Ethics & Christian living

Why churches manage people badly (and what can be done about it)

In recent years, the church frequently has to respond to the scandal and upset created by safeguarding failures and other cases of serious malpractice. As we all know, these scandals powerfully undermine the integrity of the church’s witness.

One key factor in ecclesiastical failures that is frequently downplayed is the poor state of basic ‘human resources’ practices. 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. Often there is a basic problem of poor management.

But management is not a concept that sits well within the church. The phrase “managerialism” is often used as code for all that the church does wrong. Theologians will say that 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 this kind of attitude. 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:

  • A reluctance to challenge poorly performance.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.

As I have learnt in my work with homeless people, however challenging or difficult the behaviour of those you seeking to help, it always problems with colleagues that are the most stressful.

Beneath these symptoms, there are some key underlying factors which need addressing.

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. This did not make them feel trusted but unvalued.

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

Being fearful of challenging others, some 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

Perhaps most deeply, there is often 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.

A good paradigm to reflect on is the transformative blend of grace and truth that Jesus embodied in his ministry. He encouraged and empowered his disciples with grace and kindness. But he often challenges his disciples sharply when necessary. He uses the phrase ‘I tell you the truth’ 28 times in John’s gospel.

In management terms, this blend of grace and truth could look like this:

Emphasis on graceEmphasis on truth
Giving another chanceMaintaining boundaries
Saying ‘yes’Saying ‘no’

It is never good management to draw on just one side of this chart and neglect the other.

Many people, and perhaps especially Christians, find the left-hand side a lot easier. In doing so, we can embody what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously described as “cheap grace”. This may look benign and sensitive but it only skirts over the real issues, and moves ahead to a false resolution that has not really addressed the problems. It seeks a shallow conversion of the situation without any repentance. It is a road to hell paved with good intentions.

Each one of us is fragile. We have weakness, we can be negligent and sometimes we do wrong due to our own deliberate fault. This recognition of sin is a key aspect theological basis for good management structures. It is liberal optimism of the most naïve kind to assume that a culture of transparency, support, and accountability will emerge by itself.

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 helps reduce the negative effects of pride, insecurity, ego and other ‘self-regarding tendencies’, and truly encourages people in their work.

The good news

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. Make brief notes of the meeting, focussing on agreed actions and send them as soon as possible after the meeting.

2.Be honest about the current situation. Open things up with a simple review process. Ask staff for their views on how they are managed: 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. If things have not been good then this plan is what confession and repentance looks like!

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. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good – better to use imperfect forms than none at all.

5.Use the support available. John Truscott’s website has many helpful resources for churches and 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.

Being people of hope!

We need to remember that the church has within itself the resources to transform the most difficult situations. Our theology, theory and practice need to come together. We are people of hope and the cycle of poor management can be broken!

The first step is to be truly honest about the current situation of our staff. Rather than the cheap grace that side-lines 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 our understanding of grace that should help us handle reality. This truth will set us and our churches free – and show us the path to transform even the most difficult problems.

I attach below a simple presentation with 3 slides that may be useful to use in discussions in your work place. Why not use them at a team meeting and see what people think about the culture in your team?

10 thoughts on “Why churches manage people badly (and what can be done about it)”

  1. Jon

    Thanks for this. Found this really helpful and relevant to a current situation.

    Keep up the good work and once again, appreciated !



  2. Hi Jon,
    This is gold dust! I’m about to start in a new position, and I’ve been thinking very clearly along these lines, so this is helpful confirmation, as well as giving practical advice. So thanks for that. When Jesus said that it’s by our ‘love’ that we will be know as His disciples, I take it that love means handling challenging conversations with a background of acceptance. When you see how harsh Jesus frequently was with his disciples, we need courage to tackle the deeper issues, but in a climate of grace and depth of relationship (‘speaking the truth with love’ so we all grow into the likeness of Christ).

    Easier said than done though… !!


    1. thanks David – absolutely. This blend of grace and truth is hard but vital. Thanks for reading and commenting – and all the best in practice with this stuff!


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