Church StaffCultureFeaturedHealth

Building a Healthy Staff Culture


“We don’t use people to get ministry done. We use ministry to get people done.” I’ll never forget hearing these two sentences at my first leadership conference. What an amazing call to leadership depth! How encouraging that it might be possible to develop the people doing the ministry, and not merely use their skills to build the ministry.

At the time, I was in my 20s and serving as a youth pastor at a new church plant. I had no budget to draw from and no buildings to meet in. We had 12 students—nine didn’t want to be there and three weren’t sure. I had a plan but needed a team. I somehow convinced (deceived) some parents and college students to serve as leaders in this fledgling ministry. We had nothing but each other! I poured into my leaders, and God began to grow the leaders along with the ministry.

Fast forward seven years. I was now being sent out of this church to plant another church across our state. I was moving from the third chair to the first chair in leadership speak. As my wife and one-year-old daughter parachuted into our new city, we began to meet people. This was in 2001 before good church planting training existed. Church planting in those days was like the opening scene to the movie Saving Private Ryan. It was brutal and bloody and 70 percent of church plants didn’t survive. ARC and other networks were just getting started, but few systems had proven structures to be replicated. We, like many others, were making it up as we went along. Nevertheless, we determined to charge hell with a water pistol, and Jesus honored his promise to build His church.

The church began to grow. In less than 10 years the church grew from one location to four, sent three church planting teams, and helped to birth two nonprofits. The dream was happening, the vision was alive, and the Spirit was on the move! I was being asked to speak nationally and internationally about all that God was doing in our great city. I wrote two books about church planting and was emerging as a thought leader in church planting world.

Be careful what you wish for. I loved that God was saving sinners and that our ministries were building the saints, but something was being lost in my leadership as our church began to grow.

My son Drew is 12 years old. He currently is 5’3” and very frustrated about it. His friends have grown, and his responsibilities have grown—he desperately wants his height to join the party. Growth does things to your body. Drew is starting to experience strange pains in his legs and back and the glory of acne. His feet are starting to smell like death incarnate. The question is not will Drew grow, but whether he will be able to thrive as he grows.

This is our question as well, pastors. Your church will grow. Jesus promised it, He called you, and He will be faithful. The real question is whether we will develop our staff and leaders as our churches grow. Will we create an environment where people become all that they can as they sacrifice for all that the church should be?

Leadership is about managing tensions. At that same leadership conference I heard another phrase that helped me: “There are problems to be solved and tensions to be managed.” Wise leaders, the speaker said, know the difference between a problem and a tension.

Certainly, there are leadership problems. Securing a permanent facility is a problem to be solved, as is hiring a worship leader or counseling a couple whose marriage is on the rocks.

But there also are tensions in ministry that must be managed. What comes to your mind when you hear the word tension? Maybe you go to the physical and imagine pulling a tan rubber band with fingers from opposite hands. Perhaps you go to the emotional and think about the kind of unrest and imbalance you feel in your soul regarding a hard decision. Tension is the result of something being pulled from two opposing directions. You can’t solve tension; you only can manage it.

I lost my way when failing to manage leadership tensions. The result was an unhealthy soul and an unhealthy staff. Here are some tensions pastors must manage if they aim to not use leaders but develop them.

Solitude versus community. Our Messiah is our model for ministry. Jesus not only showed the mission, but demonstrated how to lead it. He managed the tension of being with God the Father and with his leaders. He would rise early to spend time with God and God alone. Conversely, Jesus rarely completed a ministry task by himself, choosing to partner with the disciples to extend the Kingdom of Heaven. A leader can spend too much time alone, resulting in a lack of leadership engagement and empowerment. A leader can spend too much time with people, producing a dry soul that will not inspire for the long haul.

Fly in versus live with. One of the beautiful things about Christian leadership is the plethora of conferences, cohorts, and service opportunities available with other churches and ministries. A leader can travel every single week of the year to gain knowledge that can help her grow her leadership and church.

As I began to train pastors and leaders from other churches, I found training everyone else’s leaders much easier than training my own. It was fun to be the guru with new wisdom. It was also beneficial for our church because I returned excited with new ideas to develop our own staff. Over time, however, I realized that our leaders felt neglected because I was gone being coached and coaching others outside of our church. I was becoming a consultant who visited with our staff instead of a coach who was living with them.

Wise pastors know that it is easy to become too focused on their church and not learn from others. They also know it is easy to “hide” from the hard work of developing their own leaders by traveling constantly.

Teach versus train. Senior pastors talk for a living. We love to make complex truths accessible to real people. We love to give our staff principles to take their leadership to the next level. Teaching is necessary! It is imperative for senior leaders to teach the Bible in ways that connect, inspire, and transform.

We love to teach. For many of us, teaching is easy. It is the icing on the cake of ministry. But training is hard. This is one of the reasons conferences are so popular—we can outsource training to world-class leaders. What a gift! However, just as we don’t tell the church to seek their primary spiritual nutrition from podcast pastors, we should not expect our staff to get their primary leadership training from conferences. We must create and catalyze an environment of development.

Vision versus execution. There is a war that exists in organizations in general and churches in particular. This war is about what could be, versus what is. It is a battle between a preferred future and an insecure present. It is the tension between possibility and reality. How can executive leadership live in both the world of ideas and the world of implementation? The answer is a diverse team that respects and submits to one another. The visionary senior pastor must dream big and envision boldly. The other executive leaders must wrestle the hopes, dreams, and ideas into a strategy that is actionable. Ideas must be deliverable. Vision and execution can thrive in the hearts of humble leaders who both listen to each other and are willing to prefer one another.

One of the best things for a human being to do is put himself in the shoes of another—to imagine his middle-class self as poor or his healthy body as broken fuels gratitude. The same is true for our leaders. Remember what it was like to work on a church staff rather than lead a church or a ministry? Remember how you longed to be taught, trained, and valued? For many of us, the shoe is on the other foot now. We are leading people. We are the ones being looked to for guidance. Many people would give anything to spend time with us. And we have the opportunity to not use these people to get ministry done, but to use ministry to help them grow.

Darrin Patrick is a teaching pastor at Seacoast Church in Charleston, SC. He and ARC President, Greg Surratt, Founding Pastor at Seacoast Church, host The Pastors Collective podcast. They talk to pastors across the country about the real and difficult work of planting, pastoring, and leading churches. 

You’ll hear unflinching stories about what makes pastoring so joyful and so hard. Between Greg’s years planting Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Darrin’s years planting The Journey in St. Louis, Missouri, and their years working with other planters through ARC, they bring a tremendous amount of personal wisdom and experience to these conversations. Success and failure are a key part of every ministry, and so is the grace that accompanies them. On The Pastors Collective, you’ll hear about all of it.