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The Canary of Organizational Health in the Church

Many large churches and the pastors who oversee them have become models for “doing church.” And why not? Often these leaders have grown their congregations from a handful of dedicated followers into megachurches filled with megaministries and megastaffs to run it all.

But beware, not all “successful” churches are worth modeling. Unfortunately, some have devolved into machines that merely use individuals for their skill sets while disregarding their need for community, sanity, and spiritual camaraderie. As a result, they tend to chew up and spit out staff, leaving disenfranchised and disillusioned men and women in their wake. Some of these highly skilled and passionate people cycle out of the church questioning not only their calling but, sometimes, even faith itself. Those who do remain on staff must endure an extremely dysfunctional and oppressive organizational culture.

In days of old, miners would carry canaries down with them into mine-shafts because of the potential presence of lethal gases which might leak into their working space. If it happened, the birds would die and alert the workers to a potential disaster even though the danger was something they literally couldn’t see themselves. As you might imagine, canaries became essential in ensuring a (literally) healthy workplace.

One way to gauge the health of a church’s workplace is to see how many employees have left it. In other words, staff turnover is the canary of organizational health. To use a Jim Collins’ term, it’s a “brutal fact” that belies any kind of talk which paints the staff culture in a positive light. A high number likely reveals a church to be in a much more precarious place than what its ministry success or the pastor’s personality might lead us to mistakenly conclude. Frankly, staff turnover is the dirty little secret no one talks about because in doing so it might cause the guy you’ve been trying to model your ministry after to move toward some sense of accountability for how he “runs” his church.

The truth is pastors can grow a church and ruin their staff at the same time. They can leverage their gifts so the masses come on Sunday and uphold a poisonous staff culture Monday through Friday. And here’s the deal: most outsiders won’t know how sick the church truly is because all pastors have to do is simply keep hiring people to replace the increasing numbers they’ve lost through their destructive approach. I heard the story of a high-profile pastor who once confessed that in order to get his church to the first several thousand in attendance he had to “burn through his entire first round of staff.” This begs the question: Who really cares about your church’s size and ministry impact if you have to burn through your staff to achieve it?

Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t large churches who have a good if not great staff culture. There are. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t pastors who see this weakness in their leadership and are trying to address it. There are. It also doesn’t mean there aren’t churches who have legitimate reasons for high turnover. There are (e.g., a church plant in a college town that hires predominantly students). However, it doesn’t mean there aren’t churches who look strong on the outside but promote a staff culture that would poison a thousand canaries. There are.

What can pastors who “lead” those churches do? I suggest you…

  1. Stop Kidding Yourself. It doesn’t help to lie to yourself saying the massive turnover in your staff is due to some other reason outside your lack of leadership. For example, it doesn’t hold water to say guys leave in droves because you’re so incredibly missional. That somehow guys are just dying to plant churches as soon as possible because you’ve raised them up so well during their tenure on your staff. Maybe they’re just dying to leave your poisonous culture and planting a church is the quickest road out of Dodge! The best thing to do look in the mirror and realize, when it comes to staff culture,  you’re not so much missional as mercenary. It’s not that the work of ministry is so hard that people easily quit or move on. It’s that working for you leads people to those choices. If that sounds like a character issue, it’s because it is one. Realizing that is the first step to real change.
  2. Repent. Publicly. While most of the world doesn’t realize how you’ve burned through relationship after relationship to accomplish your goals, those you’ve abused/neglected have. A big nod to the work of the gospel in your heart is to apologize to them and then to the congregation as a whole because you can bet your bottom dollar there are more families than you realize who’ve been affected by the scorched earth you’ve blazed with your staff. Often it’s your private reputation that will hurt you more than your public one. Surely your staff must be included in the people you will be accountable to God for in watching over their souls (Heb. 13:17)?
  3. Find Another Seat. If you cannot oversee your staff in a way that engenders them to stay for the long haul then let someone else have that seat. Be responsible for what you’re good at (e.g., preaching) and let a more skilled individual be responsible for staff development. In fact, stay as much out of the way as possible until you can get a healthier perspective on what a staff culture should look like.
  4. Benchmark. Go find churches who have a strong staff cultures and sit at their feet for awhile. Contact their senior leadership, ask if you can ride shotgun on their meetings, take a couple of them out for dinner and pepper them with questions about how they do what they do. In order to make the most out of it, drop any preconceived ideas you have of what it takes to have a “killer staff.” You’ve already demonstrated your approach actually winds up killing your staff. Eat some humble pie and come with an open mind to a different way of doing things.

Staff turnover. It’s the canary of organizational health in the church. Celebrating wonderful additions in the pews while suffering appalling attrition in the office is a Pyrric victory – not a genuine “win.” The question about turnover is one we should ask our leaders because it may very well let everyone realize that while things may look good on the outside there’s a trouble on the inside that needs addressing. Let’s demand better of our leaders not only because of the ones they lead but of the One in who’s name they lead.

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

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