Right-Sizing Your Staff

by Jim Kitchens

Many churches have been struggling for years to raise the financial resources needed to maintain the staffing model they’ve “always had.”  This struggle has come into even sharper focus now, given the pandemic’s impact on church giving.

Given that growing focus, now is the perfect time for your church to have a conversation about right-sizing your staff.

By right-sizing I don’t just mean reducing the personnel budget to keep it aligned with the decline in giving and other resource available for staff compensation.  Instead, by right-sizing, I mean going through an intentional process to make sure you have the size and the kind of staff that will enable you to respond to your changing understanding of what God is calling your congregation to do and become. 

There are a number of factors that can lead you to realize you’re at that right-sizing moment:
• You have an inherited staffing model that may have served the church well in years past but is not aligned with the mission and call the church is now sensing. 
• You are discerning an emerging vision for ministry and mission that requires different gifts and different passions than the ones present in the current staff.
• You realize you have become over-attached to beloved staff members who are no longer able to provide the leadership they once did.
• You notice a growing sense of mission creep as a person hired for a particular ministry begins to take on additional responsibilities, sometimes encroaching on another staff member’s ministry portfolio.
• And the looming issue into which many of us are currently directly staring: you realize that the church no longer has the financial resources to support the current staffing model.  

Depending on how urgently you need to right-size your staff, the process you go through takes slightly different forms.

If you know that you are going to need to make some changes in the next couple of years and you have the financial resources to support the current staff model in the interim, you can move more methodically.
• Undertake a visioning process that asks, “What do we sense God is calling us to do/become as a church over the next five years?”  No matter how thoroughly or quickly you need to do this step, always start with vision. 
• Do a ministry/staffing assessment that asks questions like
       o What are the spiritual gifts and ministry skills we possess among our current staff members?
       o What are the gifts and skills we currently lack but are critical to our sense of future call?
       o Are there ministries/programs that once met a real need in the past, but that need no longer exists?  You’d be surprised how many churches hold on to a youth minister, even though there are only three youth between the ages of 8-18 in the congregation.  
       o Do we have the right people doing the right jobs, matching people’s gifts with ministry to be done?
       o There’s one more question, one of the hardest questions but one that always at least needs to be voiced: “Are there staff members whom we need to thank for their service but help them understand that it is time for them to retire/move on?”

However, if the lookout on the Titanic is already shouting, “Financial crisis dead ahead!”, you will need to make decisions more quickly.  
• Do a quick assessment of what is most central to your mission and what will be least damaging if you have to close it down or let the responsible staff member go. What must we keep?  What can we survive without?
• Talk honestly with other staff members about the crisis you face and ask for their input as you and other church leaders make hard decisions about what must be done.
• If you’re the pastor, considering the possibility of taking a pay cut to make more money available for other staff salaries. Once you’ve announced that you’re taking this step, invite the rest of the staff to consider doing the same. This is a lot easier to do if you have had that honest and transparent conversation with them about the crisis beforehand.
• When you figure out what you need to do, bite the bullet, outline your implementation plan, and communicate the needed change first to any staff member whose call is impacted. Only then should you communicate the change to the congregation as a whole, getting the public support of the church board/leaders beforehand for the pushback that will almost certainly come.
• Work with any impacted staff about how the church can best support them during their transition. Can you provide a severance package?  Can you offer to help them in their search for a new call?  This is a spiritual and pastoral practice even more so than an administrative and financial one.
• When (not if) pushback comes, be steadfast in communicating that the vision from which the church leadership is working has been informing the process from the beginning and will continue to inform any additional steps you may need to take.

All of these steps need to be done with deep humility, much prayer, commitment to carrying out the call of God in your own particular context, and lots of pastoral care: for yourself, for the impacted staff members, and for the congregation as a whole.  

A native of Mississippi, Jim Kitchens has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He can be reached at JimK@chchurches.org.