Ethics & Christian living, Theology

Grace, truth and the tricky task of people management

man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair
Photo by Nathan Cowley on

‘Management’ is not a concept that sits well within the Church.  After all, church leaders are called to be priests, pastors, and preachers, not CEOs of mini-corporations.

But over the past 20 years, in attending, working for and with many churches and Christian organisations, I have consistently seen the bitter cost of poor staff management.

Common symptoms

Managing people is not easy and of course, bad management can occur anywhere. But I think that there are some common symptoms in Christian culture:

  • A reluctance to challenge poor performance. It can be considered insensitive or “unchristian” to challenge poor work. Unresolved issues can back up behind a poorly performing person like heavy traffic.
  • Staff with dangerous levels of pent-up frustration. Often this is 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’.
  • 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 in the congregation. A strange sacred/ secular divide lead to assumptions that ‘things are different in church’ and that, somehow, good employment practice is less relevant.
  • The lack of training and management of church leaders. When you are not managed yourself, it can be hard to give what you don’t get.

These forms of dysfunction are serious. Few things are more damaging to a church community, or stressful to its leader, than a badly-handled staff situation.

Underlying factors

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

Unassertive culture. Church culture can be good at hoping that problems will go away without any action being required. We often dress the wounds of dysfunction, and pretend that things are all right, when they are not. “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14).  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 these relationships to remain immature and shallow, untested by honest discussion. Good staff 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 someone’s faith is, this may not correspond to their ability to do a job. Our fragile human nature provides the theological rationale for ‘just 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. Good people management helps reduce the negative effects of pride, insecurity, laziness and other sinful tendencies, and truly encourages people in their work.

Cheap grace

I have spent a long time reflecting on grace and truth when it comes to working with people affected by homelessness. But grace and truth are just as relevant to people management. Jesus encouraged and supported his disciples, but was willing to challenge them sharply when necessary.

In contrast, church culture too often displays what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace”. This kind of grace skirts over the real issues, and moves ahead to a false resolution. It seeks a shallow conversion of the situation without requiring any real repentance.

Common sense

The good news is that becoming a better manager is possible, and most of it is common sense. It is not about swallowing management science uncritically, or bringing in inappropriate bureaucracy. It is about providing appropriate support and ensuring accountability.

Here are some suggestions for ways forward:

1) Invest time. 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. Start off with a simple review process. Ask the team for their views: what do we do well? What could be done better? What would you recommend? Work hard not to be defensive. 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 simple 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. Develop a plan to ensure 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. Many central teams within church denominations have helpful management resources and you can get support from an agency like Real People who are part of the homeless charity St Mungo’s. Also, many congregations have experienced managers who could offer useful advice.

6) Review and celebrate progress. 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.

‘The truth will set us free’

The cycle of poor management can be broken. The first step is to be honest about the current situation of our staff. Reality is liberating. The truth will set us free (even if its a bit challenging in the short term).

Rather than the cheap grace that sidelines the real questions and offers superficial answers, we need to embody the kind of costly grace that can help us handle reality. It will show us the path to transform even the most difficult problems.

If your church or organisation faces these kinds of issues, why not circulate this article for discussion with your leadership group?

3 thoughts on “Grace, truth and the tricky task of people management”

  1. Stonking.
    Different churches and denominations have differing strengths in this regard. That is obvious but we don’t always use the experience and wisdom there. I fink there’s a point here about a grown up and diverse unity !?!?


  2. Great post, Jon. And beautifully written. A subject close to my heart, as you know. I wonder if you could say a bit more about the “confusion between pastoral care and professional accountability”. I’m not sure whether lines need to be drawn between the two, but would like to hear more of your thoughts on this.


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