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“The Care and Feeding of Your Church Staff”(Deuteronomy 25:4; I Timothy 5:17-22)

On my preaching schedule I ended up with an open Sunday today between two sermon series. I just finished the series “Lessons from The Sinai for a Church in Transition” and next week I will start a 4-week stewardship series followed by the beginning of the season of Advent.

So today, on this in-between Sunday, I feel called to go ahead and preach to you a stand alone sermon I preach to all the churches in transition I pastor these days. It’s called “The Care and Feeding of Your Church Staff.” The interim time, I have found, is a really opportune time to talk to congregations about their relationship with their own church staff.

A church member, after hearing this sermon, said to me at the door after the service, “That was a sermon only an interim pastor could preach!” And I agree. It is. It is my way of advocating for your church staff. Having been on a number of church staffs myself, I know personally that it’s a lot harder, if not impossible, for church staff to advocate for themselves, so I like to do it for them.

Let me begin by first naming your current church staff and listing the paid work they do for this church:

Let me say here what a delight it is for me to work with all your church staff, each one so unique and interesting and each one doing such good work on behalf of your church, all of them contributing to the whole.

Sometime in the months ahead there will be an important new addition to the church staff, a new installed senior pastor, whom I am calling for now “Not David Bailey.”

As you look forward to the coming of your new pastor, this sermon is meant

to be a timely and Biblical and practical reminder of what you as a

congregation can do to build a good and satisfying long-term mutual

relationship with your own church staff. With stewardship season coming

up, you might hear this sermon as a call to group stewardship of your

church staff.

I want to share with you this morning what the apostle Paul, a pastor, had to say to his young pastor protégé, Timothy, about how a congregation ought to treat pastors. As I read what Paul has to say to Timothy through the lens of my many experiences with church staffs, I notice that the passage has application not only for congregations and pastors, but for the congregation’s relationship with the entire church staff as well.

Paul first brings up the idea that a congregation needs to give their pastor enough personal freedom to get his or her own needs met, even as she or he meets the spiritual and practical needs of the congregation. I would say the congregation needs to give this freedom to the entire church staff as well.

To make this point Paul makes (what seems at first to be) an odd connection. He first brings up the ancient Hebrew law concerning the treatment of beasts of burden, which says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain.”

When the Hebrew law tells the people not to muzzle the ox, it is recognizing the ox’s legitimate need to eat while it is working for the human being. The human who owns the ox might be tempted to muzzle the ox to keep the ox focused solely on the work of treading out the grain, and be fast and efficient in the work, but the ox is using up energy while it is working, energy that needs to be replaced when it is working. So God’s law recognizes that if you want to have a satisfying mutual relationship with your beast of burden, you have to keep the beast’s mouth unmuzzled, so it can be free to eat whenever the need arises, and keep up strength while working.

Paul, interestingly, uses this ancient law in an unexpected way to talk about the relationship between pastors and congregations. Congregations, he seems to say, need to leave their pastors “unmuzzled”, so to speak, so that as they serve the congregation, they can get the things they need spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually, relationally, vocationally, so that they can continue to offer quality spiritual service to the congregation over a long period of time. Churches need to leave the whole staff unmuzzled as well.

The muzzle is a symbol of human control, and Paul acknowledges in our scripture the congregation’s temptation to muzzle or control their pastor. But notice that Paul encourages the congregation to leave their pastors unmuzzled, uncontrolled, and I would say that that encouragement extends to the whole church staff.

My own observation, being in and out of a lot of churches, is that the most vital Presbyterian churches I’ve been with give their staffs as much freedom as they can stand, and the staffs return the favor by being happy and very productive in their work for the church. They are examples of churches keeping their staff unmuzzled. When a congregation tries to muzzle or control their church staff it is really an expression of doubt or distrust toward the staff members and their work, a doubt that they will not do their work or do it well on their own without outside control, and that doubt is dispiriting to the staff member and it affects their work in a negative way. Unmuzzling, by contrast, is an act of trust by the congregation toward the church staff members, trust that they will do their work on their own and do it well without anyone needing to control them, and that trust is energizing for the staff.

Practically speaking, a congregation, on the one hand, has a right to expect a certain amount of work out of its staff, the work actually described in their up-to-date job description, and needs to hold them accountable to doing the kind of work for which they are getting paid. But at the same time that you are making sure the congregation gets what they need from the staff, make sure as a congregation that your staff gets what they need as well.

For starters, make sure each of your staff gets a day off each week, if not two, just like working members of this church. It’s best if it’s the same day or days each week and that the congregation knows which day or days it is, and that the congregation leaves them alone on those days.

Make sure that your staff is taking all the vacation that they are given by the church each year. Presbyterian pastors all get four weeks of vacation each year to compensate for a pastor’s often long and odd hours in the work of the church. Insist that your pastor take all four weeks of vacation, and that your staff take all the vacation they are given.

Make sure that your pastors are taking two full weeks of continuing education each year, which all Presbyterian pastors receive. All pastors need opportunities every year to get their buckets filled, to get spiritually and intellectually recharged, and keep current with changes in the pastoral profession. Insist that your pastors get away and go to conferences, workshops and classes. Be aware that Presbyterian pastors, sadly, average only 3 days of continuing ed. each year, when they are given two weeks. Make sure that they take the whole two weeks, both for their own sake and for the sake of the congregation. Church staff also need opportunities to fill their professional buckets.

Make sure that your staff is getting enough time with a spouse and family. It won’t do the church any good if a staff member is a church workaholic, and letting his or her marriage or family fall apart. That kind of home neglect always comes back to bite the staff member, the staff member’s family and the church. A staff member needs to be encouraged to keep both the church and his or her own home life going at the same time. It’s always both/and, not either/or.

The idea being communicated here, with the image of the unmuzzled ox, is to never forget that your church staff are not just church worker bees, but whole people, who need to pay adequate attention to every aspect of their lives in order to go on being a good effective church staff member. You want church staff who go the distance with you, and you’ll get that if you maintain interest in your staff’s whole life, and not just their work life with the church.

Paul then talks to Timothy about the need of the congregation to pay their pastors fairly: ”The laborer deserves to be paid,” he quotes, which is right out of the mouth of Jesus. The idea here is that the pastor is rendering a legitimate spiritual service to a congregation, giving up life and time and energy and talent, and deserves to be compensated fairly for that work, just like any other laborer. The pastor doesn’t need to be overpaid or underpaid but just paid fairly and justly, in accordance with the going rate for that kind of work in a particular church in a particular location and the training and experience they bring to the work. It is also in the best interest of the church to pay all church staff fairly and justly.

Then Paul tells Timothy that the pastor needs to be protected from members of the congregation from false, unfair accusation, and that is also true of all the church staff.

There are always interesting spiritual and psychological things going on between a pastor and a congregation, and not all of them are necessarily good. If the pastor is being a true spiritual leader, and sticking close to Christ and God’s word, the pastor will sooner or later say or do something that will stir up the dark side in a church member, and this may come out in the form of an unjustified accusation against the pastor. And it can happen to other staff members as well.

In order to protect the pastors and the staff, the Session and the congregation must never overreact or take too seriously the allegations of a single church member against the pastor. Paul reminds Timothy and us of the ancient Hebrew law that says that no one can be convicted of something on the basis of the testimony of just one person. There has to be two or three witnesses saying the same thing to take a charge seriously. If several people in the congregation accuse the pastor or other church staff of the same thing, that needs to be taken seriously as a potential pattern of unwanted behavior, and investigated.

Then Paul reminds Timothy, and us, that even pastors are sinners, and sometimes need to be confronted, maybe even rebuked by church members with their sin. Pastors are sometimes put up on pedestals by their congregation, regarded as the perfect human beings who always do the right thing and never make any mistakes, and then when they do make mistakes, as they inevitably will, it always comes as such a shock to everyone in the church.

I stand with the apostle Paul in reminding you that we pastors are sinners. We pastors have an unusual calling in life, and we have to take that calling seriously, but in every other way we are just like everyone one of you. We do a lot of good. But we make mistakes. We fail. We let people down. We say stupid things. We hurt people, sometimes intentionally, often unconsciously. We forget things. We can be insensitive to people’s needs and feelings. Pastors are real people, which means gifted, certainly, but also flawed, imperfect, as in need of Christ’s forgiveness as anyone else, and in need of the congregation’s forgiveness as well. The same can be said of all the church staff.

Paul reminds you as a congregation that when you have been hurt by a pastor, or neglected, or offended, or disappointed, or sinned against, you have an obligation to go to the pastor and confront the pastor. Paul says you ought to rebuke your pastor in the presence of the whole congregation, but I think the words of Jesus actually trump Paul’s words in this area. Jesus in Matthew 18 says that if someone in the church sins against you, and this includes the pastor, you first go privately to that person and point out the fault, and hopefully the person will realize what they have done wrong and ask for forgiveness, and you will give it, and that will be the end of it. But Jesus says, if that doesn’t work, try it again with a witness in tow. And if that doesn’t work, rebuke the person in front of the whole congregation. So, ultimately Paul is right, but according to Jesus there are two prior steps you need to go through to get to that point and about 95% of the issues between a church member and a staff member can be resolved in a face-to-face conversation. All of that is also true in your relationships with all the church staff.

If you have an issue with a pastor or other church staff member, understand that unless there is a conversation about it between the two of you, there’s probably nothing that can change. It may be very awkward for you, but I would say that you have a spiritual and Biblical obligation to go to the staff member and tell them when something is wrong between the two of you. Resist the impulse to stay silent. Resist the impulse to talk about the staff member to everyone in the church except the staff member. And especially resist the impulse to leave the church just because you don’t want to deal with the staff member about something that has become awkward.

And don’t go to your church staff members just when something is wrong. Let them know as well when they are doing something right. If you just go to your staff when something is wrong, you won’t have much of a relationship with them. Your staff needs to hear your affirmations as well as your criticisms. In fact, the old rule of thumb is that it takes “10 atta boys” or 10 “atta girls” to equal one “you jerk!”. In my experience conscientious church staff tend to give far more attention and emotional energy to the criticisms, whether they deserve that much attention and energy or not, and that's why affirmations are so important as a counter-balance.

The larger issue to which this points is that there needs to be feedback mechanisms set up for steady, regular communication between the staff and the congregation. The relationship between a church staff and a congregation, if you think about it, is a lot like a marriage, with all of the ups and downs that you have in marriage, and in marriage it is better to have too much communication than not enough. All those affirmations and some of the criticisms between a staff and a congregation need to be spoken and heard and dealt with, just as they do in marriage.

To sum up, I think the apostle Paul is teaching Timothy, and us, how a congregation can help maintain the vital energies in its pastors and the church staff that they all need to continue to lead a church on an ongoing basis. It does it by unmuzzling the staff, that is, giving them enough freedom to get all of their needs met. By paying them fairly. By protecting them from false accusations. And by keeping the lines of communication open, so that the staff can be both affirmed often, and, when really needed, have the harder truths spoken in love.


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