You heard the calling. You received the commission. You found the location. Your team is now gathered and serving the community, and God is moving in amazing ways! But then, you receive another call. The church’s Human Resources director (HR) calls and informs you of paperwork and an employee manual to read.

“Lost are being reached, lives are being changed and you want me to spend my limited time on this?” Most of us believe God will take care of us but why do all this paperwork and regulations? 

God will take care of us … if you “turn your ear to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding” (Proverbs 2:2). 

There are five myths about HR in the church that have the potential to devastate your ministry. Remember, seek wisdom! Set your team up for success, avoid burn out, and lay a foundation for a healthy church. 

Myth #1—We are too small to worry about that stuff right now

I have heard from coaches to drink water regularly when exercising, even if you’re not thirsty. They state that by the time you’re feeling thirsty, you’re already getting dehydrated.

As a small organization, the things you are doing now build the foundation for your church for growth in years to come. You are setting precedence for everything. You are setting up structure for your programs and systems before you need them. Work to protect what you are building from liability, lawsuits, and a toxic culture.  

My executive pastor said, “It is much easier to turn a rowboat than a cruise liner.” This statement is true. As your organization gets bigger, it will become more difficult and time consuming to implement new processes and make changes. You’ll feel push back from staff and leaders and it will drain your time and energy. You don’t wait until a puppy is an 80-pound monster before you train it; don’t let ministry grow without the proper systems and structure in place.

According to Dr. Sam Chand, Change Strategist Consultant and author, the size and speed of an organization is controlled by its systems and structures:

More passion isn’t the answer, and bigger dreams aren’t always the solution. Every leader is asking two questions:  How can we grow? How can we grow faster? The only way organizations can grow bigger and move faster is by accelerating the excellence of their systems and structures.   Sam Chand, Bigger Faster Leadership.

If you don’t create the systems and structures early on, you won’t be able to keep your organization afloat to make the impact you have been called to make.

Myth #2—I have more important things to worry about

If you are not pro-active now, you will find yourself constantly reactive, having to put out unnecessary fires and stuck with issues that could hurt the health and growth of your church. If you don’t take care of the small things now, you will be dealing with much bigger things later.

A year ago, I helped perform an HR audit for a Christian ministry. The director had single-handedly turned the organization from being one that was bleeding money to one that was self-supporting. Unfortunately, part of the way he was able to do that was by being in control of everything. Even when things shifted and he hired more staff, he still would not let go of any responsibilities. However, the bigger problem was the toxic culture that was becoming viral among his staff. Because his plate was full of more important things, he didn’t have time to deal with the growing issues. The operations ministry that he worked so hard to build was about to be taken down by the unchecked attitudes and actions of his staff.

Once this director started focusing on staff and began implementing changes, he saw immediate and dramatic results. He went from having a staff riddled with gossip, complaining, and a punching the clock attitude to a staff who were passionate and united about the mission of the organization. Through encouragement and coaching, he executed some strategic decisions and transformed his staff and processes to avoid future issues. 

Myth #3—My leaders are passionate and love what they are doing; they won’t burn out

There’s the story about a boy who went to work with his lumberjack father. The boy observed that after each tree his father fell, his dad would sharpen his ax before starting on the next tree. After a few trees, the boy noticed that the other loggers did not do this and were further ahead in the number of trees they had cut down. The father explained that by keeping his ax sharp, he would ultimately cut down more trees with less effort than the other lumberjacks who did not take the time to re-sharpen their axes. By the end of the day, the boy’s father had far surpassed the number of trees cut down by the other loggers.

Because your leaders are passionate about what they are doing is exactly why they will burn out if there are not strong boundaries in place. It is easy to confuse doing for God with being with God. It’s hard to turn off emails, phone calls, texts, and even the mind when you are excited about everything that is happening. But it is a marathon and not a sprint. So, what can you do to help your staff?

  • Have two days off a week for your staff. Otherwise they will spend their only day off doing errands or cleaning.
  • Institute a generous vacation benefit and encourage them to take it. Start at 13-15 days. Don’t allow staff to check emails while on vacation.
  • Shut down between Christmas and New Year’s. With everyone off, there is less guilt.

Lead by example. Even Jesus withdrew from the crowds with His twelve, His three, and then by Himself.

Myth #4—We don’t want to operate like a business or corporation

Somehow in church circles, the terms corporate and business have become bad words. This is accompanied by the notion that if you structure things, it will become like a business and not a ministry. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Learn from corporations who have a fantastic culture and apply the same to your organization, sprinkling it with your own style.    

Some churches are hesitant to implement changes because they see everyone as family. They think they’ll never need to worry about staff lawsuits or issues. They all love each other, right? Sure, until they don’t. And when Christians get hurt or feel mistreated by other believers, they feel doubly betrayed. Then comes the badmouthing, the lawsuits, the church split. We are all human and everyone has their tipping point.

There must be some business in your ministry or you are not being a good steward of what God has entrusted to you. Despite the frustrations that come with employment and labor laws, those laws are there to protect the employee and the organization. You need to balance business with grace and truth.  

Myth #5—Most of the labor and compliance laws don’t apply to churches

False, false, false, and did I mention, false? Richard Hammar, CPA and church law expert wrote in his article “Pastor, Church & Law: Employment Law,”

Churches generally do not think of themselves as employers. Yet this is one of the key roles a church does play … However, in most cases the church is held to the same laws as secular employers.

One church paid their children’s ministry staff for only 15 hours a week, even though the staff worked 20+ hours to fulfill their job duties. The church just considered those extra hours as volunteer time. However, those volunteer hours were not optional; the employees could not complete their job without working those extra hours. Then, one of those staff members became bitter when it was discovered that a new staff member had a higher salary. That employee quit and sued the church for the overtime and extra hours that they had worked above their paid 15 hours a week—52 weeks for over 4 years, plus fines and penalties. After all the dust settled, the church was out a huge amount of money, wasted months of valuable time, and lost several key leaders due to the dispute.

By not following labor and compliance laws, churches are subject to audits, steep violation fees and open themselves up to lawsuits. Even if a church wins a lawsuit, they still lose time, money, and credibility.  

So … what now?

HR laws and staffing issues can be confusing and draining, but you don’t need to tackle it all at once. Instead, take baby steps. If you have seen the movie What About Bob?, you know the movie revolves around Bob (played by Bill Murray) taking baby steps to conquer his many fears.

This is how you should approach HR. Create an awesome staff culture—one baby step at a time.