OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALet’s consider yet another pastoral professional skill set that likely wasn’t covered in our theological education. This week’s question comes from a Rev who is discovering the joys and challenges of staff supervision.

Dear Matriarchs,

I am an Episcopal priest about 6 months into my first call as the full-time priest in charge of a parish. I’ve been ordained for almost a decade, but my previous ministry was in chaplaincy. Prior to seminary I worked for a couple of major universities as an executive and research assistant. I’ve never been in a position where I had administrative staff working for me.
I now have a half time parish administrator. She’s very good at the technical aspects of her job – organized, detail-oriented, excellent computer skills, etc., and she is also wonderful as far as being sensitive, supportive, and using discretion in difficult situations.
Here’s my question (or questions really): what is your advice on how best to use her time and efforts? I sometimes find myself defaulting to doing admin tasks that I’m not sure I need to be doing. It’s hard for me to give someone work I could do myself, and sometimes when the learning curve of this new position is a bit much, I find the admin tasks calming. Also, how do I make peace (in my own head, mostly) with the fact that sometimes while she’s running around looking very busy (for example, wrestling with the copier), I don’t look busy at all. I know that I am responsible for doing a lot of reading, thinking, planning, researching, and praying, but sometimes I struggle with it not looking or feeling much like “work.”

Thank you for any advice you can give to help me adapt to my new role!

Our Matriarchs have some ideas from our experience that we hope will help you navigate your new role.

Jennifer Burns Lewis
I’d offer a couple of suggestions: 

Even small staff ministries can benefit from regular staff meetings and from some coaching. The staff where I serve enjoyed some assessment and reflection with a leader development coach, and the process helped our small staff get to know each other better and celebrate our strengths.

Sharon Mack Temple
Affirming what Jennifer Burns Lewis said, in several of the congregations I served, I held weekly staff meeting with just the part-time church administrator and me. Respecting their time, we met for a short time. It was enough time to check in on a pastoral level, do some planning and drink a coffee or eat a muffin or something. That time established that we are partners in ministry and i had the chance to appreciate how what they did supported my work. If there are more staff, the meeting’s agenda and length could be adjusted accordingly.

I also give thanks that you are assessing your ministry and asking questions about how you are being faithful to God’s call to professional church leadership. I hope you will grow into the certainty that every minute you spend living out your call to ministry is your work to do.

Camille LeBron Powell
In my first call (15 years ago) my head of staff (older male) wrote all his sermons out by hand on yellow legal pads and handed them to an admin to type up. I thought that was absurd. When I asked him about it he told me he couldn’t compose and type at the same time like I do. It wasn’t worth his time to try to type it himself because he’s far too slow and there were better things he could be doing with his time that only he could be doing. He actually said to calculate his hourly pay and see if anyone would be happy spending $X on him typing his own sermons. 

Later my personnel committee challenged me to use my admin more to free me up for things that no one else could take off my plate (visits, studying, etc.). I liked doing some of the things like designing flyers and getting handouts ready for a class. That came from my need for things to be done my way and my time in college as a youth director with no support when I had to put together newsletters, print, fold, stuff envelopes, address, stamp, seal and send. But my personnel committee had a good point, they weren’t paying me to stuff envelopes, anyone could do that, they were paying me to be a pastor. Sometimes playing with a logo for a new sermon series is exactly the kind of work I need to do for my health and sometimes it’s not. And sometimes just getting out of the office to do my reading makes me feel more productive than doing the same reading in my office. Not sure why.

I hope you can affirm for yourself that even if you don’t look “busy”, you are doing important work. Be generous and gentle with yourself in what you consider important work—include the things that you need to do to be able to be the healthy pastor God wants you to be. My guess is that some of those important things look insignificant or like a waste of time to some on the outside. You know better. My guess is that you may be the only one judging your work that way. 

When it comes to supervising your admin—I recommend helping her set priorities. Mine is part time and could easily work full time, but if she does the work efficiently most of the time it should be able to be done in the time she has. The problem is when she gets caught up in something that can be a time suck, but doesn’t really deserve that kind of time. Perhaps the regular staff meetings or check-ins to touch base about what’s coming up would help with that. You certainly don’t need to micromanage, but you can make sure she knows what is most important for her.

* * * * *
Thank you, Matriarchs! Surely you have inspired us to be the best possible staff supervisors in our pastoral roles.

What stories and strategies have been helpful to you in staff development? Please share your best practices in the comments below.

Are you facing a new situation in your congregation, or is an old situation becoming more problematic? Send your scenario about that, or your particular ministry challenge, to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and let our Matriarchs help.


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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