What Do You Seek In Staff? Doers Or Trainers?

By Lyle E. Schaller

“We have at least forty high-school students in this congregation, but our youth group averages nine to twelve on Sunday evenings. The Sunday school class for senior highs averaged eight in attendance last year,” complained a member at West End Church.

“We’ve been talking about that in our church council meetings, and we’re considering hiring a college student as our part-time youth director. We need to raise an extra $6,000 beyond our budget to add that staff position. If we can find the money, we’ll do it. We already have identified a promising candidate, Tom Jordan, for that position;’ replied an influential and widely respected leader.

“If we expect to reverse the numerical decline of the past twenty years here, we need to hire someone who will have only one assignment. That one assignment will be to visit and follow up on potential future members,” declared the fifty-one-year-old pastor who had arrived three months earlier as First Church’s sixth minister since 1975. During that twenty years, this aging downtown congregation had shrunk from over 800 members to fewer than 300. The paid staff had been cut from three full-time program persons, including the senior minister, to one minister plus a part-time choir director, a part-time organist, and a full-time secretary. Average worship attendance had plummeted from nearly 500 in 1975 to 128 last year. Thanks to the income from an endowment fund, this congregation could afford to adopt the new minister’s recommendation. So Martha Edwards, a mature layperson, became a part-time staff member with a total compensation package of
$12,000 plus reimbursement for expenses. During the next two years, Edwards was clearly and directly responsible for the addition of fifty-three new members and shared the credit for adding another eighteen. That produced a net increase of forty-eight in the confirmed membership. The numerical decline had been reversed!

“We have a good Sunday school for children and youth,” reflected a leader at North Church, “but we have only two adult classes. One is a group of elderly ladies that averages seven in attendance. The other is a discussion class that runs between ten and fifteen adults. I think we need to hire someone who can build up our adult Sunday school.”

Five months later, that suggestion had been implemented, and Pat McGuire arrived as the new staff specialist in adult education. McGuire first organized and taught a challenging and in-depth adult Bible study program that met for two hours each Tuesday evening for two years. A total of twenty-seven adults enrolled and two years later, nineteen graduated. Eight of those graduates then taught three Bible study groups. During the first three years on the job, McGuire also organized and taught eight additional classes:

1. A thirteen-week class on methods in teaching adults that produced eight graduates committed to regular teaching responsibilities.

2. An eighteen-week class on the theology of evangelism that produced fourteen graduates.

3. An eighteen-week class training five young mothers in a program designed to produce teachers for weekday Bible study groups for mothers not employed outside the home. This produced four graduates. Two organized and led a Tuesday morning group and the others a Thursday morning group.

4. A ten-week class with five men who subsequently organized and led an early Saturday morning “Breakfast and Bible Study” group.

5. A sixteen-week Thursday evening class for parents who volunteered to teach classes on parenting. This eventually produced two adult classes on parenting skills. One met on Tuesday evenings, and the other met during the Sunday school hour.

6. A thirty-six-week course on interpersonal social skills from a Christian perspective. This began with five currently single adults and by week thirty averaged nearly a hundred on Saturday mornings. Out of this group McGuire chose five volunteers who organized and led the new singles ministry that met for three to five hours on Saturday evenings.

7. A thirteen-week class for newly married couples. Out of this class McGuire chose three couples who organized and led a new Sunday school class for newlyweds. Six months later three other couples volunteered to organize and lead a new Sunday school class for couples with young children. A year later, with additional help from McGuire, three other couples volunteered to organize and lead the new Phoenix class for couples where one or both spouses were in their second or subsequent marriage.

8. A class of thirty-five adults, most of them born before 1940, who signed up for a thirty-two-week course that met during Sunday school. The first fifteen weeks were devoted to a study of the Holy Land. The next two weeks included a twelve-day trip, as part of a much larger professionally led tour group, to Israel. The last fifteen weeks were reflections on what the participants had experienced and learned. McGuire taught the first six weeks and accompanied the group on its trip. Volunteers led the class in other sessions.

At the end of three years, the number of adults engaged in serious, continuing weekly study had grown from an average attendance of twenty to well over two hundred, plus that Saturday evening singles group that averaged close to two hundred weekly.

Equally important, three years after her arrival, McGuire had trained more than eighty volunteers actively involved as leaders or teachers in the adult teaching ministries at North Church. After four years, in the typical week McGuire could report approximately five hundred adults engaged in one form or another of structured, serious, and ongoing learning experiences at North Church.

Pat McGuire’s work produced six other benefits for this congregation. First, what had been a “one hour on Sunday morning” low-commitment congregation became a high-commitment church. The new expectation was that everyone be present for at least two periods of time on Sunday morning. A growing array of high-quality, relevant, and attractive adult classes led by trained teachers reinforced that higher expectation. Second, the attractive learning experiences for adults, plus the work of the graduates from that theology of evangelism class, combined as central factors for a 50 percent worship-attendance increase in six years.

Third, in these training events McGuire emphasized not only high expectations in competence but also self-esteem and self-confidence. This boosted the morale of all the teachers and eventually impacted the other volunteers at North Church. Fourth, the teaching ministries, including the training events, became the number one channel for newcomers’ assimilation into the larger fellowship of North Church. Fifth, this increase in members and in the adult Sunday school led to a 60 percent increase in attendance in the children’s and youth Sunday school classes. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, these learning experiences greatly enriched the personal and spiritual life of all who participated.

What’s the Difference?

The first two examples of staffing call for a staff person to do ministry. The more productive they are in using their time, gifts, and skills, the more impressive the results. Within three months of the arrival of Tom Jordan, that college junior at West End Church, he had gathered three dozen high school youth (including a dozen from non-member households) for the Sunday evening meetings. The high school Sunday school class he taught averaged twenty-eight in attendance.

Nineteen months after his arrival, this exceptionally magnetic young man graduated from college and accepted a job in another state. The following March, Jordan’s successor, another college student, was averaging nine in attendance on Sunday evenings and eleven in Sunday school.

Martha Edwards, that personable woman responsible for new-member enlistment at First Church, moved to Arizona four years later with her husband when he retired. During Edward’s last full year on the job, First Church received a total of ninety-eight new members. The first full year after her departure, First Church received a total of twenty-nine new members, while losses totaled thirty-six.

Both new staff members were productive workers, but neither enhanced the volunteers’ capability to do ministry. When they departed, both left huge holes. At West End Church, people are wishing, “If only we could find another Tom Jordan, we could have a great youth program again.” At First Church the people, including the pastor now in his late fifties, are lamenting, “If Martha hadn’t left, we would be well on our way to matching our old peak in size with 800 members.” Edwards did a great job at First Church. Unfortunately, her assignment was doing, not training.

By contrast, Pat McGuire is both a doer and a trainer. McGuire’s first priority was to build up momentum, to project and fulfill her expectation that adult learning experiences can be and should be the norm at North Church. McGuire did that in those first three years by both teaching and training. During the second and third year her role and priorities gradually changed with an ever-increasing emphasis on overseeing, encouraging, supporting, nurturing, training, helping to give birth to new classes and groups, and counseling the doers. She accomplished this by shrinking her number of teaching hours. Initially McGuire modeled the role of the enthusiastic, competent, trained, and self-confident teacher. Five years later, North Church enjoyed the gifts and leadership of dozens of models of enthusiastic, competent, trained, and self-confident teachers and trainers.

After eight years, McGuire resigned to do the same job over again in another congregation that needed to build a strong teaching ministry with adults, but her departure did not undermine the program at North Church. That huge corps of trained, self-reliant, enthusiastic, creative, and committed volunteers carried the load.

Three Cautions!

While this is a plea to look for trainers, rather than simply doers, in recruiting new staff, three cautions must be raised. First, skilled trainers are rare and usually not inexpensive! Pat McGuire’s total compensation in that eighth year was $48,000, or about triple the compensation of Edwards (who worked approximately twenty-five hours weekly). Frequently a church gets what it pays for!

Second, and more important, the congregational context must be supportive of training. If the pastor prefers to “do it myself’ over training volunteers, other staff members may find it difficult to be effective trainers.

Third, the lower the commitment level of the congregation, the more difficult implementing a lay training program will be. This focus on training works best in congregations that project high expectations of people. For example, if the ratio of worship attendance to confirmed membership is below 70 percent, it may be both tempting and easier to seek staff members who are productive doers rather than skilled trainers. For at least a few congregations the first priority may be to raise the commitment level. That can prepare the congregational culture for a high-expectation training program.

Which is the highest priority in your congregation? Training? Or to raise the level of commitment? Or to seek new staff members who are doers?