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Downsizing or right-sizing?

Downsizing or right-sizing: Tough questions in a tough economy

Staff have idealistic expectations when the clergy are perceived as parents and congregants as siblings within “the family.”

By James Osterhaus

John Crosby, senior pastor, was looking at a possible $200,000 to $300,000 shortfall last year. Christ Presbyterian (CPC) in Edina, MN is a church of 3,000 people and a $5.1 million budget with 65 FTE staff positions that had just spun off a young adult congregation of 1,500 to set up their own church.

Toward the end of 2008, with the economic downturn, shifting staffing patterns, and the start a new congregation, CPC leadership knew that some hard decisions would have to be made. Some of these decisions would be driven by ministry philosophy shifts. Others would be driven by the hard realities of personnel, whose skill sets no longer fit with the retooled positions.

When the smoke cleared at CPC, three full time and five part-time people had been let go. After two contentious town hall meetings, John realized that this was a congregational storm that would take time to weather, with people second-guessing decisions. Paradoxically, this storm has unfolded just when ministry numbers and general response to ministry has trended upward.

Downsizing church staff introduces to leadership challenges in at least two areas, the first of which is organizational models in the church. Organizational models feeds right into the question of alignment, often confused by the revolving organizational models.

Organizational models of the church

The Family/Business/Community Conundrum. What generally makes church life and functioning so very confusing is the fact that, like no other organization in society, church encompasses the people’s expectations of family, business and community.  Each of these elements must be held in tension, and each must be understood clearly, or else confusion will ensue. Because churches are in fact families, and those who work on staff are often church members, the emotional impact of being downsized has repercussions of, “My family just threw me out” and the congregation chorusing, “You can’t let go of Suzie, she’s family!”

As a family, the clergy are perceived as parents and congregants as siblings. Church members feel as though they are coming home, and therefore have particular idealistic expectations as to what they will find, and how they will be treated. When paid staff members are also church (i.e. “family”) members, the expectations rise beyond the average business employee.

As a business: Churches, especially those with multiple staffs, have organizational  considerations that require the principles of business. People are hired to do particular types of work according to their individual skill sets, performance standards are established and maintained, salaries are set, and work is accomplished and evaluated. When work falls below par, accountability kicks in and people may be fired for poor performance. When there is a budget shortfall, considerations as to staffing needs are prime considerations.

As a community: Churches are also spiritual communities. Members manifest certain gifts, bear the burdens of one another, and generally become intentionally involved in one another’s lives to the betterment of the individual and the building up of the community (a.k.a., body life). Unlike the above two models, community members have no assumed hierarchy (“neither male nor female, slave nor free”). There is mutual accountability, with no one being “more privileged” than another.

Unfortunately, as often happens, these three separate functions become confused. When business considerations are handled with family patterns, problems arise.  Likewise, if community and family aspects are treated as business it becomes institutionalized. These three models must always be appreciated and negotiated.

A question of alignment
Alignment has to do with configuring all the resources of the church (staff, programs, buildings, budget) so that the mission of the church is carried out. In recent years, churches have turned to some form of strategic planning in order to rationally align.

Strategic planning helps churches understand the current state of the church, helps determine what the church is called to be, and provides tangible and immediate action steps for the next part of the journey.  It provides focus, structure and alignment. Strategic planning helps determine the realities of the church, shape or sharpen core values, mission, and strategy, and point to next steps to move the church from being good to being great.

When church leaders are hit with budget shortfalls, more often than not they begin the process backwards, asking, “How many salaries do we need to cut in order to make up the $200,000?”  Leadership does need to wrestle with hard questions when downsizing looms. But the questions must be asked in the proper sequence so that the downsizing can have a chance of becoming ‘right-sizing.’

Here are questions that I find important:
1. What is the trajectory of the church plan? This is where strategic planning or vision discussions are critical. It is these discussions that lay down the “roadmap” of where the church is going, and how it plans to get there. Without this roadmap, churches usually spin around in circles.

2. Is the church aligned with the desired future? Now it is time to look at the staff patterns. But this should be done in the context of evaluating all church resources (programming, facilities, etc.). Churches so often are misaligned, hanging onto programs and people long after these have served any useful purpose in furthering the church toward its desired future. This actually leads us back to the church as business, family and faith community.

3. Who is responsible for the downsizing? Ministers tend to assume that the entire burden rests with them. And in some cases this is true. But polity in many denominations dictates that much if not most of this responsibility rests with the board, or a personnel subcommittee of the board. Certainly, the minister may play a critical role in positioning the board’s conversation about downsizing.

Probably the biggest danger that I see when it comes to staffing issues of any kind, and certainly downsizing, is the focus on personalities rather than positions.

So what do we do about this?
Leadership must take into consideration what “hat” they are wearing as they prepare to act (e.g., Am I the parent of a family? The CEO of a business? A sitster in Christ?) And it must always be made clear to staff and congregants how these differing “hats” will confuse us if we aren’t clear in going forward. Then, the following considerations are important:

As a business:
•    In considering downsizing, care must be taken as to who is let go, what programs will be affected, and how the overall trajectory of the church’s mission will be affected.
•    The more time that is given the congregation to understand the need for downsizing, less surprised they feel. This should include town meetings where people can air their questions and frustrations.
•    Care must be taken to cut deeply enough the first time so that a second cut is not necessary. In an attempt to lessen anxiety, church leadership often does the minimum cut, hoping the problem will evaporate, only to have to return and cut more later.

As a family:
•    Those that are left behind in the organization face their own challenges. Layoff refugees get to keep their jobs, only to face rising workloads, sinking morale, ongoing anxiety — and the uncomfortable feeling that they ought to be grateful for it all. If an employee is fired for cause, another worker can rationalize that he or she deserved it. But when a layoff of an equally qualified peer occurs, it sends the person left behind reeling.

As a faith community:
•    Those who lead our churches often do not realize the profound effects downsizing can have on the organization as a faith community. Trust is the critical foundational element to the healthy functioning of a faith community. Downsizing often destroys that sense of trust. This is particularly prevalent when the layoffs were unsuspected and seemed to come “out of the blue.” To combat cynicism and maintain trust, lines of communication between leadership and staff and congregation must be robust throughout the process.

Fortunately for John Crosby and CPC, the church has a clear sense of who they are and where they are going. This, coupled with open communication with the congregation as the downsizing unfolded, minimized the negative impact experienced by the church.

Dr. James Osterhaus is a senior partner with TAG Consulting, Fairfax, VA, specializing in leadership coaching. [www.transformingchurch.net]

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