General CBF / Pastoral Care

The Challenges and Opportunities for Pastors in Supervising Staff

By Laura Stephens-Reed

Over the course of their vocational lives, many pastors find themselves charged with leading a church staff. This is not only true for senior pastors, but associate pastors can also function in the same way within their more specialized ministry areas. The supervisory role is challenging. Most pastors enter ministry expecting to do the frontline work of preaching, teaching and providing pastoral care, with a side of meetings. But once they are in their contexts, they realize that they have significant responsibilities for other full-time or part-time staff. Not all seminaries prepare ministers-in-training to perform those responsibilities well.

Laura Stephens-Reed

There are other complicating factors. Sometimes lines of authority are not clear, particularly in free church congregations where these lines are not dictated by denominational policies and longtime practices. That lack of clarity results in questions of who reports to whom. For example, does the associate pastor report to the senior pastor, the personnel committee or to the deacons? Sometimes there are church members on staff, which puts the pastor in the dual role of minister to and supervisor- a tricky dance. The same dynamics (e.g., gender, race) that impact all relationships apply in these circumstances also, requiring thoughtfulness to navigate them.

Despite these potential pitfalls, there are many reasons that supervision can be a ministerial opportunity. When pastors spend the appropriate amount of time and attention on this work, they build a culture that makes staff members glad to work. Sometimes disrupting unhealthy patterns of relating to and collaborating with (or not!) one another. When the staff is clicking, more good ministry is possible. Together a staff can embody what healthy, faith-rooted relationships look like. And you can bet that the congregation will pick up on these positive vibes, increasing their desire to come to church.  

Despite the many challenges and opportunities in supervising a staff, it is hard to find good resources on how to do it. Here are some of questions to consider as you think through your role:

How do I call pastoral staff and hire non-pastoral staff? First, consider the structure of your congregation. Who reports to whom? What do the by-laws and the personnel manual say about calling and hiring? These realities provide undergirding for both how to call/hire and who should be involved in the process. (Note that the senior pastor should always have some level of involvement in bringing direct reports on board.) Second, identify what responsibilities you are calling/hiring for and what a good fit for your staff culture would look like and then design your calling/hiring process according to those outcomes.

What authority do I have as a supervisor? It is important to get this clear. In any position, levels of authority and responsibility should align. Given that a senior pastor will likely be seen as somewhat responsible – for good and ill – for what their supervisees do. That means that the senior pastor should have greater authority. There should always be a designated group with some authority (such as a personnel committee) to whom supervisees can connect if they are unable to resolve an issue with their own supervisor.

How do I want to show up as a supervisor? And what will that take? Think about this proactively so that you aren’t playing catch up when your supervisee is struggling, or so that you aren’t stuck in merely reacting to whatever situation pops up in your staff.

How do I build a staff team, especially if the rest of my staff is part time? Think creatively about ways to connect. Maybe you have a regular meeting or an occasional retreat that fits your staff members’ schedules. Maybe you use a platform like Slack or cloud-based documents to keep everyone in the loop. The important pieces are that your staff members build relationships with one another and with you, you have agreement on how you will work together and that you share a vision for ministry.

How hands-on should I be with my staff? This varies from one context – and person – to the next. The first step is to know what your direct reports need. If a staff member is new to ministry and to your context, that person will need more direction. More experienced staff who take appropriate initiative might need coaching, encouragement or shared brainstorming rather than direction. The goal is to move your staff toward living their gifts in service of your shared mission.

How do I help my staff members do their best work? All staff members, no matter their experience level, need clear expectations about what is theirs to do, regular check-ins (conducted with a spirit of genuine interest and encouragement) about how their work is going, resources to do that work and educational support to help them develop their strengths further. Additionally, pastors on staff each need their own pastoral relations team, which is not an evaluative or authoritative body like a personnel committee, but a group of trusted church members who can act as a sounding board and a support for that minister.

What do I do if staff members aren’t pulling their weight? Ask what is going on with that person. Maybe there’s a personal situation affecting their work, or perhaps they don’t have the tools they need to fulfill their role. If there’s an appropriate way to help, do so, with an eye toward that staff member meeting expectations and participating in the whole staff’s vision for ministry. If there’s a need for a performance improvement plan, create one that has a clear timeline, benchmarks and goals. It is important, though, not to take on the staff member’s work yourself because it might become yours permanently. Supervision is hard, holy, rewarding work. Thank you, pastors, for doing it with grace and intentionality.

Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama

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