By Eddie Lowen
When staff members demonstrate these qualities, hang on to them.
“Would you hire him again?”
The question was asked by the lead pastor of a faraway church who was deep into the process of hiring away one of our ministers. After I answered, there was an awkward pause, and then he asked, “Are you serious?”
Hiring staff is an intimidating responsibility for senior leaders of churches. While there aren’t many horrible people in ministry, there are plenty you don’t want. They survive by knowing how to talk a good game. So, be afraid—be very afraid—afraid enough, at least, to learn how to hire well. You’ll never completely remove the risk from hiring, but you can reduce it. (Christian Standard has published several helpful articles about hiring that are available for download.*)
At some point after you hire, you’ll know if you got it right. You’ll know if you want that staff member to stay a long time.
Or, will you?
Believe it or not, some really strong staff members are not highly valued by their church leaders. Why? It’s because some supervisors focus on the trivial and overlook the truly important. Frankly, I’ve made this mistake. So, I’ve put some effort into building a mental profile for keepers. If your staff member has these qualities, it is a strong indication you should look for ways to keep the person aboard.
Keepers influence staff culture positively. My staff members know my weaknesses. It is impossible to serve on a church staff and not see the flaws of those who lead. If a staff member has any perceptivity, he or she will see problems that haven’t been solved.
But when those observations are made, keepers are very intentional about how they respond, while nonkeepers react thoughtlessly, or even destructively. Here are a few of the poor choices made by those who do not belong in the keeper category:
• They go home to a spouse every day with a list of complaints.
• They huddle with other whiny staff members to denigrate supervisors.
• They voice concerns to friends and “prayer partners” within the church.
Some staff who do these things are simply careless or unwise. They intend no harm, but that doesn’t make them less harmful. Others use these tactics more insidiously. They’re much like Absalom, who systematically undermined his father, King David, by welcoming his critics and painting David as out of touch. Absalom should have gone to his father and said, “I am concerned that too many of the people’s concerns are going unaddressed. But I think I can help. If I’m successful, I can strengthen the king’s rapport with these people.” Instead, the Bible says Absalom “stole the hearts of the people of Israel” (2 Samuel 15:6).
While Absalom eventually received some painful justice on a bad hair day, much damage was done to the nation (2 Samuel 18). The reason these things are wrong for church staff and leaders is because God’s people suffer when church leaders mishandle concerns.
Keepers see the same problems that chronic complainers observe, but respond differently.
First, keepers keep leadership concerns in leadership circles. This one is a nonnegotiable for me. If you have staff who yap about leadership matters outside the leadership circle, explain to them what a healthy leadership culture looks like and give them one chance to change their ways. Let your team know there is no tolerance for this. (Note: I am not talking about keeping crimes and serious moral offenses secret.) Second, keepers avoid blurting out anonymous complaints and problems in ways that embarrass leaders or contaminate staff discussions.
Here’s the model approach: Keepers evaluate problems objectively, and then approach their supervisors with a description of a problem and a proposed solution. They do this at the right time, in the right way.
Sometimes a good staff member will unintentionally violate this tenet. When you hear from a problem-blurter-outer, patiently ask, “What do you suggest we do about it?” Asking this once or twice will teach the needed lesson.
Keepers regret their errors more than their supervisors do. About a month ago, one of our staff members was operating some equipment that did not work properly. The malfunction created an awkward moment that was below our standard of excellence. Later, someone reported to me that the staff member responsible was “genuinely upset about the mishap,” and was chiding himself for not double-checking the equipment after an adjustment was made.
Most people in his circumstances would have made the same mistake—but he didn’t lean on that as an excuse. He owned it. He apologized for the distraction and the embarrassment it caused. In that moment, I knew we had a keeper.
Contrast that with a staff member from whom goats run—because he is always looking for a scapegoat! When asked about a mistake or oversight, he will never say, “That one is on me. I should have anticipated . . . corrected . . .
explained . . . addressed . . . insisted . . .
confronted.” Acknowledging mistakes goes a long way with healthy supervisors. And, practically speaking, verbalizing our mistakes helps us remember not to make them again.
A worship service, event, or ministry can recover from a mistake or two. But repeated mistakes should not be allowed. They lower expectations and enthusiasm. Even a big mistake usually is not fatal. You may take a little grief for it, but it usually is just a bump in the road. But if the mistake is not acknowledged and improved upon, someone is failing. Our churches don’t mind imperfection, if they see us growing.
This really ties into passion. If staff members don’t behave like they really care, they don’t care! God’s kingdom and your people deserve better. If this is revolutionary to you, chances are that nonkeepers have cost you some high-quality church members and growth. And if your staff is full of nonkeepers, you may have retained only those members with low expectations. That’s tough medicine to hear, I realize. But a keeper is someone who loves your ministry enough to ensure that plans are thorough, environments are excellent, and mistakes are minimal.
Keepers are always engaged. That’s right, keepers never get married, but they keep trying. (Just kidding!) Keepers are always engaged in what is happening and what needs to happen.
• Keepers sing when it’s time to sing and listen when someone is speaking.
• Keepers play when it’s time to have fun.
• Keepers lean forward in conversations and give visual feedback in meetings.
• Keepers are excited about your church’s generosity initiative, rather than trying to hide from the sacrifice it requires.
One of the primary ways keepers engage is through the willingness to engage in tough conversations. There is no way to do ministry well without engaging in frequent conversations that hold the potential for hard feelings or misunderstanding. You want people on your team with the gumption and wisdom to put touchy subjects on the table—and to manage those moments well.
Here’s what happens when staff members consistently run from tough conversations:
• Volunteers will continue aiming low.
• People around them will starve for vision.
• Conflict will go unresolved.
• Lots of little problems will create a big problem.
• Undesirable behavior will continue.
• Excellent solutions will go undiscovered.
• There will be a fake sense of community (because it won’t exist).
Review the Gospels and note all the occasions when Jesus engaged, even when conflict was likely and the risk to his reputation was high. Jesus had tough conversations all the time. The book of Acts and the New Testament letters are filled with difficult topics and the communication surrounding them.
In life, it is best to engage. Ministry will flourish only when leaders engage. Leadership is absent without engagement. If you’ve got someone who embodies full engagement, that person is likely a keeper.
*”Hiring a New Minister” is a 12-page resource available for download at www.standardpub.com. It includes these articles: “How to Get Started,” “Checking References,” “Face-to-Face Interviews,” “The Behaviorally Based Interview,” “Extending the Call,” and “Hiring Resources.” Item number 025470510DL; cost is $4.99.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.