Who ministers to you anyway? What warm and congenial saints toil tirelessly just beyond the tables of the reception center? You see the pastor: he’s the guy with spiky hair, cool glasses, maybe a soul patch under his lip. But who is actually ministering to you? Are they young, ambitious seminary grads, putting in their time behind the scenes until they get their shot at the Big Job? Perhaps, but increasingly that is not the case. If the pastor is anything like me, the church staff is a typical working class, grown-up-in-the-church lot, motivated by God’s Word, the peculiar lifestyle of being in ministry and a mixture of all things good and local. Unless your church is very large, they probably aren’t even full-time employees – assuming they are paid at all.
Ministry done well is a beautiful thing to experience. The church staff is a caring collaboration resembling, at its best, a M.A.S.H. unit or well coordinated team of first responders. They are more - much more - than a skilled crew or formal partnership of hired guns. Effective church staffs care for one another, have been to one another’s homes, eat together, celebrate holidays together, and if asked what an associate’s dad does for a living - they’ll know. They serve one another and contribute to an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations. A properly organized, fully committed staffer, one who works selflessly, and has a ‘calling’ – meaning a God ordained, customized life purpose, which, most important, brings God the greatest glory – can perform his duties with influential grace.
What most people don’t get about professional-level ministry is that it is not at all about the latest praise songs, the most innovative children’s program, the most creative use of worship technology; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you walked in the door of the auditorium. Ministry – the real business of spiritual growth – is about relationship. The fact is, the greatness of any church is not measured by how modern the building, the acreage of the campus, or the number of people in attendance. Those things have their place. Authentic ministry is measured by the capacity not just to serve, but to relate to those whom you serve.
You want staff members to possess an affinity for people. Someone who shows up on Sunday morning, discharges their duties, and is the first to drive out of the parking lot is not what I’m looking for. While it’s necessary for staffers to establish personal boundaries – it’s a good idea to let the staff breath a little by not requiring their attendance at every church event – this is still a family. Ultimately, I want life to be shared and bonds to be created. If I want entertainment by an isolated cast of characters, I’ll send people to Disneyland. People come to church expecting to find connection; they don’t want some budding musical talent treating the worship service like a temporary gig just paying the bills until that big break comes along in the music industry. Nor do they want a pastor who is so involved in ‘vision casting’ that he can’t be bothered to lead a small group or make a hospital call.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you each individual member of the staff has to have a relationship with everyone in the church. That’s not possible. I’m saying that being a member of a church staff goes beyond fulfilling a job description. There’s a gulf the size of an ocean between adequate ministry and a caring community. And it all begins with the staff. There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits and the kind of discipline required to touch someone’s life. There’s no faking it in ministry. Authenticity is measured by your willingness to be inconvenienced. Yes, some relationships, inevitably, will happen by chance. But chance is not a model for ministry.
The relationship between Pastor and Associate Pastor can be a particularly intimate one, for instance, and it’s nice to have someone with a similar background and world-view when you’re going to spend almost every waking hour together. Women staff members, however rare they might be in the testosterone heavy, male-dominated world of church staffs, are a particular delight. To have a sensitive, intuitive, knows-just-what-to-say female staff member can be invaluable – and a civilizing factor in a unit where an informal conversation about baseball can easily turn into a heated debate over the utilities of the sacrifice bunt.
I have been fortunate enough to work with some really Godly women – no weak reeds these. One single woman, Elaine, managed to voluntarily cook and deliver mercy-meals to church members befallen by tragedy, while she, herself, was dying of cancer. This was not, keep in mind, part of a church program. A long-time assistant, Janet, who refers to herself as ‘not very adventurous’, managed to hold down a busy campground kitchen situated in a makeshift trailer in the middle of the slums of Tijuana – and still find time to provide advice and comfort to romantically unhappy teenagers. She was compulsive about cleanliness and neatness, and as vocal about it, as Martha Stewart, but gladly suffered for the cause of Christ.
Ministry is also about reliability. It is about week-in-week-out, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a pastor wants in a staff member is an innovator, an associate with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the church’s vision and strategy. Pastors require loyalty, a thick skin and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions. The job requires character – and endurance. When Sunday comes, a good staffer never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and difficulty.
Event calendars are the central nervous system for all effective church staffs. Do not touch a staff member’s personal organizer – meaning their laptop, digital tablet, or smart phone. These manage carefully recorded dates, times, details, contact information for teen pregnancy centers, worship software’s tech support, the home phone number of the local chief-of-police, pizza delivery services, inflatable waterslide vendors and so on. As a staffer, your personal information device, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your brain and it is profoundly upsetting if anyone - up to and including, heaven forbid, an immediate family member – disturbs your precisely personalized and carefully organized system. The universe is in order when your personal organizer is arranged the way you like it; you know where to find everything within two keystrokes and with your eyes closed. Everything you need to delegate tasks and coordinate activity is ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. Fail to update and integrate incoming information, allow it to become disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and annoying everyone else around you.
Being theologically sound, properly trained, and adequately coordinated is not nearly enough. An effective staff member has to be able to remain level-headed and even-keeled during hectic and stressful situations. When you have fifteen or twenty parents of teenagers all demanding to know why two boys in the youth group were caught mooning the girl’s dorm on the last night of a spiritual retreat - two of the girls being daughters of church Elders; you can’t launch into a defensive tirade critiquing parenting styles and complaining about how you aren’t appreciated. You have to be gracious! Your hero staffer doesn’t let the anger of others, the frantic cries of ‘Incompetence!’, and the long and potentially confusing list of complaints throw him. He’s got to be grounded and understand how to deal with conflict and manage a crisis.
The ability to ‘work well with others’ is a must. If you are the sound engineer, the worship leader is your dance partner, and chances are, you’re spending the majority of your worship time exchanging hand signals from a cramped sub-marine-like space, adjusting levels, mixing feeds and constantly surveying the room to make sure that voices can be heard above instruments so that the whole listening experience is pleasant and balanced. The both of you are trying to hit time-sensitive and synchronized cues, gratify a wide variety of personal preferences, all the while exemplifying the love of God and unity of Christ’s body. So you had better get along. It will not do to have two overly sensitive facilitators of worship arguing over some perceived insult when there are impressionable people around who are new to the faith.
So who, exactly, are these guys, the men and women in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my experience that all church staffers are salt-of-the-earth, selfless servants, do-gooders, an unusual assortment of sober, gentle, patient, kindly saints and friendly neighbors. You wouldn’t be too far off base. A church’s staff, as one pastor friend explains it, attracts a caring element, people for whom something in their lives clicked – their faith. They enjoyed high school, they are not running away from anything – be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law. And maybe, like me, they just like it here. They are comfortable with the rather disciplined and caring code of conduct within the church hallways, the elevated level of tolerance for the needy, the hurting, the lonely, the rejected. In most churches, one’s position in the world matters little if at all. Do you love Jesus? Are you willing to serve Him? Can I count on you to show up and do your part?
That’s what counts.
There are exceptions. I can break down dysfunctional church staffers into three subgroups.
You’ve got the Artists: the annoying, high-maintenance minority. This group includes specialists like worship leaders, musicians, and the occasional vocalists whose voices are so ethereal and mesmerizing that delusions of grandeur are often tolerated. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word ‘artist’, I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up for work on time. More often than not their efforts, convinced as they are of their own delicate genius, are geared more to narcissism than providing a satisfying worship experience in which the great majority of church-goers can participate. Personally, I’d prefer praising God with music that sounds good and is an honest reflection of the leader’s heart, than with the latest hit from the Christian music scene which showcases the artist’s vocal range, or has a really cool guitar solo.
Then there are the Exiles: people who just couldn’t make it in another business and, mid-career, decided they would give ministry a try. They say things like ‘I want to pursue ministry as a career’ or ‘I’m just so unhappy where I am now.’ It’s not clear if they are pursuing Jesus or going on a job search.
Finally, there are the Mercenaries: people who do it for cash and do it well. They are particularly proficient in some area of ministry, though they have little love or natural proclivity for engaging others in conversation. They do it at a high level because they are paid well to do it – they are professionals, purveyors of religion. Forced to choose, I’d take a stand up mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When a job applicant starts telling me how they have the anointing, I see trouble coming. Send me another moderately gifted guitar player. I can teach him to lead worship. I can’t teach character. Show up on time to lead your ministry six months in a row and we’ll talk about letting you start a Saturday night service with computer generated lighting, stage props, and liturgical rope dancers. Until then . . . let’s pray about it.