Dysfunctional Church Staff Situation

I just got off the phone with a young pastor friend, a mentee, who finds himself in a rather crazy situation. He’s dealing with a staff person who was present in the church before he became the lead pastor there. This administrative staff person has no real job description. They kind of wrote it themselves and it is ever evolving as desired. They are taking free rein and a lot of latitude with the finances, the facilities of the church, their job and even the job of a friend who does some work at the church. 

It’s just a crazy situation. In the end, because of either their administrative role or because they were there first, they believe they have authority over the new lead pastor, at least in some areas. This person thinks the new pastor actually has to ask them for permission to do things. 

Because this is a multilayered, dysfunctional situation, the board seems oblivious and really doesn’t even understand what’s going on despite, some subtle hints from this lead pastor. Another layer of the challenge is that the admin person’s spouse is on the board of elders. 

So there’s your crazy situation. How to prevent such a situation? 

How would you prevent that from happening if you’re coming in as a lead pastor? You want to see the job description of everybody who is there and clarify lines of authority. You want to challenge any conflicts of interest or see what kind of guidelines there are for conflicts of interest when someone who is on the leadership team has a spouse or a family member who is an employee. 

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It’s best to get that all out the table immediately, make sure it’s straightened up before you ever say yes and get some agreements on paper. Clarifying the structure ahead of time is important because it’s unwise to go into a lead role and find yourself hobbled by an admin person who thinks they have some authority due to either their tenure, their role or their connection to some leadership team. That’s just insanity. 

But this cannot be prevented because it’s already happened. So what is the actual solution in a situation like this? Well, the solution is to take some steps. Depending on your polity, those steps can look different, but I’m going to try to share some steps that work in any polity. 

If there’s good clear governance, this really wouldn’t be an issue and wouldn’t have happened. If there’s good clear governance, the pastor makes the call and deals with it. But if there’s some wobbly-ness in the whole mix of things, it can be hard. 

So here’s a solution that should work no matter where you are.

Number one, clarify and tighten up the person’s role with a clear job description. Clear lines of accountability and clarifying that everybody understands and signs off on that the lead pastor is clearly in charge of the staff, and the board understands and does not interfere. (Download the Position Focus Template and Sample off this page for a good starting point.)

If there’s any conflict of interest and if you’re discussing this person at the leadership team level, for instance, the spouse is not at the meeting or are asked to step out because of the clear conflict of interest. So you tighten up the role, you lay down some guidelines and then the person either adjusts and comply or they don’t. 

Number two, if they don’t comply and keep bucking against it, then you begin the process of tracking breaches of conduct. You track where they’re not fulfilling the role or challenging authority and begin documenting that and move towards a dismissal. 

Now, the good news my pastor friend has perseverance and I am praying for him, as I pray for a lot of Christian leaders, for wisdom and perseverance. That’s what’s needed in this situation and maybe it’s what’s needed in your situation. I suppose that could be Number three.

Wisdom is the know-how to navigate the challenges of church structure and dysfunctional leadership and organizational things. There are some policies and procedures and some best practices, but in addition to that, you need wisdom and perseverance. I just want to say, keep persevering and deal with things as they come. Keep moving ahead and eventually the air will clear and you’ll come through it. 

So wisdom and perseverance for my friend, for you. God bless. Press on. 

4 thoughts on “Dysfunctional Church Staff Situation”

  1. A good word here about staff and the role of the lead pastor in relation to staff. Job descriptions are key alright. In many ways, they should exist before hiring. One of the most critical elements in this is having clear lines of accountability — to whom a staff person answers and the leaders/volunteers for whom they each are responsible. Job descriptions are ultimately the responsibility of the lead pastor, as are annual reviews in relation to the job description.

    • In some cases it is the responsibility of the executive pastor to do the job descriptions. But the point is SOMEONE needs to be responsible for this! Lack of clear job descriptions and lines of accountability create a damaging ripple through a church, or any organization.

  2. I appreciate the comment about “wobbly-ness” and how some of these situations can be complex. Aiming to serve with meekness and trending towards a collaborative approach, I feel encouraged by this article to steward my lead pastor responsibilities with clarity. Thanks Daren.


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