Churches in America have been living amid rapid change for several decades now, accelerated like a dive on a roller coaster by COVID.
Previously, much of our attention has focused on institutional change and challenges, the big picture of congregations fighting to remain relevant or vibrant or viable. But there’s a deeper layer to this story that has been percolating and now demands our attention. It’s about the changing needs of church staffing.
We’ve written before about the crisis in clergy resignations brought on by the last few years of partisan politics invading the church alongside COVID. Far too many ministers have been run out of leadership because of unreasonable expectations of a few congregational nags who demanded their way at all costs.
Many good and faithful and creative ministers have been lost because of a congregation’s unwillingness to change and adapt or stifle bullies. These adaptive leaders were thrown overboard as though they were the cause of the crisis, even though they were attempting to respond creatively to the crisis. In this sense, churches have been firing the wrong people.
“Many existing ministers and staff members do not possess the flexibility and creativity that will be needed to adapt to the future.”
Yet there’s another side to this now facing us down, and it’s a hard word: Many existing ministers and staff members do not possess the flexibility and creativity that will be needed to adapt to the future.
That statement likely always has been true, but it’s certainly truer than ever today. Change is now happening so rapidly in the church — in practice and culture and programming — that the training any of us received 20 or 30 years ago feels severely outdated.
Yes, there are timeless truths the make the church run, including the gospel itself as well as building community and fostering relationships. But it is how we do those things that keeps shifting.
You’ve heard the old saw about a person not really having 20 years of work experience but instead having one year of experience 20 times. Some people — including ministers and church staff members — are wired to repeat what they’ve been taught and never venture beyond that. Give them one playbook and they’ll execute those plays regardless of context.
For decades, that worked in American churches. Just keep the wheels turning on the cycle of Sunday school, youth lock-ins, Christmas music and vacation Bible school and all will be well. Some individual churches and some styles of churches have well-honed variations on this circle of life, and they have hired staff members who know how to do those exact things — over and over and over.
“Churches have hired people who are great at making widgets, but now the need is for sprockets, and the widget-makers don’t know how to retool.”
Many churches have hired people who are great at making widgets, but now the need is for sprockets, and the widget-makers don’t know how to retool. Worse than that, some simply are incapable of retooling or refuse to retool.
This challenge is not unique to the church; it affects businesses and all organizations. Facing the challenge is harder for churches, though, because of the relational nature of the work. Often, ministers and other church staff members are not just employees, they are friends and beloved members of the family of faith. Despite the headlines about churches being mean to ministers and running them off without cause, just as many or more congregations keep staff members who no longer are good fits because they don’t have the gumption to deal with change.
As churches today reevaluate their programming and approach to ministry, they may realize they’ve got the wrong staff on board. They may be staffed for the past and not for the future.
Unadaptable staff members are not bad people; in fact, many of them are loving and kind and compassionate. But that doesn’t mean they have the ability to lead your church in changing times.
Having identified the problem, I’ve now got to confess I am short on solutions. Where do ministers unwilling or unable to adapt go next? Are there still churches out there that need their 20 years of experience doing the same thing over and over? And where do churches find the creative leaders who can adapt to the present and future reality?
Seminaries are so pressed to impress upon students necessary theological training that they have no space in the curriculum to train adaptive leaders. And beyond the senior pastor role or associate pastor role, most churches today are not hiring staff members with theological training because those specialized programs no longer exist.
Here are some ideas to help stir the pot on this conversation:
Continuing education is needed now more than ever. I’m not talking about watching a webinar or attending a two-day conference. Clergy today need access (and church funding) to engage with leadership coaches and other wise professionals, including therapists. This will benefit the individual and the church.
“Clergy today need access (and church funding) to engage with leadership coaches and other wise professionals, including therapists.”
Churches must figure out their mission and context and staff to fulfill that, not the other way around. Simply doing what your existing staff has done well in the past — or likes to do — is not a recipe for success.
Long-tenured staff can be a blessing and a curse. I know this firsthand; I served the same church in the same role for 17 years, surrounded by colleagues who had been there as long or longer. There are many advantages to long tenures. The secret to success, though, is to carry out a long tenure in movements that respond to the times. Long-tenured staff must be able to reinvent themselves and adapt as needs change; otherwise, tenure becomes a shackle more than a solution.
You might have the right people in the wrong roles. It is easy for church staff to get pigeonholed in the role they first were hired to do, even if they have gifts in other areas. Consider the church musician with tremendous administrative skills or the children’s minister who is gifted in pastoral care. The adaptive answer could be shifting the chairs more than shifting the people.
Staff members who need to move on often are the last ones to know they need to move on. High-performing and creative staff members are the ones most likely to be recruited by other churches or other non-church employers. The irony is that those you most need to move on are the least likely to move on without a nudge.
Collaboration is essential. Ministry silos always have been a problem for church staff: The music minister who wants to reign over her own kingdom, the youth minister who can’t be bothered to know or care about anything that’s not his direct responsibility. What might have been extremely annoying in the past now can be deadly to the life and health of a church. Anyone who is not a team player is a heavy anchor on the boat.
Creativity must be a higher value than past experience. In this moment, a creative 30-year-old has more to offer than someone with vastly more experience but no flexibility or creativity. Adaption is the name of the game.
One of my former church staff colleagues is well-known drilling into our Youth Choir before every summer mission choir tour this maxim: “Flexibility is the best ability.” That is the gospel truth for staffing a church today as well.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
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