done better? What would you recommend? Remember that reality is liberating. Unless there is honesty about the situation, nothing will really change.

3) Make a plan to tackle the issues that are raised. Draft a plan, and circulate it to everyone for comment. 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 supervision and appraisals to ensure consistency and fairness.

5) Use the support available. The Church Urban Fund’s “Just Employment” is a useful resource, and the community mission team from Livability runs events about these issues. Many dioceses have sensible procedures that can be used or adapted. Also, many congregations have experienced managers who could offer useful advice.

6) Review and celebrate progress. Good systems help to tackle issues and improve relationships. Build in a review period in advance, and ask someone independent to come in to check 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.

We need to remember that the Church has within itself the resources to transform the most difficult situations. We are people of hope, and the cycle of poor management can be broken.

The first step is to be honest about the current situation of our staff. The truth will set us free. Rather than the cheap grace that sidelines the real questions and offers superficial answers, we need to embody the costly grace that is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is a grace that can help us handle reality, and show us the path to transform the most difficult problems.

6 thoughts on “Speak the truth about staffing problems”

  1. Managing people decently is an essential part of Christian work – no a bureaucratic luxury, argues Jon Kuhrt
    Hi Jon- do you mean not a bureaucratic luxury.
    this has been a helpful summary!! thanks!


  2. Thank you Jon. This is not unique to Christian communities – while the issues in my Muslim community are different, there are some significant overlaps.


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