The conversation churches do not want to have

How many staff members a church needs and can afford is a conversation that no one wants to have, but good stewardship demands it.

By Bill Wilson

Our current economy, coupled with the ongoing transitions in congregational life and ministry focus, have combined to create intense pressure on church staffing models. With finances tight, congregations are being forced to take stock of the number of professional staff members they require and can afford, and the focus of those staff members.

It is a difficult conversation to broach in most congregations, and so we often delay and deny the looming issues. Unfortunately, the conversation then erupts as a crisis at budget or transition time. Proactively leaning into the conversation is a much healthier alternative.

As you consider your situation, here are some guiding thoughts.

First, a church must clarify its mission, vision and strategy for the immediate future. Whatever we believe the Kingdom is to look like in the coming season of our congregation’s life is what reigns supreme when it comes to facilities, staff, structures and finances.  That clarity is essential if we are to make wise and appropriate choices in regard to our staff. There are multiple options for doing this clarification work. Choose one and pursue it with energy until you are clear and united around a shared agenda for the future.

A second key factor is the relationship between professional staff and laity. What is the leadership culture of the congregation? Some churches seemingly hire staff to do most of the work of the church. Others seek a more balanced ministry model of an engaged laity and ministerial leaders. What if you made this choice deliberately rather than by tradition?

Third, there are several ways of doing analysis of staffing expenditures and congregational attendance patterns that provide insight into the issue.

One is to analyze your congregation’s budget and rebalance the budget so that it fits generally accepted models for operation. Specifically, break your budget into five categories: Personnel, Facilities, Programs, Debt and Missions. Assign every line item in your budget into one of the categories. Hopefully, you are debt-free or paying your debt down using a parallel capital campaign. If so, then these four categories apply to you. If not, you will need to adjust to include the debt service.

Generally accepted best practices assign these ranges to each of the four remaining categories:

• Personnel: 45-60 percent 
• Facilities: 10-25 percent
• Programs: 10-25 percent
• Missions: 10-25 percent

One of the key indicators of congregational health is the combined percentage of Personnel and Facilities. When this number exceeds 70 percent, the ability of the congregation to successfully engage in ministry and missions begins to be negatively impacted.

These percentages are strictly guidelines and need to be evaluated in terms of your context, congregation size and special circumstances. Even with that, once you know where your budget percentages are, you can begin to make needed adjustments based upon your ministry vision, rather than in emotional reaction to a crisis.

You will discover all sorts of innovations and alternative ways to engage the question. For example, the “lean church” movement suggests that no more than 33 percent of your budget go toward staff. Lean church priorities of high laity engagement, minimal staffing and no permanent buildings may work well with a new church start, but most established churches with physical facilities will find it unworkable.

Another metric that lends insight into the discussion is the ratio of weekly attenders to ministerial/professional staff. The generally accepted ratio is one ministerial staff member for every 100 regular attenders. Thus, if your congregation averages 325 attenders, the ratio suggests you can support three ministerial staff members.

This ratio has been around for many years and seems to hold up in current scenarios. One proviso: attendance patterns are shifting dramatically and may impact this. The frequency of attendance by regular attenders is dropping. Do a quick check on the actual attendance habits of your congregation, and you will find that faithful, regular attenders often are present 35 to 40 Sundays a year. Not only does this have an impact on volunteer positions (class leadership, choir, etc.), it means that a congregation must staff and prepare for a larger congregation than the weekly attendance average suggests you have. An average worship attendance of 300 may actually be an active congregation of 450 to 500, and that has implications for the staffing ratio. 

However you choose to approach the issue, there are ways to evaluate your congregation’s staffing model that are tied to both metrics and mission. When you do, remember that each staff member is a real person with a real family and a real call to ministry. Any adjustments must be approached in a thoughtful, generous, Christlike spirit as you move forward.

While it is a difficult conversation, it is one we must have if we are to be good stewards of our resources and our witness.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.