What I wish church personnel committees understood about their pastor’s desire to do her job

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-directed, and connected to others. And when that desire is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

Daniel H. Pink, Drive

Here’s what I wish Church Personnel Committees understood about the pastors who have been called to serve them:

Big theological words aside (call, faith journey, testimony, etc.), 99.99% of pastors became pastors because they are creative people who are willing to give of themselves to see a group of people thrive. They are willing to put a lot of time and energy into other people, helping them to see their full potential as Children of God. They are willing to deny their own needs (to a fault) for the sake of others being able to experience the joy and comfort of being the center of someone else’s attention.

And, yet, many get treated as if they are a bunch of juvenile babies who are lazy and want to goof off.

To be sure, there is often a gross misunderstanding of what it is that pastors do, but I think there is a deeper culprit behind this desire to micromanage the pastor. Like most HR folks, personnel committees operate with a conviction that people don’t like to work.

As a result of this perspective, we do crazy things. Things like requiring 50 hour workweeks in the belief that, if we don’t, the pastor won’t visit us or prep for Bible Study or… Or we insist that the pastor’s butt is always in their office chair in the belief that, if we don’t, they will skip out and go drink coffee and goof off.

I know a lot of pastors, and I don’t think there is anything further from the truth. If anything, pastors are workaholics.

The book I’m reading, Drive (which I quoted above), holds as its main thesis that a) people have an innate inner drive to do creative and meaningful things with other people, but that b) our standard system of rewards and punishments actually negate the intrinsic motivation we all possess and cause us to accomplish far less than we otherwise would. Once basic needs are satisfied, people have a drive to work.

And we can’t stop. Why do you think a lot of retirees “work” more in retirement than before? Why do you think a man who has not had any vacation for a year spends his Christmas break compiling an ebook full of sermons?

Pastors want to do a good job and want to care for the people they’ve been called to serve. But, too often, they are treated like children.

How can we structure a pastoral relationship that liberates the innate inner drive to do good and meaningful work?

5 thoughts on “What I wish church personnel committees understood about their pastor’s desire to do her job”

  1. I’ve never served on a personnel committee, but I have listened to and read a lot of reports from personnel committees as a ruling elder at a couple of different churches.

    The things that drive those committees are exceptions and aversion to risk. They will develop restrictive policies as a reaction to some employee doing something wrong, instead of treating the incident as an exception. They develop restrictive policies to head off hypothetical situations they are afraid they might have to deal with.

    Personnel committees need to understand the points you have made, and to understand that a telephone-book sized personnel manual hinders rather than fosters the relationship between a congregation and the staff serving it.

  2. For one thing, we could require Personnel Chairs to bring up a daughter who goes to seminary & becomes a pastor herself, so that her dad could be the supportive enabling Personnel Chair that I currently experience rather than a disabling Personnel Chair as I’ve experienced in the past.

  3. I read a lot about this on blogs, hear about it from colleagues, and I do know it happens – and when it does, I think it is a serious issue that needs addressing. I’m not entirely sure it’s the rule, but maybe. I did want to chime in though and say that at every church I have worked, the personnel committee has been helpful – sometimes incredibly helpful. At their worst, they want to be helpful, but aren’t exactly sure how (and I’m not always sure).

    My current personnel committee and I have wonderful conversations about how to best care for staff, and free them to serve the church in the best way possible.

    We are a small church, so they struggle with paying what they wish they could pay, but are very good at finding other ways to support staff – more time off, very reasonable expectations even if it means sacrificing some things we all wish we could do as a church, taking work away from the pastor that others could easily do (one very small example: Sometimes taking vacation feels like a chore to me because of the prep that needs to go into getting ready to take vacation…making sure everything is covered, getting pulpit supply, fitting it in between advent, lent and other “special” Sundays…they took all of this off my plate. They are clear there is no Sunday that they absolutely need me. They find pulpit supply, and they talk about what needs coverage (usually pastoral care) and make it happen. All of this they initiated without my asking.)

    Most of the time I work a 40 hour work week – except when I have funerals or other pastoral emergencies. I say this often, make it clear, and no one has ever questioned me on it.

    There is an extremely high level of trust between staff and personnel committee – between everyone in the congregation for that matter. We assume the best intentions. Without a doubt, we hurt one another from time to time…sometimes very badly. We make bad decisions, and we let one another down. But in general, these are seen as part of the human experience, and we try to work through them – again with trust being our “baseline.”

    I truly don’t say this to make anyone “jealous,” or toot our own horns. I say it to give voice to what I assume is the experience of many out there, even if not the majority. Maybe I just want to speak up for the people in my congregation (and others) who, I feel, get a bad rap by being lumped in with all congregation members. I think it’s kind of the equivalent of lumping all pastors together with those that don’t represent us well.

    Okay – I will come down off my soap box. Thanks for “listening.”

  4. One of the best practices I have seen is that personnel committees do not have a role in pastoral relations. Instead a committee of the congregation is elected to be the “pastoral relations committee” which functions as a supportive body as well as a kind of group “spiritual director” to work with the pastor in discernment and reflection. The PRC also works with the session, presbytery, and pastor in developing a method of ministry review.

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