Small Groups and Church Staff

Let me preface this post by saying that this is in no way meant to be an attempt to tear down church leadership nor is it directed at any church leadership in particular.  Rather, this is a post to speak about the reality of being on a church staff, some retrospect in my own journey and to possibly be a voice for some church staff who have and are going through this reality.  This Augusta 31st marks one year since my last day (for now) as a vocational church staff member.  I’ve had some time over these past 9 months to process my experience as a full time church staff member, and it’s been particularly interesting during that time to view things as now we’re plugged into ministry and our church from a non-staff person’s perspective.  Let me say that I believe fully that the local church is God’s Plan A and there is no other plan.  I love the local church.

As Kim and I have become small group leaders at our church, it’s been so exciting to be able to meet together with a group of people each week and dig in to the Bible, get to know each other, and slowly be transparent about life….the good and the bad.  It’s about being involved in Biblical community.  Probably one of the best phrases I’ve heard to describe this is “doing life together.”  That’s what small groups and Biblical community should be like.  It’s about being real, being authentic and where appropriate, transparent….get the picture?

Now, here’s what I would say from my observation and experience over the years: A lot, if not most, church staff members (and their spouse if married) struggle with “doing life together” in Biblical community and small groups within the church they serve.

I almost put all, but that wouldn’t be accurate I’m sure….but it sure seems pretty close.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read surveys on pastors and staff members who have left a church or ministry altogether and one of the consistent reasons is that they feel alone…no community.  I’m sure leadership in other areas such as business struggle with this at times.  Yet, how ironic is it, and sad, that we as church staff members are constantly pointing people toward authentic community, being real, being transparent, “doing life together” and yet fail to experience that firsthand within the community of people we love and serve?  I’m speaking from my own experience as well as number of conversations I’ve had with other pastors and church staff members.

Here’s why I think that happens from a church staff member’s perspective…and I’m going to try to be as “real” as I can here:

1. Loyalty to leadership…..and afraid of being fired – If you’re on a church staff, you know how it is.  You can’t just hit the 9 to 5, go home and turn ministry off.  For most, it’s not just a job…it’s your passion.  It wakes you up in the middle of the night with inspiration…and sometimes terror.  It’s a part of your core.  It possibly is one of the most unique professions in the world as when most other believers in Christ are worshipping at a church on Sunday, you’re doing the same….and going to work.  One of the most important core characteristics of a staff member should be, in my opinion, loyalty to the pastor (and your boss) and the vision God has given that local body of believers through this pastor.  However, there are times as a staff member that you will have struggles “in your job”.  Struggles even with “your boss” and leadership or other church staff members.  Maybe you’re having difficulty with some volunteers or with some other people at your church.  These things can get all over you because again, it’s not just a job: it’s a calling.  Yet, if you’re involved in a small group, you’re hesitant to share about what’s going on because of that loyalty.

I know this personally.  Here’s what this has looked like at times for me.  Maybe you can relate.  You’re at your small group, it’s prayer time when you’re going around the room and people are sharing prayer needs.  If something was going on in my ministry area or among the staff that I was really struggling with, I wouldn’t say a word.  Instead you ask for prayer for your great aunt’s corn on her foot to be healed…not that there’s anything wrong with praying about that.  The fear of saying anthing is this: “I don’t want to be disloyal.  I want to honor my pastor.  I don’t want to make the church “look bad”.  I want to work under the authority structure of church leadership (which is right), and I don’t want to undermine that at all….Plus, I don’t want to get fired if word should somehow get back that I’m really struggling right now.”  Now, some might say, “Come on, no church would let you go because of that.”  Well, I think a lot of churches wouldn’t.  The problem is that in a lot of churches, among even the staff, there is a lack of transparency and authenticity and even worse, a culture that doesn’t welcome “real talk” and anyone that is having a difficult time may just need to “move on to a new calling” (that’s churchy language for “You need to find a new place to work or we’ll help you along”).  So, the thought of “doing life together” in my mind at that point, was just not going to happen in a small group.

2. A lot of pastors and church staff members are great communicators and great at “their job” but stink at real friendships and relationships at times – I can say that because I was one.  I’ve heard some incredible messages in my lifetime by some great pastors.  Yet, try to have a conversation with them or have some “real talk” and they just can’t get there.  I think some are afraid to let their guard down because as a staff member/pastor, you want to come across as a strong leader.  Some struggle with the idea of being a “bad example” of what a “good Christian” should be (even though we’re all broken, depraved and needy of Jesus in every way).  Others I think just had a REALLY bad example set for them by a mentor or other leader growing up in ministry, and they are possibly just going down that same path.  Whatever the reason, so many pastors just struggle there.

I don’t have an answer for how to make this better other than to say that I think a start is among our leadership, church staffs and the culture around that, there needs to be a culture where real conversations are happening, where staff members can deal with issues between each other, and where “real talk” about ministry can happen.

For church pastors and staff members in small groups, I’m not sure what the answer is there either.  Some have found their small group community among other staff members.  For some, that can work.  For others, probably not.

For me, I often found “community” over my 17 years of vocational ministry in a number of places.  Sometimes it was hanging out with a friend that was not a part of my church.  Sometimes it was in an online community of others in ministry, although some would question whether or not you can have “community” online.  Honestly, I don’t care.  If it helps me connect with others ultimately to grow in my faith, share about life, and encourage people, I’m good with that.

Anyway, my hope is that this has been encouraging to staff members out there who have and are going through similar struggles to know that it is a shared experience.  My hope is also that our church staff cultures can grow to the point where Biblical community is not only encouraged in our churches but is also modeled by our pastors and staffs as well.

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