To Hire or Not to Hire

Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 59

The unique challenges of the Covid pandemic highlighted how churches must reallocate personnel dollars in the future. As more ministry shifts online, churches will need to beef-up their digital ministry staffing. Additionally, volunteers saw unprecedented expectations placed on their shoulders during the pandemic.

These changes have left many church leaders wondering–what should be a paid position and what should be a volunteer position?

Truthfully, this is a timeless question that churches should have been thinking about more critically for years. Large churches or churches with significant incomes tend to hire out every position they can. It is not uncommon for churches of 1000 in average weekly attendance to pay all of their musicians! By contrast, smaller churches or churches with fewer means tend to wait as long as possible to hire a position, often burning out the same handful of volunteers who do most of the work.

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The right balance is in-between these extremes. Rather than make a comprehensive list of which positions should be paid and which should be a volunteer (which could vary from church to church), use these three guiding principles to help you know when to hire.

Principle 1: The position involves shaping strategy.

Our Leadership Pipeline Design process emphasizes that volunteers are capable of higher-level leadership skills than most churches assume. Volunteers can coach, manage the schedules for other volunteers, and delegate tasks to frontline volunteers. We call these “L3 Leaders” or volunteers at the Coach Level.

Churches often think that staff should do 100% of the coaching, scheduling, and delegating. But even in a midsize church, this expectation is unrealistic. Consider that a Children’s Pastor in a mid-size church could have hundreds of volunteers. How is he or she supposed to manage the schedules or coach that many people? Hint: it’s not possible.

Any paid staff person should be at a position that requires strategy development, not just management and task execution. A focus on strategy does not mean that staff sit in their offices all day and don’t manage people (they do!) or don’t execute tasks (they do, but should focus on fewer tasks). However, healthy churches understand that ministry staff positions primarily exist to bring strategic thinking and leadership leverage to a specific ministry.

If a position does not require translating church-wide vision into ministry-specific strategy, only volunteer management or task execution, it is not worth hiring out. Volunteers can do it.

As a church gets larger and complexity increases, the need for strategy development increases. It’s reasonable for a large church to have staff in production or marketing. But the same principle applies–don’t hire people to run the camera or press next on ProPresenter. Hire the people who are shaping your digital production strategy, and leverage volunteers for the rest.

Principle 2: The position requires safeguarding theology.

This principle can be tricky. Even your children’s ministry volunteers that work in the preschool classroom, to some extent, are safeguarding theology. Indeed, small group leaders and Sunday school teachers are defending theology. 

However, this principle’s intention is not just teaching proper theology, but making high-level theological decisions. For example, children’s ministry volunteers should not choose the curriculum–someone at the staff level should. Small group leaders should not select their content–a staff leader should.

Many churches are failing in this area. Too many churches are giving up this responsibility! They let small group leaders hop on to Right Now Media and select their group’s content without much oversight. This abdication is dangerous.

I worked with a church that touted its commitment to Biblical teaching as one of its highest values. When I visited a Sunday School class, I heard one of the worst theological breakdowns of Genesis 3. Afterward, I confronted the elders who confirmed that Sunday School teachers were “on their own” for writing content.

When ministry staff are too busy executing tasks, they abdicate their responsibility to safeguard the theology taught by the volunteers beneath them. If a role requires ensuring that theology taught downline is proper and Biblical, it is likely to require a staff member.

Principle 3: The position manages significant financial obligations.

It is common for lay leaders to spend budgetary funds. A youth volunteer might need to pick up snacks, or a production volunteer might have to grab a cable from an electronics store. But if a non-board level position requires the development of a budget and its day-to-day management, this is likely a staff position.

Volunteers should not manage budgets because it is impossible to hold them accountable the same way a staff member can. If a volunteer mismanages a budget, you can remove them from the position, but they might remain at the church. They might complain to others or mobilize the congregation to antagonize leadership. Staff members have a higher degree of oversight through meetings, and more importantly, you can fire staff for gross misconduct. 

Major ministry budgets should be managed by staff, not volunteers.

What about administrative positions?

As a general rule, I consider administrative positions as extensions of ministry staff. A senior pastor’s assistant is an extension of the senior pastor’s role, in that he or she handles tasks that otherwise only the pastor could do. For example, an assistant may manage the pastor’s schedule, filter email, and perform initial sermon research. 

A ministry assistant in a smaller church, likewise, may take on some tasks that are difficult to outsource or delegate to a volunteer. For example, he or she may take deposits to the bank or post office. These tasks might require a higher degree of accountability than could be expected of a volunteer, but would overburden ministry staff. 

Bonus note: what to do about the gray.

Your church may have needs that don’t fit into clean categories, or your church might lack volunteers with the necessary skills to execute needed tasks.

For example, many churches realized through the pandemic that they simply didn’t have the social media or marketing tools necessary to be successful. The knee-jerk reaction is to hire a staff person in instances where there is a gap between the skills you have on-staff or in volunteers and what you need. 

However, two options may be better suited to meet the need:

1. Outsource the job.

When it comes to certain ministry needs, if your church doesn’t have the existing skillset available through volunteers, consider outsourcing. Companies like Church Media Squad, among others, handle graphic design needs. You can outsource custom video editing. If your church needs help improving record-keeping, look into virtual assistant services from a group like Belay that has a track record of working with churches successfully. Outsourcing is often cheaper than hiring on-site, gives you the flexibility to terminate a contract without the relational headache, eliminates overhead in taxes and benefits, and usually gives you access to talent above what you find on your own. Bottom line: if you cannot delegate critical, specialized tasks to qualified volunteers, consider outsourcing before hiring staff.

2. Put it off for now.

Ministry envy is real. It’s easy to look at the “cool” church down the street or online and think that you must be able to execute at the same level. You don’t. Do a few things and do them with excellence. Don’t worry about being on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever social media company launches before I finish typing this sentence. Pick one and do it well. Leverage the assets you do have to execute well on a few things. As you get more qualified volunteers or financial resources to outsource, take your ministry to the next level. But don’t feel pressured to take on more than you can do well at this moment. There is no shame in that!

To hire or not to hire?

Leverage the three principles outlined above to determine if a role is better suited for a volunteer or a staff position. Your church has limited resources, and every staff member you hire adds an exponential layer of complexity to your organization. 

Be sure to pause, consider, and plan before taking action in growing your staff. 

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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