Staffing the Declining Church

Over the past few years, staffing the declining church has become a regular topic in my church consultations and coaching calls. Many declining churches struggle with making wise and strategic decisions. They once had large staffs to support their larger ministry programs. As the churches decline, they struggle to make adjustments. And they often make short-sighted decisions. Pragmatic decisions instead of strategic decisions. As a result the churches continue to decline.

Staffing the declining church is more difficult than staffing the growing church. In a growing church the question is when to add staff. In a declining church the question is when (and how) to downsize or eliminate staff. It is easier to add staff in a growing church than to subtract staff in a declining church.

Here are seven things to consider when staffing a declining church:

1. Staff to Vision

The average declining church is staffed to maintain an orderly progression towards death. When a staff member leaves, he or she is often replaced with someone to do exactly the same job. Over time the focus becomes inward. The staff that remains is there to take care of the existing church.

I am aware of one declining church that desperately needs to add staff to help them engage and evangelize their community. But they are currently spending 63% of their annual budget on personnel costs (see #2 below), and they have a staff ratio of 1:68 (see #4 below). This church is already over-staffed. And the staff they have are there to take care of the existing church. There is no capacity for adding staff for outreach and growth.

Declining churches need to change their trajectory before they reach the point of no return. They need a vision that goes beyond maintaining an orderly decline. And they need to staff towards that vision.

2.  Keep Personnel Costs Balanced

When I analyze a church budget, I look to see how much of the total budget is spent on personnel. In a declining church, it is not unusual to discover that they are spending 60% or more of the budget on personnel costs. I recommend that personnel costs range from 45% to 55% of the total operating budget. Churches who spend less than 45% are often under-staffed and are missing growth opportunities. Churches who spend more than 55% are often over-staffed and may not have money left for ministry and missions. The real danger comes when a declining church spends more than 60% of its budget on personnel.

3. Keep Salaries Realistic

I am an advocate of paying people as much as you can afford to pay them. Keeping the pastor or staff members poor and humble is a bad strategy! Paul wrote to Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the gran,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages‘” (1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Churches need to pay their ministers well. But they must also be realistic. Many denominations provide salary data for churches. Here is a link to the Layman’s Salary Study Report from the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. I recommend that churches start with data based on average weekly attendance and annual church budget to determine a salary range for their ministers. For instance, an Alabama Baptist church with an average attendance of 75 and a budget of $220,000 should expect to spend between $54,467 and $63,374 on compensation and protection coverages for a full-time pastor.

4. Maintain a Healthy Staff Ratio

The most common recommended ratio is 1:100. That is one full-time pastor/staff minister for every 100 adults in average weekly attendance. I recommend a ratio of 1:75 if the church can afford it (see consideration #2 above). For instance, a church with an average attendance of 225 and a budget of $1 million can probably afford to hire more staff than a similar sized church with a $468,000 budget.

5. Be Willing to Make Hard Decisions

In a growing church, the hard decisions involve what staff to add. In a declining church the hard decisions involve which staff positions to eliminate. Or which staff positions to move from full-time to part-time. And sometimes part-time to more part-time. These are hard decisions. But they are decisions that must be made unless the vision of the church is to be on palliative care until it dies.

6. Be Gracious and Generous When Making the Hard Decisions

If a position must be eliminated or down-sized, do everything you can to help the affected minister through the transition. Give them time to consider what they need to do next. I am aware of one church that needed to make hard decisions. The personnel and budget committees met in late November and wanted to make major personnel changes to go into effect January 1. The affected staff would have been given six weeks to figure out what to do! There may be some occasions where a church has no other choice. But I can’t think of any!

Be as gracious and generous as possible when making the hard decisions. These are brothers and sisters in Christ who have a responsibility to provide for their families.

7. Consider Alternative Staffing Models

These alternative models might include bi-vocational or co-vocational ministers who work part-time. I am amazed by the number of ministers who are embracing this as their preferred model of ministry. One benefit they cite is that they engage lost people in the market place.

Interns may be another option to consider. These may be paid or volunteer. I am aware of one church that allows their interns to raise their own support. I am very fond of the paid internship model. The church gets more ministry bang for its buck. But most importantly the church is investing in those whom God has called and is preparing for future ministry.

One more alternative is to use retired ministers. These may be brought on as part-time paid or volunteers. These are often ministers who have retired from full-time work but still have energy, time, resources, and a passion to continue serving the Lord and His church!

Finally, consider staffing with volunteers. Let the people do the work of ministry. Equip them. Encourage them. And use them to accomplish God’s purposes in His church.

Staffing a declining church can be difficult. Hopefully, these seven considerations will help church leaders navigate the difficulties.

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