Staffing Models in Churches

How do you staff a church?

In the contemporary church landscape there is likely few things which are full of mystery and frustration as the nature of staffing the church. For many non-profit organizations, finding and supporting new talent is one of the pressing issues.

Since most churches operate within budgetary constraints, far too many running at deficits most years, being able to appropriately find quality employees and then compensate them, is one of the larger barriers to moving forward.

However, there are some strategies for staffing a church, or ministry, that have varying results. Though many senior and executive leaders might not think about their staffing approach in terms of models, when considering various churches there does appear to be some common approaches.

Perhaps some common sports metaphors might help us explore three primary means of hiring. In the three major sports leagues there are, essentially, three types of recruiting that are employed.

NFL – The NFL is often about finding the best option for your team at that time. If there is a gap at wide receiver, you find the best possible wide receiver for you team. Sometimes teams are able to have several good options at one position, but high potential back ups usually don’t last long and are moved to other teams. It is often the case that the best potential player for a position doesn’t turn out well and within the year they are needing to be replaced. Since cap room is always an issue for many teams, decisions have to be made about going after high quality (and high cost) players over allowing a good option to stay in place. Highly successful NFL franchises are able to find players for positions at multiple levels and create deep benches. These teams are consistently in the playoffs and don’t have to deal with high levels of drama and off-field issues. One additional action for NFL is the ability to coach up underperforming or underdeveloped players to allow them to gain the skills for use on the field. Well coached teams have higher track records for success across the long run. For the NFL, staffing their teams begins by seeing what the needs are and addressing them with whatever options are available. 

MLB – One of the things baseball has done well for decades is recruiting a host of potential players and allowing them to journey through an intentional process of cultivation and development known as the minor leagues so they can prepare for their time in the game. Players that are recruited out of high school and colleges can expect to spend several years, or more, in the minor league system working on their skills and learning the game. The mentality in many baseball franchises is a long-tail development curve where players are given time to either make the cut and move up, or wash out. Every year 1,500 players are drafted into the MLB, but only 1,200 are in the Majors at any given time. As you can see from this list, only a handful of players have ever gone from draft to a Major League field. For the MLB, staffing their teams is a developmental process that seeks to invest in players to help them find their potential or move on.

NBA – The NBA is all about the star. You can turn your whole franchise around with just the right person regardless of what position they play. While the NBA has recently moved to recognizing a developmental role with their minor league system, a highly talented player with the right skill set can still be moved from college, or another league, and into a starting role for an NBA team from their draft day to the first day of the season. Scouts and team executives are constantly looking for the best franchise options because the addition of one or two star players can move a team from last place to the playoffs, and possibly a title, within a single season. Stars dominate the NBA and each franchise is looking for to find or get a high talent start. Stars seeks validation and expect a starting role. Bench players can add a lot for a team though their contributions will be muted due to the substantial lack of playing team between stars and bench players. For the NBA, staffing their teams is a process that seeks to find high caliber players and move them into roles that will immediately help the team.

In our churches and ministry organizations we can see three different staffing models play out. Granted, for far too many churches there is no comprehensive staffing strategy or solution for identifying and hiring talent. Honestly, most organizations depend on a NFL style system while hoping to move into a NBA method. The costs, both in financial and human resource capital, of the MLB system can sometimes be prohibitive for its implementation in many churches. However, for larger ministries that adopt a residency model or higher level internship program, the MLB style staffing solution can provide tremendous outcomes.

Any of the models allows for a grassroots development of members of the church or ministry to be identified, coached up, and put into ministry roles. This can have differing results. You can sometimes find a high quality player in the middle of your congregation, but you can also find individuals who never reach their potential for any number of reasons.

As we consider what it takes to effectively staff any organization, the leadership will set the tone and direction. If the leadership believes that a new star will help raise the visibility of their overall ministry, or just a certain area, then they should go out and find someone who can do just that while making room for proper validation in compensation and platform time. However, if resources are limited being able to find and raise up members through a development and coaching process can be helpful.

While most churches and ministries still use a scattershot approach to staffing where they post a job and then sort through the resumes for qualified candidates, some have moved to using high quality staffing agencies to identify and place talent according to their talent. These search firms are staffed with people who understand the challenges and opportunities of ministry, can quickly evaluate the needs of a church along with potential candidates, and have a wide net which identifies great talent that ministry leaders might never hear of or personally encounter. Several of the larger church staffing firms who do well in finding candidates include: The Shepherd Staff, Vanderbloemen Group, Minister Search, and the Slingshot Group.

How you go about staffing your ministry will has a major impact on so much of the growth and sustainability of your ministry. Having a plan in place and working that plan depends on the foresight and vision of the leadership.

How have you seen staffing strategies work, or not work, in churches? What are some examples you would use in staffing? How is this model helpful? How can it be improved?

Jul 2013



The Challenge of Seminary: an initial post

Over at the Gospel Coalition, there is a great short reflection about the challenges of seminary written by Donny Friederichsen pointing out that seminarians often forget that their time in school should be developing them both theologically by pastorally.

One of the paragraphs that seemed to stand out is this:

I also would have spent more time with real people in my neighborhood and at my church instead of gravitating toward people who liked to read dead Dutch guys and use phrases like “hypostasis,” “hapax legomenon,” and “the chthonic thralldom of sin.” I need those people too, but in seminary it’s entirely too easy to get lost in the academic world and lose contact with why you are there. (emphasis mine)

This is a good point and worth exploring. Seminary, in its current form, is presenting substantial challenges to ministry and ministers. As a quick observation, many of my peers in growing, dynamic churches are becoming increasingly wary of hiring seminary graduates who are both 1) recent graduates and 2) don’t have a lot of outside experience under their belts. For many of us, we find that seminary does a good job of preparing a student theologically but there is a massive shortfall in actual pastoral training and ministry execution.

Having graduated from seminary 8 years ago, I saw this challenge worked out. Thankfully a gracious professor of mine put several key texts into my hands while I was in my earliest days of seminary that reconfigured my outlook and steps for preparation. For what its worth, I thoroughly enjoyed seminary. It was a kind of intellectual and spiritual renaissance for me. Though there were some institutional pressures and challenges which cloud a bit of last days at my seminary, I am the minister I am because of my time in seminary.

Now, back to Friederichsen’s point. Too often our seminaries are a kind of “Sunday School 2.0” that fail to maneuver their students to interact critically and practically with pastoral ministry situations. We are seeing a substantial rise in post-seminary ministry failure rates in new graduates over the past decade, and its not because of moral failure. It is often due to burnout, firings, underperformance, expectation issues, among other factors. While not every seminary graduate is going to end up in pastoral ministry (a fairly new concept by the way), for those who do go into pastoral ministry one of the first tasks that must be accomplished is to sort through what was helpful and what was not helpful for application in the local church ministry.

The very real issues at Friederichsen brings up in his post are matters which, as I recall, were rarely addressed in seminary classrooms. They were talked about in my undergraduate instruction. For too many seminarians there is a need to balance this intellectual maturation with practical equipping tools. At this point too many of our seminaries are ill-equipped and ensconced in “church of last century” ministry models to provide a substantive change to the ministry training culture. Another challenge in the seminary model is professors who have never served a day in a church, yet are given opportunities to train and equip future pastors for ministry. While there are certainly individuals and fields where we can make margin for the academic only scholar, I wonder if we are pressing the mark too hard in continuing to elevate and place individuals with no local church experience in the midst of the training and equipping institute for future pastors.

Final thought: In Houston we have radio ad for a local law school that promotes itself by producing “practice ready attorneys.” Perhaps if we can start to get our arms around the realities of ministry and begin developing seminaries that produce “ministry ready pastors” we can see some things begin to change. Seminary is a vital part of training men and women for a lifetime of ministry. I’m looking forward to seeing how this important conversation continues.

Jun 2013