January 2012
Real Basics for Vestries

Managing Staff: 7 Things To Consider

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

Churches are often full of secrets. Nothing sinister, just quirks you wouldn’t notice unless you spent a lot of time sitting at the receptionist’s desk or in the parish administrators’ office. Things like remembering to give the gate a thud to get it to shut on rainy days or that an old man comes by to ask for money every few days. Or, perhaps it is the carefully passed on advice from the previous administrator sharing how to get the choir director to choose the music in time to print the Sunday leaflet.

Vestries are usually very familiar with what goes on in the community, but may not be as familiar with the challenges parish administrators face every day as they work to keep the church running smoothly. I’ve been on the administrative staff of a couple of Episcopal churches, and have some recommendations related to how a vestry can support their parish administrator:

1) Share what’s going on in the church. While this sounds basic, just as in other aspects of our lives, we don’t always remember to share information with everyone who needs to know. To do his or her job well, the administrator should know about every event scheduled at the church, from the vestry meetings and choir rehearsals, to when the handyman is stopping by or flowers are going to be delivered. As a fellow church administrator said to me, “The parish administrator is a traffic cop to prevent potential collisions.”

Forgetting to tell the administrator about a meeting or delivery isn’t just frustrating to the administrator. We’ve all heard stories where a group is expecting to use a space only to find that another activity has been scheduled for the same space at the same time. Who wouldn’t be frustrated to find out at the last minute that someone is scheduled to clean the sanctuary at the same time as the choir rehearsal? These mix-ups are easily prevented by having a central point – often the parish administrator – for handling all scheduling.

2) Help the parish administrator feel connected to the spiritual side of the church. Often,the administrative staff does not attend the church where they work; to do so can confuse work and worship (for example, when parishioners want to discuss typos in the service bulletin during coffee hour). If this is the case in your faith community, it may be helpful to offer the administrator an orientation –and periodic updates – related to the vision of the church and how his or her role relates to that vision. Making an effort to introduce the administrator to church leaders who may not visit during business hours is another way to build connections between the administrative staff and members of the worshipping community.

3) Establish clear reporting relationships. In the course of his/her role, the parish administrator often has a variety of individuals making requests, and sometimes demands. Ultimately, the rector is the parish administrator’s boss. With requests coming from vestry, staff, the rector, and others in the worship community, too many people (or even two people) acting as the supervisor will make it difficult for the administrator to function. The rector and administrator should establish priorities and use them to guide choices and establish boundaries when requests and demands threaten to interfere with the expected workflow.

4) Build time for dealing with interruptions into the workday. The parish administrator is constantly being interrupted. Every day is filled with ringing phones, conversations with visitors, pleas for help from homeless men and women, and last minute requests. While these interruptions are part of the job and to be expected, they also have an effect on the administrator’s ability to get things done. If the vestry members are aware of this, they can take this into account when they make requests for reports to be copied or phone calls to be made, as well as understand why last minute requests can’t always be accommodated.

5) Support the parish administrator when they need to say ‘no.’ The most effective administrators work ona schedule: pay the bills on Monday, print the bulletins on Thursday, etc. Recognizing and understanding that in order to keep up with their schedule, the administrator sometimes has to say “no,” or, at least, “Can this wait?” can help keep the church office running smoothly. When making requests, the vestry should try to respect the administrator’s schedule, just as the administrator respects the vestry’s schedule. Of course, some things may end up being last minute, but whenever possible giving the administrator plenty of time to prepare for mailings, special bulletins, and other large tasks that come up throughout the year, keeps everyone happier.

6) Provide up-to-date equipment in the office. The quality of office equipment makes a big difference in how efficiently the office runs. A copier that is constantly jamming can make an otherwise easy task grueling, and a slow computer can make creating the service leaflet maddening. Updating equipment and software may not seem like a high priority, especially if budgets are tight, but it is worth the expense. Invest a little extra in software and equipment, and your administrator will love you, and will be much less tempted to throw his or her computer out the window.

7) Offer comprehensive job descriptions for all administrative positions. This means having a clear and realistic job description. If half of the job is “other tasks as assigned” it can quickly become unwieldy and difficult to prioritize. Another church administrator suggested to me an excellent exercise: occasionally comparing the original job description with what the administrator is actually doing. This way, everyone is aware of the scope and number of tasks the job actually entails. The administrator’s job may change over time, of course, but everyone should be aware and up front about the change. This also means communicating honestly and clearly when things are not going well for any reason. It’s tempting to always be nice, especially in a church, but avoiding difficult conversations usually just ends up allowing frustration and confusion to build up.

Your parish administrator may have things to add. Communication is at the heart of the job of parish administration, so give the parish administrator a chance to talk to you about the job and, in turn, tell him or her about the church and why you are a part of it. When the vestry communicates often and clearly with the parish administrator, he or she can keep everyone informed, help the church run smoothly, and do the important work of building the kingdom of God.

Jeremiah (Jeremy) Sierra has a degree in creative writing from The NewSchool, and seven years of administrative experience, much of it serving as parish administrator for Episcopal churches. He is also editor and cofounder of Episcorific and contributes to the Huffington Post.


This article is part of the January 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Real Basics for Vestries