Years ago, when I first stepped into the role as lead pastor, I recall a brief meeting with a veteran pastor in a restaurant (there were few coffee shops back then). After congratulating me on my new role (and sharing his lament, “It’s lonely at the top.”), he told me that leading would be simpler if I realized I could not change everything. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend his advice. Through the years, I have taken solace in his sage wisdom.

“Just remember,” he said, “there are three things you cannot change about individuals, no matter how hard you try. First, you can’t change someone’s integrity. A person either has integrity, or not. Second, you can’t change a person’s work ethic. If a person isn’t willing to work hard at the job, you can’t stoke the fire. Finally, you can’t give someone loyalty. If a person is going to cause contention or stir the pot of adversity, you will do little to change that pattern of behavior.”

How right he was!

Through the years, I’ve experienced these truths time and again, but not always (and not usually, thank God) in a negative way. As lead pastor in my current congregation, I’ve experienced the joy and blessing of having a cohesive, consistent and hard-working staff that has been together for years. Our love for each other, our ability to be a team and our willingness to work hard for the kingdom of God has been the primary reason for our congregational growth—a church that has, during the past eight years, nearly doubled in membership, worship attendance and professions of faith.

Not that numbers are everything or tell the whole story (they don’t!), but there are great results to be found in unity and common vision.

On the other hand, there is much work to be done when difficult staff situations occur. I’ve experienced these, too—perhaps you are in a situation where you need a bit of help in thinking about some of these difficulties.

Returning to some of my friend’s wisdom, I would concur that difficult staff persons offer some of the most challenging and frustrating experiences in ministry. For those who are charged with leading staff, when difficulties do arise, leaders rarely sleep well; these difficult staff members often can cast a pall of anxiety, despair or spiritual malaise over a leader’s life. These are the times when we need God’s grace and guidance the most; and sometimes the decisions we need to make, or the type of help we can offer, is not easily conceived or implemented.

Consider, for example, the staff person who is not able to do the job.

These realities are often present in the church, and (in my conversations with other pastors) constitute a very real concern in our ever-changing and rapidlyc moving world. Even as lead pastors, we can find ourselves behind the learning curve; and we struggle to keep up with advances in technology, church growth and the challenges of leading large and diverse congregations. That is why job performance is a tough call…and why pastors often struggle with this staffing difficulty more than the others.

In short, every pastor has known some staff members who simply couldn’t do the job. For example, a church secretary who cannot type an error-free letter or email, cannot engage parishioners in a friendly and welcoming manner, or cannot work well with other staff may not have the gifts required for this position. Some gifts/talents are imperative for the type of work being performed; without them, the person is unable to function in the role.

In situations such as this, most staff members would need to be relieved of their position (and the stress they probably are enduring), or at very minimum may need to be given additional training in basic procedures, office management or people management. In some situations, training can make a difference—if the person is teachable, willing to learn and willing to grow. Individuals who simply don’t want to put the time or attention into the job are probably not going to adapt.

Other situations may be more tenuous. Take, for example, the staff person who always seems to be at odds with one or two others on the staff. You may have one or know one. Personally, I always found this staff situation most vexing, especially if the individual in question was trustworthy, hard-working or otherwise dependable. What to do about the personality conflicts?

Years ago, I found myself working with a staff member who constantly seemed to be at odds with the other staff members. One month she was at odds with the youth director; the next month, she was making the choir director angry. The following week the custodian was threatening to resign because he could not endure her demands. Every week, it seemed I was engaged with another staff member who was in tears or on the verge of resignation.

Conversations with this staff person ensued, and I brought in help from our staffing board to offer support and witness to the effects this person was having on the whole. The congregation, of course, was oblivious to these inner-office conflicts; and when the board reviewed these concerns, they seemed trite and in some cases even fabricated out of whole cloth. Surely this was just a misunderstanding that could be remedied by the lead pastor!

The more the staff tried to patch the difficulty or work around it, the worse our staff morale became. Eventually after much counsel, a wise elder of the church pointed out this staff person was going through an array of personal losses and had a great deal of anger that had nothing to do with the church. These revelations were helpful, but ultimately didn’t change the situation. Eventually, a staff change had to be made, and the board was able to give this person the counsel and support she truly needed while directing her to other work opportunities outside the church.

Not every situation turns out as this one, but a lead pastor often walks a fine line between compassion for the individual and compassion for the larger body of Christ. How far should we allow one person the grace and flexibility when he or she is affecting others in a negative way? Aren’t we supposed to be long-suffering with those who suffer and show kindness to those who treat us badly?

There really is no quick or comprehensive answer to this question, but perhaps a few guiding principles can apply. Sometimes personal situations impact us on the job—probably more than any of us realize. Often a person’s anger (seemingly toward the church) has nothing at all to do with the church, but with other forces and factors arrayed elsewhere in that person’s life. Helping a staff person understand his or her anxiety, anger or animosity can be freeing and life-changing. A staff who truly cares for each other can hold each other accountable; and a strong, cohesive staff can create an environment of concern, forgiveness and generosity that can lead to all manner of healing, especially through honesty. Sometimes people who are bitter or resentful toward others will resign when they realize how much they are impacting others with their venom.

Not all situations turn out so well, however. Again, some difficult staff must be relieved of their duties so the whole can flourish and find new direction and peace. In other situations such as this, counseling (not by the lead pastor!) can provide a safe way forward. In other situations, face-to-face interventions with staff is the only way to heal what is broken and create a new path. Allowing staff to share honestly and with forthright concern is beneficial, especially if the one difficult person is at the center of the storm. Group therapy sometimes works.

Other staff situations are difficult because some people may not be in the right position to begin with. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins offers this singular illustration that can help any organization. He offers the image of a moving bus (the organization). On the bus, there are people (staff and congregation). When an organization is working well, he points out that not only do we have the right people on the bus, we also have them in the proper seats!

How true—and insightful!

Perhaps you have encountered that very gifted person on your staff who doesn’t seem to be utilizing his or her gifts to the fullest. This person may need a new seat on the bus. Your goal as lead pastor is not to throw the person under the bus, but to place them in proper seating so those gifts can shine and be utilized more effectively.

Perhaps you’ve had that experience of taking a struggling youth director (though gifted and hard-working) and putting him or her in charge of technology, evangelism or education and seeing the person blossom. Perhaps the office manager who does an adequate job rises to the occasion when placed in leadership of finance or volunteer placement. What a blessing!

We don’t always have to look outside of our own staff (even our difficult ones) to find gifted staff who can lead in other areas. Sometimes it is a matter of recognition and change.

There are many other staff scenarios that can be the cause of consternation and anxiety for a leader. Toward that end, I offer this final word of advice. Don’t carry the load solo! Lone Rangers don’t last long in leadership. They burn out.

Remember, there is a structure and a leadership board designed in your church polity and makeup that can help you make these decisions, or at the very least be a sounding board for you. There is wisdom in numbers, and sometimes it takes the collective mind to find the one path. I know I have benefitted from seeking the wisdom of others in the church and from being open and honest about my feelings, struggles and hopes.

We may not always arrive at a decision that is 100 percent certain—especially when it comes to dealing with difficult staff—but therein is wisdom in itself.

Stay humble; for when we are dealing with people, we know that all things can work together for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. We just have to find a way to work together. As long as we know the purpose, we have a foundation that can, and should, impact every staffing decision.

Todd Outcalt appreciates the people he works with every day and credits the staff with the growth Calvary has experienced during his tenure. He is also author of 25 books in six languages, including He Said, She Said: Biblical Stories from a Male and Female Perspective (written with Michelle Knight), $5 Youth Ministry, The Youth Ministry Encyclopedia, The Ultimate Christian Living and the perennial best-selling Before You Say ‘I Do’. He has been married to his wife, Becky, for 28 years and they have two grown children.

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