Most senior pastors are terrible at church staff development. I know. I’m one of those senior pastors. Too often new staff arrive and it feels like a relief. That pain point of a previously open position or that need for hiring additional staff has been handled.
We sigh and celebrate.
The new staff person hopefully gets some formal onboarding with policies, procedures, and the location of the nearest bathroom. Then, we stop by their office and ask how things are going. If they say great, we breathe another sigh of relief. Maybe we even take them to lunch one time! Look at us, responsible and generous! We might even check in with the rest of the staff and ask how they think the new person is working out. If they say great, we breathe another sigh of relief. We keep our ears up, listening for murmurs of discontent or cheers of support from the congregation, too. If all seems to be going ok, another sigh of relief.
We size up the new hire through a series of sighs.
For existing staff, we lean into staff meetings pretty hard. For many senior pastors, we think “If no one complains at staff meeting, then everything is alright.” To go along with that, we add “If no one in the church is upset with a staff person, then everything is alright.” More sighs of relief. Through past traditions or nervousness over staff morale, we may set up some team building opportunities. This could be playing a game, going on a retreat, grabbing lunch, or the thrill of the whole staff reading a book together. Can’t you just imagine the excitement bubbling up in your staff’s hearts when you hand out copies of your latest “magic cure for what ails the church” book?
To summarize, church staff development can easily degrade into a two-step process: onboarding and then problem solving.
A week with no problems means that the staff are all set. And this is fine if you have no desire to actually develop your staff. If you have no desire to invest in the future of the church’s leadership, you are done. But that doesn’t feel right, does it? Most of us senior pastors want to be part of a team that is developing. We may have different styles of leadership and motivation, but in the end, we want to see our staff growing, learning, and thriving. However, when the to-do list we made at the beginning of the week continues to taunt us with so many unchecked boxes, we use what time and energy we have for ourselves. And staff development becomes a luxury that we imagine we cannot afford.
I get it. The senior pastor spends so much time putting out fires and worrying about problems that you aren’t going to invest time in staff development unless it’s a crisis. So, let me make it easier for you. If you are not investing in the development of your staff, your church is in a crisis. The boat is sinking. The basement is on fire. You are designing a system that will reward quiet quitters and frustrate leaders who want to grow. Your sighs of relief are quickly becoming the last fleeting breaths of the dying church. Is that better? Heart rate up a little? Scared enough to take action? Ok, then. Let’s look at four easy ways you can invest in the newer, less experienced, and still-learning people on your staff. (And your long-time, more experienced staff may appreciate some of this, too.)
1. Know the Stories So They Can Be Seen and Known
Your staff come to you with a rich set of stories about their life and former work. Learn their backstories. Be curious. Ask questions. Don’t get creepy digging into their lives, and resist the urge to turn every one of their stories into an opportunity for you to “one-up” them with your incredible escapades. Just take the time to find out what has fueled them and what has used up all of their energy in the past. And, as they create new stories in their work with you, create a non-anxious environment where they feel comfortable telling you about their celebrations and their utter failures. You can help create this culture by sharing more of your failure stories than your success stories. The most basic step in church staff development is creating a culture where people feel seen and known.
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2. Carry Around Buckets of Grace Expecting the Fires of Failure
I have a series of favorite phrases that all revolve around the same basic idea: It is ok to fail.
“We are not in charge of nuclear missiles.”
“If it doesn’t happen, the world will keep on spinning.”
“Around here, we carry big buckets of grace.”
I use these phrases to create a culture where my staff has clear permission to fail. It probably comes from my former days as a technology developer. Nearly every great innovation and success story in technology was preceded by a series of failure stories. Tony Fadell, one of the masterminds behind the Apple iPod and iPhone, racked up a series of failures before striking gold. Thomas Edison created several fires before he got a light bulb to stay on. You don’t need to use my corny phrases, but you do need to decide how you are going to create a safe space for the staff to grow. Very few people can thrive in spaces where failure is met with harsh intolerance.
3. Provide Accountability Internally and Support Externally
We need to hold our staff members accountable for their actions. Wait! What happened to the buckets of grace? The buckets are still there. When failure, missteps, miscommunications or other issues arise, we pour on the grace and then follow it with reflecting on what happened. In fact, reflecting on how things are going along the way is often only made possible when staff feel safe, seen, known, and forgiven along the way. With that environment in place, we set up clear expectations and then invite the staff to reflect on what went wrong with us. This means, we are all learning from the updates and the missteps.
Externally, we need to support our staff in their journey of growth and development. We cannot throw our staff under the bus. Staff mistakes are our mistakes. It can be all too tempting to breathe one of those sighs of relief when we realize that a church member is mad at someone else on the staff. It takes a humble and courageous leader to accept blame and commit to solutions in solidarity with their staff. Certainly, someone may commit egregious errors that cannot be defended or supported in any way, but let’s be honest, these instances are rare. Having the backs of our less experienced staff is critical to encouraging their growth and development.
4. Give Them Time and Money to Learn from Others
We are not the single source of wisdom and knowledge in the universe. Hopefully, this is not hard for us to acknowledge. Our staff will learn from the experiences in our context, but they also need to be empowered and encouraged to develop in ways beyond our context. This will lead to valuable lessons and unique perspectives that can be brought back to your church. Every staff member should have access to some funds for continuing education, coaching, spiritual direction, or other outside development activities.
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As senior staff, we get to encourage these activities with the added benefit that these learning experiences cost us little of our own time, effort, or risk. In addition to the funds, encouraging time for outside learning is key. We cannot ask our staff to sacrifice pay or vacation days in order to attend a growing opportunity or meet with other outside church leaders. While these opportunities will yield lessons in their content, they also help us to create a ministry environment that clearly values the development of our church’s most precious resource, our staff.
We can expect more from people when we invest more in people.
I have tried to implement these four steps in the various ministry areas of my life where I have the privilege to lead others. I’ve failed many times. I’ve missed opportunities to hear someone’s story. I have reacted with fear instead of grace. At times, I’ve failed to set clear expectations. I have not always encouraged staff to find mentors outside of our own context.
The good news is that grace is real and the world will keep on spinning. I have had many second chances to be a better leader. God has continually connected me with unique and amazing staff in a variety of contexts. I am not the perfect leader, but on my better days, I can learn from my failures. And with that, I can breathe out a sigh of relief and breathe in an expectation of what God might do next.
If you’re struggling with church staff development or you would like to talk through how to find time to connect with your teams, let’s talk.