Don’t Lose Your Best People

Why big churches have higher staff turnover

When I served as a pastor, I would read the annual megachurch issue of Outreach magazine with great anticipation. The big church can make a big difference. And fast-growing churches are certainly getting something right. But if I’m really honest, I also read it with a little envy. “Life sure must be good once you’re in a big church.” “High growth sure must be fun.”

Then I served as senior pastor at a megachurch and learned that the grass isn’t always greener. Now, our team is honored to serve the majority of very large churches in the U.S., and in over a decade of helping them build their staffs, I’ve noticed one particular dynamic that is worse in big churches than it is in normal-size churches: turnovers in staff.

According to a recent study by Leadership Network, larger churches have problems retaining their employees. While reasons for turnover vary—and every church staff is unique—we’ve identified six leading reasons why large churches tend to have a high staff turnover rate, and offer here some potential solutions.

1. Not Enough Variety

The larger the church, the more specific the job descriptions are and the less variety there is in staff roles. But study after study shows that monotony quickly leads to boredom, staff disengagement and, ultimately, turnover.

I believe this is even truer among pastors. After interviewing thousands of pastors over the years, I believe people go into ministry in part because of the diversity and complexity of people and the struggles they face. Certainly, people answer the call to ministry to help the church move forward, but if you look at pastors’ personalities, you will also see a common thread: a love for variety.

Many executive and senior pastors mistake this boredom for a lack of commitment or an unwillingness to make a sacrifice for the call. Sometimes that may be true, but many times it’s simply a mismatch between a pigeonholed job description and a person who needs more diversity.

Smaller churches rarely lose people over this reason because a big part of the job description is “other duties as necessary.” If you are in a large church that still remembers the days of being a church plant, you likely recall the chaos of high growth that also led to a highly energized staff. Once a church begins to settle into a large church lifestyle, smart senior staff will watch for boredom in their employees.

Solution: Rotate tasks among staff and shift leaders from department to department. Ed Young, lead pastor of Fellowship Church in Dallas, has been known to make genius shifts in his leadership team from time to time. For example, he placed his executive pastor in the student pastor role for a season, and then moved him back to executive pastor.

Strategically rotating roles and responsibilities on a regular basis is a great way to ensure that everyone is consistently engaged and challenged. And if you have done a good job of hiring leaders of leaders (and not just specialists), you’ll see that they are interchangeable between many departments. Not only will you retain your staff longer, you’ll energize ministries by bringing in fresh eyes.

2. Creativity Takes a Back Seat

Some of our most innovative clients are very large churches. I’m encouraged about the state of the church because of how many folks I’ve met who have that pioneering spirit. And those churches have really low staff turnover because staffers can use their creativity. But far too many larger churches I see have let creativity quietly slip away. When that happens, great staff don’t usually stick around—and, to make matters worse, mediocre staff settle in. Why is this?

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Necessity is the mother of invention, especially in church plants. If you’ve ever met a good church planter, you have met someone who is better with duct tape than MacGyver. But as a church grows, it often loses its innovative edge. The larger the church, the lower the drive to risk what has been gained, and thus the lower the creativity. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s often true. Once a church slows in growth and reaches a certain size, things can quickly begin to calcify. “How can we do this better?” is replaced by “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” This attitude stifles new ideas and creates an environment where your staff functions more like cogs in a machine rather than a team of collaborators. Once that happens, the best staff members leave.

Solution: Innovation is a proven key to staff retention. Make creative thinking and collaboration part of every team member’s job description. The 3M Company allocates 15% of everyone’s job description toward coming up with new ideas. Not only will something like this provide a wealth of new ideas that could really make an impact on your church (3M came up with the Post-it Notes because of this), but it also lets every person know that their ideas matter.

If you can flatten the creativity process to include everybody on the team, you’ll see turnover drop among your highest-capacity people. Also, if you demand creativity from everyone, you’ll likely see a healthy and natural pruning of any staff members who aren’t pulling their weight.

3. Lack of Engagement

Unfortunately, the larger the church, the lower the employee engagement. One of the reasons I’ve seen size dilute engagement is that with increased size, communication to individual employees decreases. People feel overlooked and become disengaged when they’re one of many.

Solution: Pastors with good staff retention are ones who incessantly remind their team of the “why behind the what.” How often are you preaching your vision to your staff? Increase that amount, and you’ll see an uptick in engagement. Increase regular check-ins and staff reviews to at least double the normal frequency. Give people ample opportunity to be heard and engaged. Participate in a study like TheCultureTool.com to allow a vehicle for feedback and measurement for how your church’s culture is doing.

4. No Room to Grow

In larger churches, the need for organization and structure often leads to tightly drawn boxes for jobs. Another side effect of that reality besides specialized roles is that larger churches often lack a people development plan. Team members hit a ceiling very quickly for how high they can rise in the organization. If new ideas, passions and strategies aren’t heard and encouraged by the large church, team members will leave. If employees feel that they have nowhere else to progress or grow, they will begin looking for new opportunities.

Solution: Develop an intentional career development path and show team members where they are headed on that path, both upward on the organizational chart and outward in new skill sets. A clear path of career progression may be the single biggest key to employee retention. As passions and callings change in employees, find ways to let people reach their full potential. One immediate step toward this goal is to set more regular meetings between team members and their direct reports. Focus those meetings on where the team member is in their development and how their passions are changing. Moving away from solely having annual reviews and more toward having regular, relational meetings that focus on employee development and growth will increase staff retention.

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5. Culture Leaks

Over the last few years, our company has won several Best Company Culture awards from Entrepreneur, Forbes and Houston Business Journal. Out of curiosity, I reviewed the scores of the nominees in the large business categories, and one common thread emerged: The larger the organization was, the lower their company culture scores were. Scores were based on cultural cohesion and employee engagement. Likewise, the larger a church is, the harder it is to keep a great staff culture.

People go into ministry to answer a call, but they stay at a church because of its culture. When I interview people who are leaving a large church, too often I hear that the church culture just isn’t what it used to be. The more I study this subject, the more convinced I am that culture is the major attractor, motivator and retainer of great staff members, especially millennials. And because millennials are now the largest percentage of the U.S. workforce, the importance of culture has never been greater. Smart churches are paying attention to this, intentionally improving their culture and increasing their staff retention rates.

Solution: If you haven’t solidified core values that are particular to your staff (and not just your church’s core values), do it and write them down. Emphasize your staff values and bake them into every meeting. Find ways to tangibly live out the values that make up your culture, and recognize team members when they do the same. Preserving culture means preserving unity, identity and clarity of vision. The stability in those three areas will create an environment that people will want to be part of for the long haul.

6. Low Pay

Most of the fastest-growing churches in the country have a lot of staff who were attending the church, caught a vision and took a pay cut to come on staff. But as the church grows, it hits new levels of size often without adjusting compensation. And eventually, churches must hire from outside the church.

We have done a lot of searches for churches in this scenario and the outcome is always the same: Churches don’t realize they were underpaying. It’s a natural mistake, but it can be costly when it leads to turnover.

Solution: Do a compensation study. Dave Travis, former CEO of Leadership Network, tells large churches that they ought to do a compensation study every two years. It’s not expensive, and if it increases staff retention, it pays for itself.

A big church can make a big difference in a city, but high staff turnover can handicap it. Large churches have an uphill climb to fix this problem, but if they implement the right solutions they have the chance to reverse the trend and reach their maximum potential and kingdom reach.

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