By Marion Aldridge
Most churches are small. Compared to the government’s various definitions of “small business,” which can be 50-500 employees, our congregations are tiny. It is a rare church that has a dozen employees. Most have one (the pastor) or two (the pastor and an administrative assistant). Some have full-time or part-time employees with very specialized skills — financial secretary, minister of music, preschool coordinator.
If someone is a good employee but in the wrong job, larger businesses can move a person to an assignment where he or she can succeed.
But churches can’t do that. We are too small. There is no wiggle room. Promotions and demotions are nearly impossible in ecclesiastical life within the same congregation.
In conversation with one of my friends who owns and manages a fried chicken franchise, he contended that one of the tasks of a successful supervisor is to get a person in the right job. My friend, for example, hires someone for a three-month probationary period to work the front counter. He soon discovers the new person doesn’t have the social abilities to work with customers face to face. The individual is faithful in attendance, shows up on time, and isn’t afraid of work. So my buddy makes the employee a dishwasher. The boss keeps a good employee and the worker keeps his job as a wage earner.
Most churches are too small for a similar scenario. A good receptionist does not necessarily make a good financial secretary and vice versa. An exceptional minister of music does not necessarily make an exceptional minister of youth.
Like other businesses, churches enlarge and shrink. Change happens. Difficult choices must be made. What does a congregation do with a pastor when it discovers the nice person they called straight out of seminary doesn’t have the skills required to lead a church? A “probationary” period in calling a minister would be extremely rare. What happens when, even after a time of magnificent ministry, it is obvious that an individual and a church’s current situation are no longer a fit?
The exceptions in ecclesiastical organizations are denominations with a Catholic or Methodist polity, where the system and not the local congregation is the employer. In those settings, clergy can be moved from one place to another without fear of being terminated for the “sin” of a bad fit.
Exacerbating the problem, most churches use pious language to describe a hiring as a calling. I like that language. We talk about a “call” being the will of God. It is hard to move from a deeply held spiritual conviction about vocation to saying, “We no longer believe you working here is the will of God.” But, to be fair, other jobs are also callings, and teachers and accountants are not exempt from forced career changes.
Furthermore, churches are volunteer organizations that depend on the generosity of members to pay salaries and meet the budget. Even an employee despised by 90 percent of a congregation may be loved by 10 percent. That 10 percent might leave if there is an involuntary resignation. If the percentages are different, the results can be even more disastrous. Church sometimes lose members when a terminated pastor or minister of music takes 30 percent to 40 percent of the congregation to start a new church.
Does anyone have a solution or even a suggestion regarding this painful predicament in our churches?
It’s doubtful. But in the meantime ….
As Christians we claim to be people of the Resurrection. We believe that life comes after death. Pain is not the end of the world. We say we trust the transformative power of God working in our lives, even when we suffer. Christians, when we are in our right minds, know that more growth happens in the valley of sorrow than on the mountaintop of pleasure. How many times have we heard someone eventually say, “They did me a favor,” after the unpleasant experience of being dismissed?
We know the Bible says, over and over and over, “Fear not,” but, when it comes to paychecks, we live fearfully.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3).
Most of us would prefer that the Bible not say such things, but it does. Still, my question is a serious one: Is there some solution to our vocational dilemma, within churches, that could be less painful for good people doing the wrong job or doing the right job in the wrong place?