6 Steps to Leading a Dynamic Church Staff

Not all church teams are created equally. Some are synergistic forces of nature that instinctually set and meet goals. Other teams remain excessively busy but struggle to gain much ground. Why is it that some churches have staff that seem to function so well together while others spin their wheels?

We become equipped to pull together in the same direction instead of operating as several disparate members pulling the body in different directions.

Productive teams don’t happen by accident. Even if you pull together all the right people, you still only have the raw materials for a dynamic church staff. A lot of strategic work needs to happen to fashion those elements into a well-oiled machine.

Some of the changes that need to happen are conceptual, and some require changes in practice. Here are some critical steps that go into leading a potent, energetic staff.

1. Keep your focus on the big picture

There’s an old expression that suggests that it’s dangerous when people “can’t see the forest for the trees.” What this means is that they become so focused on the details that they miss the big picture. This mistake is incredibly easy to do in church leadership.

We tend to see all of the parts of the church as closely related but separate realities. You have administration, various ministries, service elements, outreaches, etc. Of course, we recognize that these are all elements of the church, but we tend to treat them as self-contained realities. We silo each member of the staff into their particular area of responsibility.

Ideally, you’re not just hiring a small group coordinator. You’re hiring someone to help fulfill the church’s mission, but their primary focus is creating highly functional small group ministries. This might seem like a potentially inconsequential difference, but it’s not. It changes how you see ministry and how team members perceive their role.

Paul addressed a similar topic in his letter to the Corinthians:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Corinthians 12:21–27, English Standard Version).

Our limbs and organs don’t work in isolation from one another. On the contrary, they operate in tandem to facilitate the body’s ability to function. Things like children’s ministry, mission teams, Sunday schools all exist to fulfill the church’s mission. When we see them that way, we become equipped to pull together in the same direction instead of operating as several disparate members pulling the body in different directions.

But to get to the place where the team sees themselves this way, the leadership needs to. That means resisting the temptation to focus on the parts instead of the whole.

2. Create a staff of leaders

The kind of team you need to plant a church is dramatically different than the one you need to run a church of 500. It’s not just that the staff needs to grow, but you also need to think about how it functions in an entirely different way.

When they first launch a church, pastors and church boards tend to think very pragmatically. They need a youth ministry, so they hire someone with a passion for working with teens. They need a worship ministry, so maybe they hire someone to run that. This practical thinking makes sense when a church is small, but eventually, this model becomes unsustainable. In fact, it often inhibits growth.

At some point, your staff needs to transition from people hired to do ministry to being people tasked with facilitating ministry.

At some point, your staff needs to transition from people hired to do ministry to being people tasked with facilitating ministry. You’re hiring people not necessarily to do tasks but to lead. They recruit volunteers, equip them to serve, and release them into ministry. A youth pastor who runs a ministry is limited by their own capacity. At some point, they will run into their limitations. But when you put a leader in that position who empowers and delegates others, productivity and effectiveness skyrockets.

The problem that a lot of churches run into is that they have an employment mindset. As the church grows, they believe the staff needs to, too. But that’s not necessarily true. It’s hard to secure the income that facilitates that kind of staff development. At some point, the staff size and income cancel each other out. You’re no longer able to generate the kind of growth you need to afford more staff.

But when you intentionally hire leaders, you create a foundation that supports more ministry with fewer hired hands. Now leaders can train and manage volunteers to do ministry’s work while they guide everyone toward the church’s mission and goals.

3. Be mindful of contextual fit

A lot has been said about hiring for cultural fit, but churches need to think about context as well. Does a potential hire make sense for your church’s frame of reference? For instance, struggling rural churches have been known to call staff members from large city churches because of a misconception that they possess some innate understanding of ministry growth. But when the staff member arrives, frustration ensues. The members and the new employee have entirely different frames of reference. The transplant sees the rural church as backward and doesn’t really understand their history or experience. Meanwhile, the church members resent the new employee’s attempts to change things too quickly—even though that’s why they hired him or her.

It isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem when someone from another context shows up at your church, but it can create difficulties. Sometimes the shock to the church’s system is helpful, and sometimes it’s not. These tensions take time and effort to process and work out, and sometimes what’s gained isn’t worth the effort it takes to get everyone on the same page.

Other contextual fit challenges could include theological differences, ministry philosophies, and community demographics. Make sure your interviews with potential candidates suss out potential contextual mismatches and then be strategic in hiring for each position.

4. Any person is not always better than no person

Have you ever seen a child with $10 to spend shopping at a department store? At first, they’re really choosy. That little amount of money represents a lot of possibilities to that young mind. Will they buy a plush toy? Some candy? There are so many options. But as time drags on, they stop being so picky. After a while, they’re walking down every aisle looking for anything that fits within their meager budget.

Churches can be the same way.

If the church needs an open position filled or the board signs off on a new hire, they're specific about the kind of person they want to hire. But as the search drags on, the expectations begin to get lower and lower.

But when you intentionally hire leaders, you create a foundation that supports more ministry with fewer hired hands.

The leadership begins to make a concession here and a compromise there. After a while, the position gets filled with someone that might not be the right fit—and the ministry hobbles along until the problem gets solved.

If you want a staff that fires on all cylinders, abandon the idea that somebody is better than nobody. It’s often just not accurate. Sometimes you can find people to help keep a ministry going in the interim. But even if you can’t, it can be better to wait to start a ministry or allow one to go on hiatus until the right person is found. When you identify and hire the ideal person, you’ll get that momentum back in no time. But if you put the wrong person in that position, you might end up operating at a deficit.

5. Don’t allow conflict to fester

There’s probably something wrong if you enjoy dealing with conflict. Some people are better with it than others, but no one really likes it. But it doesn’t matter. You’re going to end up dealing with conflict anyway.

Every work environment has its share of disagreements, hurt feelings, and disputes. But these conflicts impact everybody, especially when the team is relatively small. Too many excellent church teams have been waylaid—if not completely capsized—by unresolved discord. Whether you feel comfortable with it or not, resolving conflict is an essential task for leaders.

Here are a few steps to managing conflict well:

  1. Set the expectation up front
    Regularly acknowledge that conflict is a normal part of the work environment. Disagreement, anger, and frustration doesn’t make you a terrible person. There’s absolutely no way that people can be together regularly without creating some sparks. But also let your team know that you’re committed to building a staff that copes with this challenge in a healthy, mature, and godly way. Revisit this encouragement periodically.
  2. Learn how to deal with conflict
    You could probably come up with handfuls of things that used to make you anxious that come naturally to you now. Believe it or not, you can do the same with resolving conflict. But if you wait until you have a battle before you think about it, it’s going to take you years and years to feel adept in managing it. So take the bull by the horns now. Read books on conflict. Go to seminars and conferences. Talk to other pastors you respect and see how they deal with it. Then when conflict rears its head, you’ll be better equipped.
  3. Train your team to think win/win
    It’s one thing to champion compromise, but that often comes up short. Typically, you have a couple of people on your team that capitulate faster than everyone else. So every time a disagreement occurs, they get the short end of the stick.

    But moving beyond compromise to win/win empowers everyone to look for solutions where every party benefits. It takes more work and creativity, but it’s worth it in the long run.

6. Set clear expectations

Every workplace struggles with communication. Knowing how to communicate the pertinent information that every staff member needs in every situation isn’t easy. For many people working on church teams, this lack of communication also impacts job performance. They’re hired to run a ministry and hit specific deadlines, but they don’t always know what success looks like.

For many church leaders, creating metrics and targets feels overly demanding—especially when so many things about church attendance, giving, and productivity feel so arbitrary. Holding staff members to arbitrary expectations feels unnecessary. But that’s not the case at all.

Whether you’ve taken the time to identify them or not, you have expectations for your staff members, and they have expectations for you, too. If neither party has taken the time to discern what those expectations are and communicate them to others, frustration will abound and no one will understand why.

Leaders can train and manage volunteers to do ministry’s work while they set guide everyone toward the church’s mission and goals.

Sure. You will have some driven staff members who perform and excel in an environment without any oversight and input. An internal compass directs these entrepreneurial personalities, and they don't need a whole lot of outside stimuli, but those personalities are few and far between. Most people need a target and regular input.

Without clear expectations, church teams can become fairly complacent. They’re merely driven by the next church service or event. There isn’t a lot pushing them for results or reaching to greater heights. This isn’t because they’re lazy. It’s because most people rise to meet the expectations placed upon them. Without them, they don’t grow to their potential.

This is how you make your mission a reality. You set incremental goals for every ministry and position that help you facilitate the vision. You communicate these goals to the people responsible for pushing the ball forward. These goals need to be reasonable and measurable, but they should also be ambitious. How many new faces would you like to see in your youth ministry in the next six months? How much would you like to see generosity increase? How many new volunteers would you like to see signed up for the next event?

You can always adjust expectations that are too lofty, but you can’t expect anyone to meet goals that you’ve never identified.

Give Your Staff What They Need to Thrive

When push comes to shove, managing a church staff is very similar to managing a team in other environments. Your staff wants many of the same things that other employees want. They want good communication, trust, recognition, and to be empowered to get their job done. Whether your staff is all under one roof or they’re spread out across multiple campuses, they need the same thing from you: they need to be equipped to thrive.

Use these tips to create a work environment where everyone flourishes—and the church becomes a dynamo.