Why do churches manage people badly?

Jon Kuhrt writes: The church frequently has to respond to the scandal and upset created by safeguarding failures and other cases of serious malpractice. As we all know, these scandals powerfully undermine the integrity of the church’s witness.

One key factor in ecclesiastical failures that is frequently downplayed is the poor state of basic ‘human resources’ practices. The “bad fruit” (Matthew 7.17) that is exposed has not emerged from nowhere. It grows in dysfunctional settings, where clear expectations are not established, proper structures are not in place, and where robust action is not taken against those who ignore requirements. Often there is a basic problem of poor management.

But management is not a concept that sits well within the church. The phrase “managerialism” is often used as code for all that the church does wrong. Theologians will say that the clergy are called to be priests, pastors, and preachers, not CEOs of mini-corporations.

Yet, over the past 20 years, in working for and with many churches and Christian organisations, I have consistently seen the bitter cost of this kind of attitude. Whether it is curates, youth workers, choirmasters, administrators, caretakers, or others, time and again I have seen the problems and sadness it causes.

Bad management can, of course, occur anywhere. But I think that there are some common symptoms that are manifested in Christian culture which are worth examining:

  • A reluctance to challenge poorly performance.Too often, it is considered pastorally insensitive or even “unchristian” to challenge unsatisfactory quality of work. Unresolved issues can back up behind a poorly performing person like heavy traffic, and cause immense frustration and anger among the congregation.
  • Staff who have accumulated dangerous levels of pent-up frustration, which is unexpressed through fear of being disloyal. Many Christians have a low guilt-threshold about complaining, and see the situation as a cross to bear rather than something that can be improved.
  • Confusion between pastoral care and professional accountability. When the roles of minister and manager are combined, where are the lines drawn?
  • A reluctance to use the professional experience of experienced managers in the congregation. A strange, unbiblical tendency to draw a sacred/secular divide can afflict both clergy and lay people, who can be guilty of assuming that ‘things are different’ in a church, and will thus fail to engage with good employment practice.
  • The reluctance of clergy to accept their management position. Many church leaders themselves feel unsupported, and have not had adequate training. When you are not managed yourself, it can be hard to give what you don’t get.

It is obvious how destructive these forms of dysfunction are. Nothing is more damaging to a church community, or stressful to a leader, than a botched staffing situation. Beneath these symptoms, there are some underlying factors which need addressing.

An absence of structures

Too often, churches do not have the basics in place, such as job descriptions, contracts, and clear reporting processes. Too often, staff are not given regular individual supervision by their manager. I met someone recently in a church who, in 17 years, had never had any form of appraisal. This did not make them feel trusted but unvalued.

These kinds of structures should never be dismissed as mere bureaucracy: they are vital to people’s knowing what their job is, having clear expectations, and being able to be accountable to others.

Unassertive culture

Being fearful of challenging others, some managers hope that problems will go away without any action being required. Christian culture can be good at dressing the wounds of dysfunction, and pretending that things are all right, when they are not. “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14).

There is frequently a reluctance to confront issues and challenge people who are not doing what is required. Many tread on eggshells around their staff, fearing that the relationships are too brittle to bear any form of criticism. In doing so, they condemn their working relationships to remain immature and shallow, untested by honest discussion. Good staff expect to be, and appreciate being, challenged; it motivates them because it shows that what they do matters.

Lack of integrated theology

Perhaps most deeply, there is often a failure to integrate good theology in people-management. Christians should be aware more than anyone of human frailty. However strong people’s faith is, there should never be a blind optimism about their ability to do a job.

A good paradigm to reflect on is the transformative blend of grace and truth that Jesus embodied in his ministry. He encouraged and empowered his disciples with grace and kindness. But he often challenges his disciples sharply when necessary. He uses the phrase ‘I tell you the truth’ 28 times in John’s gospel.

In management terms, this blend of grace and truth could look like this:

Emphasis on graceEmphasis on truth
SupportChallenge
KindnessEmpowerment
FlexibilityConsistency
Giving another chanceMaintaining boundaries
AppreciationAccountability
CompassionJustice
Saying ‘yes’Saying ‘no’

It is not good management to draw on just one side of this chart.

Many people, and perhaps especially Christians, find the left-hand side a lot easier. In doing so, we can embody what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously described as “cheap grace”. This may look benign and sensitive but it only skirts over the real issues, and moves ahead to a false resolution that has not really addressed the problems. It seeks a shallow conversion of the situation without any repentance. It is a road to hell paved with good intentions.

Each one of us is fragile. We have weakness, we can be negligent and sometimes we do wrong due to our own deliberate fault. This recognition of sin is a key aspect theological basis for good management structures. It is liberal optimism of the most naïve kind to assume that a culture of transparency, support, and accountability will emerge by itself.

We need to recover the idea that good management of people is a spiritual task. It holds a mirror up to help assess how people are doing and what areas of their work need attention. It helps reduce the negative effects of pride, insecurity, ego and other ‘self-regarding tendencies’, and truly encourages people in their work.

The good news

The good news is that becoming a better manager is possible, and most of it is common sense. It is not a case of swallowing management science uncritically, or bringing in inappropriate bureaucracy, but it is about providing appropriate support, and being accountable to everyone who is employed.

Here are some suggestions for ways forward:

1.Invest time in your team. If you cannot give an hour of uninterrupted time to meet one-to-one with those whom you line-manage every month, then you should expect problems. Make brief notes of the meeting, focussing on agreed actions and send them as soon as possible after the meeting.

2.Be honest about the current situation. Open things up with a simple review process. Ask staff for their views on how they are managed: what do we do well? What could be done better? What would you recommend? Remember that reality is liberating. Unless there is honesty about the situation, nothing will really change.

3.Make a plan to tackle the issues that are raised. Draft a plan, and circulate it to everyone for comment. From the start, this will build trust, honesty, and ownership in the process of better management. If things have not been good then this plan is what confession and repentance looks like!

4.Get the right structures in place. Make sure you have up-to-date job descriptions, and use a simple structure for supervision and appraisals to ensure consistency and fairness. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good – better to use imperfect forms than none at all.

5.Use the support available. John Truscott’s website has many helpful resources for churches and many dioceses have sensible procedures that can be used or adapted. Also, many congregations have experienced managers who could offer useful advice.

6.Review and celebrate progress. Good systems help to tackle issues and improve relationships. Build in a review period in advance, and ask someone independent to come in to check on how everything is going. Make a list of the good things that have happened, and celebrate them. Use the areas where further improvement is needed as the basis for the next plan of action.

We need to remember that the church has within itself the resources to transform the most difficult situations. Our theology, theory and practice need to come together. We are people of hope and the cycle of poor management can be broken!

The first step is to be honest about the current situation of our staff. Rather than the cheap grace that side-lines the real questions and offers superficial answers, we need to embody the costly grace that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

It is our understanding of true grace that should help us handle reality and truth. This truth will set us and our churches free and show us the path to transform even the most difficult problems.


Jon Kuhrt was Director of Community Mission for Livability (formerly the Shaftesbury Society) from 2002 to 2010, and Chief Executive of the West London Mission from 2010 to 2018, leading their work with people affected by homelessness and addiction. He is now Rough Sleeping Adviser to the government, specialising in how faith and community groups respond to homelessness. He lives in Streatham with his wife and three children, and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church and is involved each summer with Lee Abbey Youth Camp. He is an avid cricket lover. He blogs at ‘Grace + Truth’ where a shorter version of this article was first published.


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17 thoughts on “Why do churches manage people badly?”

  1. For clergy to say that they don’t do management is like saying they don’t do road safety. There is received wisdom, some of which is enshrined in law or codes of practice, which all should follow. I deal with organist disputes. I despair at the number of times I have heard clergy say they see no need to follow the law on unfair dismissal or national minimum wage. I got so tired listening to this from an archdeacon that I said to her, “don’t tell me. Save it for the judge”.

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  2. There is much truth in what Jon Kuhrt says. The interesting situation is where one side in church management believes that God has given them full authority to manage as they ‘feel led’…

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    • ‘Playing the God-card’ is such a danger in church contexts – this tends to be maintained by culture and needs challenging by good process which tests ‘what God is saying’ by reference to others and discussing something openly.

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      • Absolutely – and an example of the priesthood of all believers. I often think that the church believes in the priesthood of no believers.

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  3. This seems to be timely in the light of what is happening in a different Christian organisation.
    I’d perhaps draw a distinction between management and leadership, notwithstanding, leadership will encompass some management skills.
    A big difference between non Christian organisations and Christian church structures and authority is a one of God calling/appointments in a largely Volunteer Organisation of lay people. It can lead to manipulation, domination and control, lack of accountability, to those both above and below.
    Can recall some years ago Keswick Convention ran lecture series on leadership using “secular” principles, which go in fashions such as 7 Habits…
    It shone a light on how ill placed many churches are as some Clergy seemed to have little clue.
    But what is missing in this piece is character.
    Again some years ago, after a sermon by a local preacher, a prof in Business Studies, who I knew, I asked if leadership can be taught. Americans think it can, but he didn’t think so.
    The table in the article seems to be a helpful tool.

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  4. So very relieved this is being talked about. Some people think it isn’t ‘spiritual’ to do so but if that’s the case then half the NT isn’t ‘spiritual’ then is it?

    Very sad to say I’m speaking from experience when I say there is even more to it. I think some other headings to include in the discussions might include

    *Superstitions about ‘spiritual’ leaders, not all of them originating in our faith, but some actively promoted internationally and historically in order to bolster semi-political institutions with their own agendas.

    *Morality issues may occur on any level and to any degree. A certain trust and forgiving attitude can help leaders grow and learn. Cover ups are the most toxic thing I’ve ever come across. When there has been a minor indiscretion leaders need to be able to confess and recuperate without fear of losing their livelihood. I’ve seen churches wrecked by cover ups and people demolished, for the sake of what …? The big ones that Gerald Coates named in the 90s that he’d had to deal with were “Pennies, Petticoats and Power”. Covering up financial, sexual and dominance temptations. This of course requires

    *Accountability. Adequate but not suffocating. From “below”, to congregants, who do afterall pay the wages and suffer worst the consequences. From “above” to some sort of line management that needs to be trained, if not to be able to deal with everything, but at least to have access to informed advice. I look on the word “apostle” as someone who’s sent. Logical. I think of if you ring a company about a problem, eg plumbing, they say (or should say if you can get through the automatic menu on the phone) :”We’ll send someone round.” A skilled person comes, assesses the problem, either install or mends things and gives advice on the proper use of that appliance in the future. Would it really be too complicated to have people within denominations who can function in that sort of role without all the super-spiritual hoo haa about “apostles” or bishops’ roles?

    *Finally and my biggie is that leadership should not be about leaders. I’ve heared kind and wise words about restoring fallen leaders, about restructuring church leadership, about support for leaders etc etc but when I was in a church where a pastor and secretary had covered up their affair for 19 years what really did the damage was not the adultery itself, or at least not for most of the congregation, it was the process of manipulation, excluding others and lying required to keep it undiscovered. The people who’d found out over the years were the “inconsequencial”, “little” people who they’d been less cautious around and who were easier to ostracise, who couldn’t defend themselves. When I think of the mysterious sudden disappearance of once committed people who got sidelined along the way…. and when it finally came to light the thing that was repented of was only the adultery itself, the perpetrators got counselling. The real victims, the congregation, weren’t even acknowledged, because the perps had covered their backs by dividing us against each other and undermining us to wider leadership so we were seen as difficult.

    I do hope this discussion goes a long way and alters how leaders of all denominations are trained and how healthy and straightforward accountability structures can be set up.

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    • Liz

      thanks so much for reading and your comments are very powerful and relevant. I especially reflect on what you say about only the adultery being repented of when the bigger issues were the cover-ups. Truth is so critical – sometimes people can hold so strongly to ‘doctrinal truth’ whilst their ‘lived truth’ is so different. Rightly, when this is exposed the church looks like a bunch of hypocrites.

      thanks, Jon

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      • Jon,
        I think that those who claim to adhere to doctrinal truth but living to in a different sphere are not adhering to doctrinal truth but misusing, abusing and misapplying it.
        What has astonished me in this last week was to read of the use of “gagging agreements”, non-disclosure agreements, in church settings. I’d suggest that they’d not be enforceable if used in England and Wales.
        Liz above, writes with some heart felt, lived out painful experience.
        It is difficult to move on to a different church, when you’ve been lied to and even lied about: it is a heavyweight test of faith, of who and where we put our ultimate trust.
        As Christians we are called to love the truth, even when it is painfully about ourselves, even if it is a tincture of truth, which brings to mind a couple of quotations:
        “An unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates
        But if we abuse, twist doctrine (including accountability)we are left with:
        “I have examined myself thoroughly and have decided that I don’t need to change much” Freud
        Are some church governance structures inherently healthier and foster good relational health than others: Anglican, Congregational, Elderships, Independent?
        Last, a paraphrase from Spurgeon : if you find a perfect church don’t join it or you will spoil it.

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  5. I member of a Christian Consultants Group (part of the Ridley Hall Foundation – God on Monday) developed what he called “The Devils Scorecard” around this subject. The Grace v Truth figured strongly along with an expectation that staff will be quite happy to do unpaid overtime, go the extra mile, because “it’s all for the Lord”. It also affects Christians in Leadership in secular situations.

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    • Richard,
      You’ll be aware that there are some useful resources from Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend (Christians if I remember correctly) and maybe others on setting Boundaries in personal and corporate relational lives.
      I have a couple of their books.
      It is indeed a matter that affects Christians and not only Christians in the workplace and personal lives.

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  6. Jon,
    Thanks for the helpful article.
    A couple of things i think would also help improve work in the church:
    1) Ordinand training should include management, budget and HR training.
    2) Probably every 5 to 7 years congregations should have a secret ballot on whether the ordinand stipend should be renewed (I’ll leave the % needed for a no for others to decide).

    Another big issues for churches is the large number of volunteers as:
    a) they can be hard to come by.
    b) as they are not paid and have no contract of employment discipline is difficult
    c) Depending on what else people do, voluntary work can take on significant importance for their self-esteem.

    Which all shows the need for ordinands to have great leadership, diplomacy and common sense; traits that are hard to discern in any selection process.

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  7. Tim,
    A great point about discipline of/in volunteers.
    I worked for a Voluntary Organisation (charity) and in the NHS where we “recruited” volunteers. They invariably had a vested interest in volunteering.
    I not heard of any churches using volunteer agreements, setting out protocols.
    On a training course, it was impressed that there should be training for volunteers and standards. (Though on second thoughts, safeguarding, welcoming, kitchen hygiene, health and safety, first aid certs etc have been in evidence in churches) But how far do you go? Walk leader training?
    Churches could carry-out a skills audit of their members, to mobilise a multitude, even a small one.
    A significant point here is; governance of volunteers can in itself be a discrete staff/project management post.
    (In one particular area, children and youth workers seem to need a wide range of skills and training, which could set them in good stead for ordination, provided it is underpinned with substantial biblical, theological training. It is not either/or, but both/and.)
    All of this comes with a caution. Church leaders will need to be well rounded not to be cow-towed, diminished, by members with greater skills, experience, qualifications. And the volunteers will need to exhibit humility in their fields of knowledge with the church leaders.
    There is a husband and wife missionary family, in Brazil, supported by the church . They are looking to set up a fostering Service, with a needed range of skills, expertise and networking, which is well beyond, skills and knowledge and abilities of many of us. Thankfully, we are not omnicompetent: it leaves room for others in our lives, or as the many NT scriptures point out, highlights a need for, “one another”.

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  8. One simple litmus test or methodology would be to bring in 360 degree (anonymous- but not always possible) assessment/reviews. A need for training may be highlighted.
    Again caution would be required as not everyone is skilled in giving feedback. An outside agency may be needed.
    One GP Practice manager was devastated to receive strong negative feedback on an NHS leadership course.
    So there are methodologies and management of people tools that could be cross pollinated to the church quite readily. All that is required is collective will, or be leader imposed? Maybe a course in the management of change would be needed before such an imposition!

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    • I was in a curacy and IME structure where feedback just didn’t happen and so sought ways to get it in other ways. I initiated two 360s in my curacy – having really valued it as a medic. I used a great template with permission from Exeter diocese. Would be really good to see this wisely embedded where support and challenge can enable growth.

      Indeed there are many structures and processes in other organisations that the C of E could look to and see what could be useful. I still struggle to believe how dysfunctional and disjointed and as a result harmful many of the processes are.

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  9. Thank you for the post and the discussion, it is helpful.

    As a Methodist minister who is having to come to grips with questions around lay employment, I make the following observations that I believe contribute to the problem we ministers have in this area. These are not excuses, nor are they the whole picture:

    1. Thirty years ago when I trained, there were far fewer lay employees. Since then, we have seen an explosion, not least in youth workers but also in administrators. In my experience, it’s harder to learn what is required when you have to squeeze it in on the job.

    2. There have been legal changes. I inherited some lay workers who had received a self-employment determination from HMRC. However, that is far less common now that governments have tried to stop employers from evading responsibilities by treating workers as self-employed. Thus, I find myself suddenly dealing with employees instead.

    3. Notwithstanding the abusive practices rightly described by other commenters, I think a problem we ministers have in getting our heads around this is the fact that we are office-holders, not employees. And of course, our own accountability and discipline structures are often poor and even abusive.

    4. I think there’s a particular transition problem when a church employs one of its own members, who has previously been a volunteer. It’s not unusual for that person to want the best of both the employment and volunteering worlds, e.g., wanting the pay but also deciding when to work!

    Reply

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