The problem with life is life. Or as we say in the program, “living life on life’s terms.” Quite frankly, its the daily grind that wears us down. I am ready to focus on the next thing, the new thing, the wondrous awakening to which I feel called. But even before the sun was up, I was reading yet one more bit of challenge from this world that is still mine: church management.
And here’s the thing: I never signed up to be a church manager. I am a poet, a preacher, a prophet. I am a teacher, a leader, and a visonary. And despite stereotypes, I’m actually amazingly astute with numbers. But I am not an administrator. The bane of my existence in church life has been the administration (read: staff recruitment, training and supervision).
I don’t suspect that I’m unusual, in fact when my colleagues talk about the challenges in their settings they invariably talk about staff relations. Perhaps it is universal, but I suspect that the staff dynamics in churches are a unique challenge particularly inasmuch as clergy are asked to be managers. While program-speak may suggest that we “say what we mean but don’t say it mean,” let’s face it, no one wants to be on the other side of the desk when the boss is dissatisfied with job performance. Especially when the not-pleased supervisor is your pastor. It’s like a double-whammy.
Over the years I’ve tried several approaches. The three rules for teaching have been the most helpful: specify, ignore and praise. Unfortunately, I have often been too light on the specificity and when trying to clarify expectations I have been accused of being, well, bossy. I have had great experiences with longtime staff, but in recent years have felt the tumult of the revolving door. It’s hard to be continuously welcoming new staff and building community at the same time. It’s impossible to do all of this and feel any sense of success.
The penultimate challenge is staffing the church office. This person needs to have impeccable public relations skills, be on board with the church’s mission, vision and values, be able to navigate the big personalities that are inevitably volunteering at churches, and, of course, be a good match for the pastor. I’ve had marvelous administrators in the office, mediocre ones and even a short term disaster or two.
When I first started this call, I had the dubious task of firing the existing secretary. It was an ugly business and there were plenty of critics from the pews. When a longtime member took a corporate parachute and landed in the position, we enjoyed a decade of stability that was precious. Imperfect, but nonetheless lifegiving. One of the remarkable gifts of that tenure, in hindsight, was the stability. That the person filling the desk was also a compassionate, detailed and dedicated soul was gift. In the intervening years we’ve had folks who had different talents, some quite marvelous, but none that offered that precious gift that we crave in life: stability.
Currently we are in between, a place of limbo where we’ve been since the last of the old guard left. A bit more than a year ago we hired someone who’s personality was a godsend. Within a couple of months, her tender spirit recoiled against the negative energy that brews just under the surface in our community now and she reduced her hours. We brought in a new staff to pick up the hours, a woman with excellent skills but limited availability. In the past two weeks, one on either side of my announced retirement, they’ve both left. Even as I try to make a graceful exit, I find myself embroiled in both exit interviews and the never ending search.
As I face this Monday morning with a new resignation in hand, I realize that I am reading chaos where I could be seeing opportunity. The succession of underpaid parttime staff is endemic, the only relevant question is in my response. It’s Monday and I want to throw a tantrum, but it’s also Monday and I want to enjoy the remarkable blue hue of the autumn sky. The choice is mine.