Accountability in the workplace of the Church

Dear colleagues,

I was recently a bystander in a social media conversation about human resource practices in the church. In a lament about a difficult relationship with a parish administrator, someone noted that the church has been plagued by “a combination of bad hiring and HR practices in our past and ongoing crappy rates of pay and work hours.”

The church may be the mystical body of Christ and a sign and sacrament of the kingdom of God. But it’s also a business employing other people, even if it’s just a part-time administrator or organist. The online comment was right. The church can often presume too much of its employees (including its clergy) out of some sense of vocation or doing the Lord’s work. At the same time, the church doesn’t always pay enough attention to its employment practices. The result is that churches easily get mired in the sand of difficult employment relationships to the detriment of its work in the world.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to be the recipient of some really quality supervision in various jobs I’ve had. I’ve tried to adapt lessons from that for my own work supervising others. The single word that summarizes my approach is “accountability.” Here’s some ways I put that into practice.

  • Set clear goals and deadlines and then check in about progress: Explain how the work that needs to be done fits in with a broader vision of where the organization is going. Ensure they have the necessary support to accomplish that work. Check in to see how it’s going. Evaluate what worked or why it didn’t work out the way you thought it would.
  • Offer training and development: Set an expectation that professional development is part of a person’s job. Identify what they need to learn more about. Help them find that training (and pay for it!). The classic example is the parish administrator who can’t figure out how to use Microsoft Word or send an e-mail. Training exists for this. Help them access it.
  • Have an annual evaluation: Sit down on an annual basis to evaluate the performance of the employee. Ask them what they think they’re doing well and where they need to improve. Allow them to reflect on their own working conditions and what needs to change. Time and again I have been astonished at how helpful these meetings are and the surprising things I learn about the professional relationship.
  • Continually keep in mind a question like this: “This is where we are headed as an organization. How can your work help us take the next step in moving in that direction?” Sometimes you can ask this question and people realize, in fact, they’re not interested in moving in that direction. That can be a helpful cue that the employment relationship may need to come to an end.

No doubt college staff who are reading this will note that I don’t always do a good job of realizing these aspirations. Which leads me to a final point: In order for you to lead an accountable workplace, you need to be accountable to someone else. This can be challenging for clergy—who exactly your supervisor is isn’t always clear—but it’s vitally important. I insist, for instance, that the chair of the college Board of Governors have an evaluation meeting with me every year for precisely this reason.

There’s a lot of work to do to improve the work environment of the church. But it’s so important to our flourishing that it deserves our attention.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This message was written by Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.