I’m conducting a memorial service this week for a former staff colleague, and it has caused me to give thought to what makes for a healthy relationship between ministerial staff members.
Ken Denton was, for 24 years, the gifted minister of music at First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Va. He also effectively served churches in Mount Holly, N.C., and Culpeper, Va. For 11 of those Waynesboro years, we served together in that wonderful church. I was the young, over-confident pastor; he was the wise veteran who saw to it that I was “broken in” properly. I had never led a staff with a full-time music minister; he had never had a pastor/leader 20 years younger than he. It all felt a bit like an arranged marriage.
Our first few months, we approached one another cautiously; wary of all the new and unpredictable things each one of us thought, did and believed. There were some rough spots. Gradually, however, we began to realize that we had much more in common than not, and that we both loved God, our church and the life of ministry. That cautious beginning slowly morphed into an effective blend of gifts that produced remarkable worship, ministry and the advancement of God’s reign in that city and church.
His passing and my preparation for his memorial service have caused me to think deeply about how I would describe a healthy relationship between ministerial staff members. Ken, and many others that I have served with, taught me some important lessons about how to work together to do more as a group than we could ever do alone. For that, I am eternally grateful and blessed.
Along the way, here are some questions I often ask in my search for healthy ministerial staff relationships:
- Do we speak the truth in love? Please note: there are three parts to this Pauline command: One, speak. I’ve seen staffs where everyone smiles and “nary is heard a discouraging word” in staff meetings. No one will talk. They think and process, but they fear speaking up, as they know they will be ridiculed or disrespected or ignored. Healthy staffs speak up, even when it’s difficult. Two, speak the truth. Some days it’s hard to know who has the truth. I think I do, you think you do. No one has a corner on all the truth. If we can acknowledge that, and keep a humble spirit, it usually helps us discern what the truth actually is. Third, speak the truth in love. When a staff truly cares about each other, the ministry, and the church more than they care about credit or limelight or status, remarkable things can happen. The ability to love one another despite our flaws is what makes the life of ministry a joy.
- Do we share the same agenda? Some staffs are marked by silos, turf wars and defensive postures. I am always on the lookout for whether a staff is united around a God-sized mission and vision that is larger than their individual agendas. When that happens, egos are held in check and the larger mission sweeps us up into a zone of effectiveness and impact that we could never reach individually.
- Do we trust each other? Trust is the ingredient that is the oil for your staff engine. Without it, nothing works well. With it, you can do and be more than you or your church have imagined. The freedom and confidence it breeds in a staff is hard to quantify, but is one of the finest gifts from God I have ever known. If your staff culture is low in trust, do whatever it takes to raise it.
- Do we celebrate, laugh with, and enjoy one another? More than simply having fun together, the goal is to bring joy into our lives vocationally and relationally. Surely, laughter and fun are key ingredients in a joyful staff culture, but so are appropriate recognition and the sense that we are doing something important together. When a healthy staff accomplishes great things, there is always much credit and affirmation for everyone.
- Do we love Jesus and the Church? Sorry to state the obvious, but sometimes I wonder. In healthy staff cultures, I don’t have to wonder. It’s clear that ministry is a call from God and that our agendas are subsumed by the divine agenda. To be sure, every local church fails miserably at some point in being the Church. Often, that failure impacts the staff in painful and hurtful ways. Despite that, healthy staffs love Jesus and the Church, and refuse to give up on either one.
There are many more things that define a healthy ministerial staff. These are the ones that are on my mind as I remember my friend and colleague Ken. I pray you know the joy of such a staff, and that you are doing the things today that will one day lead someone to remember you as a faithful partner in ministry.