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Understanding Church Leaders (Parent-Church Conversations Part 2)

February 24, 2014


As we talked about in the last post, parent-church conversations don’t always go smoothly. A rocky (if not broken) relationship can result when either party comes to the table with open wounds or faulty assumptions. I can’t solve situation-specific interpersonal problems here, but perhaps I can help parents better understand common themes in the lives of church leaders and the culture of their “work” environment.

Church leaders often have a story too. Many people serving in ministry have experienced at least one of the following:

A difficult childhood
A painful or traumatic life event
A period of considerable trial, resulting in life change

Whatever happened in this leader’s life shaped them considerably and was probably a catalyst for their decision to go into ministry. It is not unusual for a leader to serve in a stage-of-life ministry that coincides with the most significant period in their own life (children’s, college, young marrieds, etc.). Like people outside of ministry, this leader may not recognize how prior life experiences still play out in their personality and ways of relating. Even if the leader has experienced authentic life-change and is in a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, undesirable coping skills may still pop up, especially in times of stress.

Keep in mind that just because a ministry leader doesn’t appear to have a significant life story doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Ministry leaders are often underpaid if not unpaid. No one gets rich doing church work. It’s only been in the last two decades that churches started paying children’s ministry leaders and other similar staff positions. (Thank goodness!) But the reality is that churches still view many staff roles as hybrid volunteer/paid positions. Churches rarely budget a compensation package to match the realistic number of hours needed to do a family ministry job well. It is not uncommon to find staff members working many more hours than their position pays.

One of the most embarrassing things about the church culture in America is our custom of not paying hard-working laborers a fair wage. The reality is that every church has more people seeking the services of their ministries than they have people who are contributing financially. Generally speaking, churches are legitimately cash-strapped. This is the sad consequence of a low giving rate among churchgoers. Studies tell us that for every ten families enjoying a church’s

heating and air conditioning
running water
mowed front lawn
sound system
services provided by paid staff

only one of them is helping to pay for any of it. Very few church attenders give a significant offering, let alone tithe (considered to be 10 percent of a household income before taxes). On rare occasions you may find a church with a 24-percent giving rate.

Appreciation is the valued currency of a church leader. Ministry leaders aren’t rewarded through incentive-based compensation plans tied to productivity or sales. But they do have a natural desire to see the fruits of their labor. The best leaders, who could earn more from a secular job, stay in ministry because they are purpose-driven people. They refuel when they see results of their investments. Church leaders are more likely to perform at their peak and strive harder when the people around them recognize what they are doing right. Along the same lines, a ministry leader may avoid certain aspects of their job if they perceive related tasks to go unrecognized.

Many church staff members lack coaching and mentoring. Senior church leaders may not be good at managing the staff under their leadership. The gifts required to preach or cast vision for a church body are different from the skillset needed to lead individual employees. Pastors who are masterful communicators and performers often struggle with the process of leadership development. Pastors who are expert theologians and intellectual studiers don’t always relate to the everyday issues their staff faces. And highly relational, people-pleasers aren’t usually good at holding subordinates accountable.

As a result, it is somewhat rare to find a church staff receiving the healthy attention they may need to do their job well. Many staff members would benefit from grace-filled coaching to handle emotionally sensitive situations and truth-filled accountability that requires follow-through.

For a variety of reasons, churches tend to flounder when it comes to rehabilitating underperforming employees or helping them (gracefully) transition out of ministry. Unhealthy personnel situations have a domino effect on every other staff person and can take a toll on a ministry team. It is important to recognize that staff development (or lack thereof) and other behind-the-scenes workplace dynamics may be hidden factors contributing to fractured parent-church relationships.

Church leaders have families too. Ministry leaders may not have the same daily struggles as special needs families, but they too have children with unique needs, spouses who lose their jobs, and their own health issues. Their life issues may be less obvious but sometimes they are as heavy. Most ministry leaders wrestle on a daily basis with the conflicting needs of their job and their own family:

Should I answer this phone call related to ministry?
Or should I let it go to voicemail and help my son through his homework?

Should I attend a ministry participant’s IEP meeting on my day off?
Or should I keep my scheduled appointment for marriage counseling?

Should I stay up late to find a short-notice volunteer?
Or should I go to bed on time to finally lick this lingering virus?

The very best ministry leaders consider it a privilege and blessing to serve in their position. Few can imagine a more fulfilling life calling. But they all struggle, some intensely, with determining their own boundaries. Like parents of children with special needs, ministry leaders are usually stretched pretty thin.

To build a healthy relationship with your church leaders, consider the following:

Pray for your church’s ministry leaders and volunteers. You can naturally love people better when you are actively praying for them. You may still need to speak truth into a ministry leader’s life, but you’ll be more effective with a prayerful mindset and seeking God’s best for them.

Get to know the leaders serving your child. You’ll relate differently to someone when you know what’s going on in their life. And you might take things less personally when they mess up, knowing they are going through a divorce, struggling with infertility, or helping their spouse wrestle through depression. Recognize that people change through the context of relationship. And your relationship, whether smooth or rocky, may be the vehicle for a church leader’s personal growth.

Offer to help. I believe in the value of shared ownership in almost everything, including family ministry. It isn’t healthy for parents to do all the legwork for their child’s church experience and it isn’t healthy for the church staff to do it all either. A partnership mindset is only going to happen if both parties are investing. Church leaders are more likely to respond favorably when they sense that parents care about the success of the ministry team, and not just the success of their own child. It speaks volumes when a mother or father is willing to remain in the ministry environment for a period of time, showing volunteers how to work with their child. Expecting a church staff to “figure it out,” especially when complex behavior challenges, medical needs, and learning differences are present, is expecting too much. And there is great opportunity for shared community when a parent occasionally serves inside their child’s regular ministry environment.

Give a regular offering to your church. Some readers will have a hard time with this “tip.” I am fully aware of the financial hurdles many special needs families face. Don’t hyperventilate, but do pray about it. I have learned that God uses this important act of obedience to grow us. Giving our “first fruits” is always a significant step of faith development.

Keep your expectations in check. Recognize that coordinating an accommodation plan for a single child with special needs often requires a notable investment of time. Either someone inside the church must donate their personal time or the church is going to set aside funds to pay someone to navigate inclusion. Either way, there is an investment and perhaps some level of sacrifice. Putting pressure on the church to do more and to do it quickly is not always reasonable. Until churches have higher giving rates, they will be stretched thin. Keep this in mind before lobbying hard for respite, parent support groups, and inclusive summer experiences.

Develop a big-picture perspective. Don’t get stuck on the small stuff when a church doesn’t get it right. Every church, even the best ones, mess up. Special needs inclusion is so subjective, and unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Success ultimately requires a whole lot of trial and error. When a church does get it wrong, take a step back before letting (understandable) emotions get the best of you. Reflect on the big-picture attitude and progress the church is making (or not making). If the church’s general direction toward inclusion is positive, put the breaks on before conveying negative feedback. The greatest de-motivator for a church staff is to have to wade through criticism that is perceived to be unmerited or without grace.

If church leaders are legitimately failing, pray through the steps forward. People serving in ministry positions are no less susceptible to sin’s brilliant disguise. I have seen church leaders dig in their heels, refusing to accept responsibility for actions or consequences that are in fact theirs to own. At some point, there becomes very little you can do to change the attitude of such an individual. The church’s executive leaders or personnel committee may choose not to address the employee’s problem. As hard as it is, there are times a family may have to leave the cleanup to the Holy Spirit. Staying angry or sometimes staying in a toxic environment hurts everyone. The worst thing anyone can do is to let bitterness take root, causing them to sin in their anger.

Threatening the church with a lawsuit or blogging about your bad church experience may provide some cathartic relief, but it won’t advance the cause of special needs inclusion. Before doing something that damages your own credibility or creates public embarrassment, seek wise counsel from a discerning person. The best advice usually comes from someone who can provide a Biblical and impartial perspective. Then, begin the process of pursuing your own healing. The single most important thing you can do for your family is to take personal responsibility for your own spiritual and emotional health. Churches can be rough places. Ask any church leader, they’ll agree.

Whew! Okay, today’s post was long and heavy. If you can’t relate or don’t agree with my thoughts, don’t get stuck. No one ever accused me of having life figured out. As with everything I write, take what’s useful and leave the rest. ~ AFL

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  1. Great post. It’s important for anyone (especially anyone in ministry) to keep a balance, and to protect their own family first.

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  1. How To Support Special Needs Families & Ministries | BASS Conference 2014 | DIANE DOKKO KIM

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