By Eddie Pipkin

Churches everywhere—all denominations, all geographic locations, all cultural contexts—are composed of a combination of paid staff and volunteer leaders.  One of the great questions that each individual congregation must answer for itself is what the balance will be.  How many staff does it take to carry out our congregational vision without overextending our ministry budget?  There is no exact formula.

Individual churches work out their answers by juggling a variety of competing factors, but it is rare that staffing decisions are a product of a clear process of visioning and strategic assessment for long-term impact.  Such decisions are more often a compromise of constraints and hopeful thinking:

  • Denominational institutional processes for those congregations who are part of a larger denominational system mean that lead pastors (ministry CEOs) are assigned to congregations and come with a set of gifts that may or may not be a perfect fit for the local context. Staffing in the rest of the organization relies heavily on compatibility with the leader.
  • Meanwhile, once ministry staffers are in place, churches are reluctant to cut them loose. Heritage matters (both for staff positions themselves, as well as the individuals who fill those positions).  Even as the dynamics of a congregation change (new leaders with a new style, new vision, demographic shifts, resource realities), church leadership can be hesitant to make emotionally charged changes.
  • Staff positions are created to plug holes in programming. Whenever a congregation is struggling to fill a perceived critical spot, one of the first reflexes is to hire someone.  This thinking often supersedes a deeper dive into ministry validity and health.  If we have trouble filling nursery worker spots or getting help with youth ministry, should we reflexively hire someone, or is there a deeper truth about the way we’re doing ministry?  (Many of us have been in meetings to observe the elaborate explanations that such discussions can produce to justify hiring decisions.)
  • Ministry leadership likes to hire from its own reservoir of volunteers. While there is a great case to be made for developing homegrown talent, these hiring decisions frequently become a case of reverse engineering.  Rather than writing a clearly articulated job description of what is needed to move ministry forward, we find ourselves tweaking the job description to meet the gifts of the job applicant, and we make allowances for gaps in the job applicant’s experience or expertise—oh, we can get her training for that!

Sometimes, all of this works out well, and sometimes, not so much.  But the unique staffing approaches of ministry can lead to a bloated payroll and employees without clear direction or focus.  Our impulse as leaders (who are universally trying to grow and expand ministry) is, “Wait a minute, more staff is a good thing, right?  That’s more people to conduct more ministry and reach more people, right?”

Maybe not.

There is plenty of evidence that excess staff can impede core ministry.  For instance, the presence of professional staff to accomplish ministry tasks (from teaching kids to watching the nursery to running the tech) reduces our need to recruit volunteers (that is, lay ministers) to do work they may be gifted and called to do.  Rebekah Simon-Peter, in her article “Be Fruitful and Multiply Like Jesus” reminds us that we’re called to make not just disciples, but apostles (those who would make the leap from following Jesus to leading others in ministry):

But if we’re not going on to make apostles out of these disciples, we stop short of fully embodying Christ-likeness. Jesus didn’t just make followers; he made leaders. He empowered his disciples to be miracle-working healers, priests and prophets in their own right by commissioning them as apostles.

When you think about it, if Jesus had insisted on doing everything, the vision of the Kingdom would have been crucified with him. Instead, 2.1 billion people now check the box “Christian.” Likewise, if we insist on doing everything, the vision will move, retire or die with us, even as the church continues to decline. In the meantime, the stress will all but kill us.

She suggests that we should spend less time coordinating staff and programs, and more time lifting up and empowering apostles:

  • Are we developing a community-based vision that is worth investing in, so that natural leaders will be drawn to it and eager to get involved?
  • Are we investing intentional time and energy in our most promising leaders, giving them meaningful work to do and the encouragement and tools to do it?
  • Are we inviting participation in our leadership processes and inviting future leaders to shadow and assist us?

Tony Morgan offers some counterintuitive insights into the impacts of overstaffing (beyond the obvious truth that money locked in staff and ancillary staff support is not available to use to resource ministry in other ways):

Here are a couple of very revealing trends we see related to staffing:

  • Staffing impacts volunteerism. You might think the more staff a church has, the more people will be equipped and empowered to serve. The opposite is true. We’ve found that for every 5% more of the budget churches spend on staff, nearly 4% less attendees were serving as volunteers.
  • Staffing impacts attendance. Again, you might assume the more staff a church has, the more people the church will be able to reach. We’re finding the exact opposite. Instead, for every 5% more of the budget that churches were spending on staff, attendance growth was nearly 5% less.

In other words, when your gut tells you “We need to add more staff,” you need to think again. If you are overstaffed, it has the potential to drive down serving and attendance.

These conclusions are a little mind blowing for those who have been in the ministry trenches for a long time, struggling with budgets, volunteer recruitment, and community engagement.  Surely, if we only had some key staff positions filled, we could turn the corner in pursuit of our vision.  At the core of our ministry, however, the development of relationships and discipleship are the true path forward.  These priorities are not gimmicks to grow ministry, they are the work to which Jesus has called us (and which Jesus lived out), and they always result in healthy and vibrant congregations that are organically able to multiply their impact.

What are your own thoughts on ministry staffing?  Take issue with any of these conclusions?  Offer your counter-argument or points you think we missed in the comments section.  Here’s one more bonus link to staffing level insights from Thom Rainer.  And if you want to further explore the kind of interactive training we think helps congregations develop ministry leaders, check out our new Exodus 18 Initiative.