5 Lessons I’ve Learned on Managing Church Workers

I’m not sure what your path to ministry has been, but I felt called into pastoral ministry as early as my teenage years. Based on this calling and the guidance of leaders in my life, I attended a Bible college in the Midwest and trained for ministry.

Here’s a thought that never entered my mind as a student:

“If this all goes well, someday I’ll find myself managing other ministry leaders.”

Maybe it was because there weren’t that many large churches or that multi-site churches weren’t really a thing yet, but I just never saw myself in management.

Maybe that’s why I felt so lost a few years later when my boss explained that I’d be taking over an entire department of our church. Suddenly, I was a manager.

Maybe you’ve already found yourself in this position or maybe you’re realizing that within a few years you’ll most likely be managing other people on your church staff. How exactly do you manage?

Moment of honesty: I wasn’t a good manager during the first year of my new role. Hey, don’t judge! I didn’t know what the heck I was doing! The good news is that I’ve learned some things. If I had a time machine, this is what I’d go back and tell myself to do:

meet_weekly

Lesson 1: MEET WEEKLY

My first mistake as a manager was to meet too infrequently with my direct reports. Leadership and development require context. Repeated conversations create trust. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to meet with my people for an hour every week and to come to that meeting with a simple plan:

  1. Connect: Take time to connect relationally and build trust. What’s happening in their life? What do they care about? What motivates them? Listen to them! Great managers do less talking and more listening and for crying out loud, do not monologue!
  2. Feedback: I’ve come to believe that feedback should be constant. Poor managers keep their feedback to themselves and then drop it like a bomb in a bi-annual review. In my experience, that isn’t a productive way to develop employees. In my opinion, every meeting should include something positive that you saw:

    “You did a great job with that project. Thanks so much for completing that on time.”

    And an area of growth:

    “Can I share something that I think will help you as a communicator? I’ve noticed that you put your hand in and out of your pocket repeatedly when you are teaching. It’s a little distracting. If you can learn to control this habit, I think it will help your stage presence.”

    A word of caution: Constant feedback without a foundation of trust can be misinterpreted. You have to prove to your people that you believe in them and want to grow them.

  3. Follow Up: Following up on previous conversations communicates that you actually care about the person and also that what you discuss in your meetings actually matters. My boss begins every meeting with:

    “I told you I was going to ask you about “X”. So, what happened?”

    And ends with:

    “Alright, next time we meet I’m going to ask you about “X”.

Lesson 2: SERVE

When I was watching the Rio Olympics this summer I became a little obsessed with cycling. Weird, I know. But, I couldn’t believe how elaborate the support system was for each cyclist. I’m pretty sure a space shuttle gets less attention! Each athlete was supported by an entire team of people with vehicles, extra bikes and a bunch of stuff I didn’t even understand. It was fascinating.

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Source: Wikimedia

I think many managers often view themselves as the cyclist and their direct reports as the support team. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself:

“Your people don’t exist to help you. You exist to help them.”

Leadership is servanthood. The role of a manager is to develop and grow your people. I think every manager should be judged not on the success of their individual career but rather on the careers of the people they manage. I think Jesus said something about this. “If you wanna be the greatest…” I forget the rest.

Lesson 3: GET ORGANIZED

By nature, I’m a “winger.” I’m good at adaptation and improvisation. This approach has served me well as a pastor and teacher. However, it has been a train wreck for managing people.

It turns out people don’t like uncertainty and inconsistency, especially when it’s coming from authority. Remember when your parents changed the rules on you when you were a teenager? Not cool.

If you are a manager, you simply have to figure out how to get organized because certainty and consistency require organization. Here’s what’s worked well for me:

  1. Block Scheduling: I operate on the same basic schedule week after week. I require my direct reports to do the same. We’ve all become more productive and efficient. And, as an added bonus, we all look more professional. #winning
  2. Reminders: I used to think that I could just remember everything that’s important. Then I started managing other people. I knew I was in trouble when I started hearing, “I told you about that problem two weeks ago!” Oops.

    When something happens that I need to remember, I immediately put a reminder in my iPhone to make sure I remember to deal with it. All these reminders are set to repeat every day until I address them.

  3. OneNote: I have found OneNote to be a game changer. I keep a page for my general to-do list, for each one of my direct reports, and every project I’m involved with. If OneNote ever crashes my career will be over.

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Lesson 4: FOLLOW UP EMAIL

This is the closest thing to a secret weapon in management. It might sound ridiculous but trust me on this. A quick follow up email will protect you from all sorts of shenanigans. Let me show you how it works:

“Hey, I just wanted to follow up on our conversation today. Thanks for being willing to clean up the mess from youth group last night. I really appreciate your willingness to go above and beyond.”

“Hey, thanks for listening to my concerns today. I know it wasn’t fun to have this conversation. Because volunteer care is a primary role in your job description, it’s so important that you improve relationships with volunteers. I’m committed to helping you grow in this area. Let’s meet again in two weeks to see how things are going.”

“Hey, I just wanted to follow up our conversation today. You are crushing it in recruiting small group leaders! I really appreciate your hard work.”

Here’s what’s brilliant about the follow up email:

  1. People usually rationalize negative feedback, hearing what they wanted to hear. The follow up email puts the issue in writing.
  2. If the person actually disagrees with your feedback and they don’t respond to your email, it’s on them.
  3. If the person you are managing wants to dispute an issue, you have a paper trail.
  4. If you end up having to release an employee, a series of follow up emails will give you the paper evidence needed to support your case.
  5. If the person you are managing feels like you never say anything positive, you can print the email and show them.
  6. The follow up email protects you from, “My boss never said that” and “That’s not how I remember it.”
  7. Your HR person will love you if you start using follow up emails.

I’m telling you… it’s a secret weapon.

Lesson 5: DEADLINES ARE YOUR FRIEND

It took me way too long to start giving deadlines when assigning tasks. It may seem heavy-handed to issue deadlines but they are everyone’s friend. Here’s why:

  1. Clarity: A deadline isn’t arbitrary. It is a clear measurable. If someone is late on completing a task, your negative feedback isn’t your opinion but rather a fact.
  2. Freedom: A deadline is actually freeing to the person being assigned the task because it takes out any guess work. Sometimes it can be difficult to decide what projects or tasks should take precedence. Deadlines provide clear guidelines.

So maybe you weren’t trained for this. Maybe you feel ill-equipped for management. I’ve been there. I hope these ideas have given you some new tools.

Focus on One and Begin

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your role or the deluge of content you just read, I’d suggest focusing on one thing. In other words, pick one thing to work on instead of five. If you aren’t meeting weekly with your people, start there. If you know that organization is a weakness, start there. Trying to grow in five different areas at once is a bad plan. Focus on one.

Also, if you’re a veteran manager, I wonder what you’d say to your younger self if you had a time-machine. If you have any thoughts, leave us a comment.

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