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Human Resources in Parishes

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I am fortunate enough to have many opportunities to do some teaching and consulting with new and experienced pastors as they navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of working with parish staff and volunteers. When I ask these pastors the topics that are most important to them, the frequent responses are: working with difficult staff members and volunteers, how to legally and successfully do terminations, and organizing and managing large staffs.

While I understand the angst these topics bring in parish life, I find it more effective to spend time on the aspects of human resources that provide effective foundations for reducing unresolvable tensions and decreasing the necessity for unhappy and difficult terminations.

When I meet and talk with seminary faculty and administration, they often express their regrets of too little curriculum time for management topics during seminary formation. While I recognize the need for more training in management topics for men who will way too soon have these responsibilities, I try to reassure seminary faculty and administration that time spent on emotional intelligence and human development is at the root of church management. Of course, it is the basis for excellence in ministry with immediate application to a young priest’s pastoral responsibilities, but it is also the foundation for excellence in leadership development and pastoral governance that comes with the appointment as a pastor.

During the coronavirus pandemic, good staff members and volunteers will be needed now more than ever. In a short article such as this, I highlight two areas for your consideration. These two topics won’t solve all the problems, but they are a beginning. Neither are they exhaustive of the human resources areas that can help you build pastoral effectiveness in your parish. The first is building relationships, and the second is hiring well.

Build Relationships

Time spent getting to know your parishioners, volunteers and staff is never wasted time. It is the “stuff” of success in pastoral leadership. This is particularly important for staff because it is at the heart of building trust. The assignment of a new pastor is a difficult and tense time for pastoral staff members who are continuing service from a previous pastor. What staff members sometimes fail to understand is that it is also a time of apprehension and anxiety for the new pastor. Staff members know there will be changes in style, communication patterns, decision-making processes, professional relationships, role descriptions, expectations, meeting protocols and supervisory procedures. None of this is easy for either the new pastor or the existing staff. These changes will be anticipated but still difficult for everyone.

We have all heard the adage, “Don’t make changes for a year when you are a new pastor.” But that maxim doesn’t always hold up to logic or pastoral necessity. The previous pastor may have left a problem or even several problems that must be dealt with sooner rather than later. On the other hand, failing to get input on these problems from a variety of people may lead to some very poor decision-making. Discussion on a proposed change that is needed quickly should begin with those who are closest to the issue, usually one or more members of the staff or consultative bodies. Ask about history, background and rationale for the current status of the problem before making any rash or sudden decisions, which is different from waiting a year for an issue that needs far more immediate attention.

I once worked with a new pastor, though not a priest without leadership responsibilities in his diocese, who was approached before he even assumed the pastorate by a couple of members of the staff, informing him that the parish business manager was a huge problem, resented by the whole staff as well as many parishioners, and he should be removed as soon as the new pastor took office. The pastor did not consult with other staff or with parishioners, yet terminated the business manager within the first week of arriving at the parish. Of course, as you might guess, the two staff members who came to him originally were, in fact, the two people who did not get along with other staff or parishioners and they were the two who should probably have been let go in the near term.

It took months for the pastor to gain the trust and confidence of staff and parishioners because of his rash decision, though, at the time, he thought he was being responsive to people’s needs. This pastor was not autocratic and unreasonable. He just trusted the wrong people before he had a chance to learn who were the right people to trust and conversely to have those same people trust him.

I have a priest friend who told me he believes that so much of what makes a priest and pastor successful in his profoundly important pastoral role is to “show up and listen.” This is at the core of building relationship skills in a parish setting. It is also basic to the relationship-building necessary in working with, leading and empowering parish staff and key volunteers. Presence is the name of the game. But that presence also begs for listening, asking questions, understanding history, encouragement and acknowledging the culture of the parish.

I once consulted with a new pastor and his staff who were having difficulty with the transition. The new pastor felt that the time he was spending with the staff was keeping him from his primary ministry responsibilities. It wasn’t easy to convince him that part of his primary ministry was encouraging and enabling the parish staff to be effective in pastoral ministry, thereby multiplying his own pastoral ministry efficiency and effectiveness.

A healthy church workplace encourages engagement and builds on the strengths of staff and volunteers. The pastor’s leadership role includes fostering a belief in the mission, modeling excellent communication and building strong pastoral relationships with staff, volunteers and parishioners.

Right People, Right Job

Time spent organizing staff responsibilities and hiring for open or new positions is time well spent. When hiring is done well, involuntary terminations become rare. However, all of us who have tried to implement the very best hiring practices and procedures can still tell stories of making mistakes followed by complications that ensue from a poor hire. No one is perfect at hiring, but we can still implement many processes to improve the odds that we will hire well.

To do this, we begin with well-thought-out job descriptions and position requirements and preferences. Everyone on staff should have a current job description with final approval of the description being the responsibility of the pastor. The requirements for the position are a basic guide in filtering out resumes and applications. Preferences have more leeway in the hiring process.

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Resource

Villanova University’s Center for Church Management enables current and future Church leaders to steward the human, financial, and other resources of the Church by teaching business best practices in a Christian context of mission and ministry. Resources are available online at the Villanova School of Business at villanova.edu.

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There are some human resources professionals who advocate for hiring people with most of the preferences as described in the advertising and job description, but also leaving lots of room to grow and develop in the job so that it remains a challenge and an opportunity for ongoing development. I agree with this theory, though I have also been in parish ministry and know that parish needs are always in flux, so there is always a challenge and an opportunity for development.

The more complex the position, the more it is advantageous to have a search committee assist in the hiring process; however, the committee needs to know it is not selecting the person for the position, but rather consulting on the skills and aptitude of each candidate. The search committee should not rank or vote on the applicants, but instead give honest feedback to the pastor who will make the final decision. Search committees may consist of staff members who are closely aligned with the new position and parish leaders who have a stake in the ministry, such as parents in a search for a school principal or a DRE.

The best interviews focus on skills, knowledge, motivation and personality traits that are directly related to the job description. It is important to ask open-ended questions, especially behavioral questions oriented to the past, such as previous professional successes, and hypothetical questions oriented to the future, such as possible responsibilities and conflicts in the new position. After asking a question related to previous successes, be sure to add a question about a time when a person did not do well. It is important to discover if the candidate can learn from past failures and is capable of taking responsibility for mistakes or failures. It is never a problem if there are failures; it only becomes a problem if the person cannot own them and learn from them. It is also important to be aware of questions that are illegal to ask in an interview and to instruct the search committee on those illegal questions as well. These questions are related to all of the areas where a claim of illegal discrimination might be asserted by an applicant.

It is critical to follow-up on all credentials claimed in a candidate’s resume as well as check references. Resumes are often exaggerations of reality. I am being generous when I say they are exaggerations. Sometimes they are simply imaginary or wishful thinking on the part of the applicant. All credentials should be confirmed. Likewise, call references that are listed in the resume, but also feel free to call any other connections that you may know who could serve as references. The only caution here is not to call the current employer without the knowledge and permission of the applicant. For pastors, the obvious references are previous pastors or colleagues from prior parish employment. Most people will not do written references, but phone calls are often effective, and most people will cooperate.

My fundamental advice on hiring is not to settle for someone that you don’t think will work in the long-term. Wait to hire until you are sure you are comfortable with the applicant. If necessary, find a temporary solution to a critical position that needs filling, but don’t make a long-term commitment to a person with whom you are uneasy.

I am convinced, thanks to almost 30 years of experience, that excellent human resources practices translate to the Church setting with great success. However, business practices in the parish and diocesan settings must always be implemented within our Church identity. Building strong pastoral relationships and hiring well are key areas of pastoral practice that help build an effective and positive parish experience.

CAROL L. FOWLER is the retired director of the Department of Personnel Services for the Archdiocese of Chicago and currently teaches, conducts workshops and consults on areas of Church management, best practices in Church human resources and leadership development.

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How to Pastorally Tackle Human Resources Issues

The topic of human resources for any Church leader can be a daunting and intimidating subject. This is especially true as supervisors strive to strike the balance of today’s complex legal requirements with that of the Church’s social teaching and justice.

Carol L. Fowler’s book, “Human Resources: Best Practices in Church Management” (Paulist Press, $24.95), provides a template that pastorally tackles these issues in a clear and concise manner. She sets the stage with references to both sacred Scripture and Tradition that places the reader at ease that this “secular work” is indeed in alignment with the vision of Christ and his Church.

Some of the topics include:

• The need to clearly communicate personnel policies.

• The hiring process from the job description to onboarding.

• How to build and maintain a healthy workplace.

• The vital role of feedback for both paid staff and volunteers.

• The importance of recognition, compensation and benefits.

In a time where the Church is called to move more intentionally toward transparency and co-responsibility, “Human Resources; Best Practices in Church Management” provides a clear and systematic starting point for any Church leader in their supervisory role of those entrusted to their care. Fowler addresses both paid staff and volunteers in what must be done in justice in communicating to them the clarity of expectations, rewards and consequences.

Timely and consistent patterns of feedback are an integral aspect of any supervisory relationships with paid staff or volunteers. Fowler stresses the importance of clearly developed and shared job descriptions that enhance performance in one’s mission in service to the Church.

This guide will benefit the novice as well as the experienced leader alike in striving to make daily service in the Church a model for the world to emulate.

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