By Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed
Many pastors are taught in seminary that a church should never hire one of its members to serve on staff, for reasons explained below. That said, ministers might enter a new-to-them context where a member is already in the role of Administrative Assistant or Director of Christian Education. And there might be occasions when there are good reasons to invite a member to join the ranks of compensated staff. In either case, there are dynamics to navigate. Here’s what pastors and personnel committees need to consider:
Church members who are part of the staff have a dual role with the pastor and with the congregation. The minister is both pastor and (potentially) supervisor to the church member. The member is both Sunday morning worshiper as well as someone who knows what the copier code is, which often leads to that person being asked to perform work duties on off-time. The lines between roles can easily become muddied for both the minister and the staff/church member.
Church members hold a lot of institutional knowledge that can be very useful to a pastor and staff. They know whom to call for what. They know why this person doesn’t speak to that other person. There are instances, though, when having these insights can spill over into gossip if the staff/church member isn’t clear about what it is and isn’t appropriate to share.
Just because hiring a church member is the simplest solution to a staffing need in the short run doesn’t mean the member will be the best answer for the long term. Sometimes a church member needs a job, and the church staff has an opening. The answer to both parties’ problems seems clear, and there often isn’t extensive consideration about how well the member’s gifts fit the church’s needs.
Congregation members love their church. This could mean that they have caught a vision for what is possible in your congregation, and they want to be a bigger part of it than they could as a volunteer. They might also be bringing big talent that the church would not be able to afford in someone who doesn’t already feel a deep connection with your congregation. (Please do not read this as an invitation to underpay them, though!)
If the church member doesn’t have a good sense of differentiation with others, that could spell trouble. Differentiation means that a person is connected to others but has a good sense of where they end and other people begin. If a church member in a staff role doesn’t have this differentiation, they could be co-opted into other members’ beefs with the pastor or chair of deacons. They could also try to “burn it all down” on their way out should their employment need to be terminated, telling confidential information or encouraging friends to leave the church.
In churches that have members on staff or who are considering hiring a member, here are some ways to help you lean into the advantages and dial back the potential conflicts of interest:
Staff with an eye toward the church’s purpose. Where is the congregation as a whole headed? What is it trying to accomplish? How might putting this member in that role contribute to that direction?
Ensure alignment between the needs of the role and the gifts of the member taking it on. If your church needs an Administrative Assistant with a lot of tech savvy, don’t hire a church member (or anyone) who can barely open email just because that person needs a job. (Do use your congregational and community networks to help this person find employment.) Write the job description first and then consider who might fill the role, not vice versa.
Be clear about the boundaries of the role(s). What is this person doing as an employee, and what are they doing as a church member? When is the pastor ministering to this person as member, and when is the pastor relating to this person as supervisor or colleague? You could even have fun with these questions, setting up a small office hat rack on which those with dual roles keep literal hats for their different modes of being. (This would be a great visual cue, even if the hats never budged from the rack.)
Educate the congregation about these boundaries. Everyone should know what the church member can and cannot do in a professional role and think through requests that could put the member in an awkward position.
Have a strict confidentiality policy. Make sure everyone knows what information can and cannot be shared, and invite questions when it’s ambiguous as to whether certain details need to stay among staff.
Schedule regular check-ins about the church member’s fit in the role, with proactive troubleshooting as needed in between. This really goes for all staff – the church member on staff doesn’t need to be singled out. Ask what’s working for all parties involved, and what’s not? What additional training, support, or clarification would be beneficial?
Have a way for the church member to get pastoral needs met. If a church member serves on staff, that person might still want to be an active part of the congregation, but might not feel comfortable going to their supervisor with pastoral care needs. Help this person find someone in whom they can confide as needed.
In each situation in which I have been a pastor at a congregation, church members have been part of the staff configuration. This has worked well in some cases, not so much in others. But if your congregation is thoughtful about the hiring process, can name the reasons why a particular member is the right person for the job, and can put helpful guardrails in place, a church member can be a wonderful partner in paid ministry.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.