Strategies for Staff Retention: Fixing the Dance Floor–

“Years of preparation had made her movements effortless, her turns seamless, her leaps weightless. A dancer of unparalleled talent, she mesmerized the crowd with her skill, but even more with her passion. Her countenance proclaimed in no uncertain terms that she was made for this moment. 

But she would finish much sooner than anyone expected. Coming down from an arching leap, she landed with a jolting crack, her foot driving its way through the rotting wood of the floor, her body twisted in pain, her leg bent in places it was not made to bend. She was pulled from the stage, wondering if she would ever dance again. 

The master of ceremonies dismissively apologized, “Inexperience does this to a dancer.” But no one repaired the floor. 

And then, as if nothing had happened, the next performer was introduced.”

Mark DeVries. Sustainable Youth Ministry (pp. 51-52). InterVarsity Press.

My Story

The first time I read those words, I just stopped, eyes frozen on the white page. The small black letters blurred for a time as the words crashed over me. I had been that dancer. I had fallen through that dance floor. And then, I’d been replaced with the next victim. In fact, at that point I was on my third faulty and neglected dance floor, and it was clear that no one was interested in making any repairs. I sat there, holding Mark’s book in my hand, recalling all the holes I’d been dancing around for years, and wondering, for the first time, if maybe dance floors didn’t have to have holes. If maybe it was a lack of maintenance, and not my dancing, after all.

You may have experienced a similar resonance while reading “Sustainable Youth Ministry” by Mark DeVries. If not, maybe you are experiencing it now.

Or maybe, you’re recognizing that it’s your dance floor. Maybe you have started to see a pattern in your church and you are ready to make some repairs. 

You’re not alone.

Whether it’s your job to build churches or build ministries, all of us are responsible for maintaining what we at Ministry Architects call “The Dance Floor.” You may have a staff team of 50 leaders or a Sunday volunteer team of 5. Either way, creating the systems and structures that equip those leaders for success is your responsibility, and it’s not easy, but you can fix the dance floor. 

And you had better.

For the last decade or so, churches have been hire- and fire-at-will. And while a well-known former Seattle pastor’s remarks on the “bodies behind the bus” have recently resurged to the general cringe of us all, this mindset was never limited to that one mega-church. Now, as we find ourselves in the throes of the Great Resignation, churches are coming to the realization that they are going to have to put their best foot forward to attract– and retain– staff in 2022. We’re going to have to put in the work to find the best strategies for staff retention.

And the first step is to stop trained ballerinas from falling through dance floors. Here’s how:

Strategies for Staff Retention:

Step 1: Find the Holes:

This should be obvious, but it’s not. It’s really, really not. In fact, I would suggest that holes wouldn’t be in the dance floor in the first place if leaders like you and I could see them. So, you are going to have to really dig. And you’re going to have to be humble. Really humble.

Did the last three children’s directors all complain about communication as they walked out the door? Did the last five volunteer youth leaders who “suddenly” quit over the last year all mention “lack of preparation?” 

There are probably patterns, but we have to be humble to see them. And humble is hard

So dig. Dig without blame or agenda. And friend, it’s going to be a lot harder if you have asked for honest feedback in the past and then hurt people. So, be honest with yourself as you dig. Is your staff being closed-lipped and closed-off? Did something they spoke with you honestly about come up recently in their annual review? It takes courage to speak truth to power. Honor that. And honor them.

If this is a struggle for you, if you’ve searched your heart, your backlog of emails, your team, and your trusted mentors, and you still don’t know what the holes are or how to fix them, let us help. 

We’re committed to being non-judgemental load-bearers,
let’s talk about what it would look like to partner in 2022.

Step 2: Create a Plan:

Once you know where the “holes” are you can create a plan to fix them. Sit down with a mentor or, better yet, sit down with a couple of key leaders representing those who have been most affected by these holes. 

(Tip: If this group is just your “Executive Leadership Team,” you will get nowhere. No offense, but this is the same group who didn’t fix the holes in the first place. At this point, if you want to fix the dance floor in a meaningful way, you need on-the-ground feedback and new voices.)

Our favorite way to do this at Ministry Architects is to create a Game Plan. We start with a 3-Year Goal. Where do you want to be in three years? It’s best if this is a S.M.A.R.T. Goal (Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant Time-Bound). Then, you create a 1-Year Benchmark that puts you on a trajectory to meet that 3-Year Goal. 

An example:

Let’s say the hole in your dance floor  is a lack of respectful and advanced communication. The outcome your church has experienced because of that hole is a high staff turnover rate and general staff burnout. Then your 3-Year Goal could be something like this: 

“8 of our 10 current staff remain on staff through 2025 and 8 out of 10 are able to report that they are ‘highly satisfied’ with their experience working with our church.” 

In an effort to strategically work towards that goal, set a benchmark to reach at the end of the year. The 1-Year Benchmark could look something like this: 

“A weekly staff email has been established within which upcoming decisions and events are announced three or more months in advance. Additionally, staff accomplishments are celebrated weekly.” 

The goal of the 1-Year Benchmark is that you never have to think about the goal. Benchmarks should be structured so that if you successfully complete the year one, year two, and year three benchmarks, you will achieve the 3-Year Goal.

Now, no Game Plan is complete without tasks. 1-Year Benchmarks like this are not just announced and, like magic, come to fruition. So, take the time to write out every single task that needs to be attended to in order to accomplish this one year benchmark. 

For our example, here are a few questions that will be helpful to answer:

Would someone need to be named to write this weekly email? What does the funnel for decisions and events being named 3-months in advance look like? Is it a large staff? How do staff achievements reach the writer? How do we collect nominations? Do we want to reward recognized staff members beyond a shout out? Who’s buying/sending the Starbucks e-gift cards? Write every single task down. 

But don’t stop there. 

Next to each task, write the date by which this is going to be accomplished and who the task is assigned to. You have a whole year to start what amounts to a newsletter, but that time is going to fly and, without dates and persons responsible, you’re going to be in the same position in a year as you are today. Write it down and then decide how you’re going to stay accountable to the process.

Step 3: Stay Accountable to the Process:

At Ministry Architects, we generally use something called a “Renovation Team” in order to manage this process. It’s like a kitchen renovation– the kitchen might be in shambles, but the family still has to eat, and go to work and school, and practice, and… just live. So, generally, the family hires a contractor to take on the process of renovation.

In the world of church work, the Renovation Team manages the process of change so that the church staff and lay leaders currently running the church can continue running the church. Depending on how deep and how wide the holes are that you are trying to address, you may need a small team (3-7 members) who are outside the day-to-day and can manage the list of tasks, benchmarks, and goals. For us, this team is often a mix of staff, lay leaders, and church members who are doers and who have the capacity to accomplish the necessary tasks

If the holes in your dance floor are smaller, and you feel like you can address it on your own, you will at least want to ask a trusted friend or mentor to help keep you accountable to the process. Trust me, intentions are good, but action is better.

Step 4: Pivot as Necessary:

In the end, though, your solution might not be the solution. Landing on the right strategies for staff retention is hard. Stay committed to the goal more than the strategies you thought would work. If you are six months into the new staff email and your open rate is a bust, or your frazzled staff are whispering in the hallways about how it’s so long they would rather do ANYTHING than read one more– Pivot. Would a 15-minute Monday morning Zoom call work better for everyone? Can you spice it up? Shorten it? Are people feeling more or less heard? Address that.

Look, you might not have all the answers, especially on your first go, but when people see how committed you are to them rather than your agenda, they will be more committed to you, your leadership, and the church. 

People, people, people. -Matthew 22:39

Because they’re worth it.

Additional Strategies for Staff Retention:

The dance floor is incredibly important– and often incredibly neglected– but it’s not the only strategy for retaining staff and volunteers. In fact, there is another strategy that I never hear anyone talk about, and I really can’t understand why. 

Is morale down with your staff? My guess is that it’s a resounding YES!!! 

And, of course it is. We’re going into year three of Covid-19, Christmas is over, and there’s a new variant that’s, get this, EVEN MORE CONTAGIOUS.

But, if we’re being honest, and I do want to be honest, was it better in February 2020? What about December 2019?

Is Covid just an excuse we are using because we are tired and we don’t know where the holes are in the dance floor of staff morale? 

Honestly, I don’t know what the holes are in your dance floor. I don’t know the specifics around why your staff is so unenthusiastic (if they are), or why they have been since before Covid. I don’t know why they’re leaving or, sometimes worse, staying with miserable energy.

But I do know how you can be more attuned to it. It’s not easy, but it’s practical and logical, and not hyper spiritual. You can even measure it if you want.

Here’s the formula: 

+ > – 

It’s really that simple. Or it will be, when I explain it. 

Your positive output should be greater than your negative output. 

That’s it. 

Are you having to bring a lot of bad news to your staff team lately? Moving back online? Reinstituting masks? Are you losing your lease at the school you rent as cases rage in your area?

These are all things that feel outside of your control. Do you know what is within your control?

Compliments. Celebrations. Positive emails. Vision casting. Prayers for the families of your staff. Shout outs. Telling stories of new life. Get togethers. Zoom parties. Cookies. Text messages. Bonuses. Raises. Meaningful interactions with your team. Warm socks. 

There are a lot of difficult things happening in this world, and people have a subconscious point system tallying the positive and the negative things in their minds. They are tired and they are sad. And you can’t control Covid. And you can’t control all the sad things. But you, as a leader, can control how many of the positive points come from your mouth, and staff won’t leave a leader like that in 2022. Or ever, if they can help it.

Finding the Right Strategies for Staff Retention that Work for You:

Obviously, strategies for staff retention is a big topic, and this blog could fill a book if it kept going, but what’s important is that you act. My prayer for you today is that you take a step towards fixing your dance floor. That you separate yourself from the problem and unite your team, whoever they may be, around making 2022 a safer, kinder year for church staff and volunteers. And, maybe, that you make positive vibes a priority for those around you. The world is hard enough without a mean boss, and your church probably has enough “holes” without the next staff person leaving. 

So grapple. Dig. Open your eyes to what God has for you and your team in 2022. And if you need help, reach out

You don’t have to do this alone. 

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