Best Boundary Practices for Faith Formation Church Staff Members

Best Boundary Practices for Faith Formation Church Staff Members

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So many congregations are finding the need to hire staff members from within their congregation’s membership. Perhaps the most common are faith formation and youth ministry leaders, as there are not many educational institutions that provide graduates, and thus candidates, for these positions. While there are advantages, such as already having established relationships with the members of the congregation, there also is great potential for difficulties and misunderstandings. However, these disadvantages can be prevented with some thoughtful and intentional conversation and planning.

First, these staff persons must assess the shift in responsibility (or power) between themselves and the pastor, as well as with each of the congregation’s members. If the pastor becomes the supervisor of this new staff person, they can no longer effectively serve as this person’s pastor. It wise at this point for the staff person to find someone else outside of the congregation to serve as their pastor. It remains a good practice to not put either party in a place where the responsibilities of one role conflict with those of the other.

Similarly, the lay staff person needs to remember that even when participating in non-church events that include church members, they will still be seen as employees of the church and will need to conduct themselves appropriately. Unfortunately, there have been many instances where a lay staff person has been fired due to what might have been considered common conduct or conversation in a secular social situation, yet when viewed through the lens of a staff person’s behavior, was deemed inappropriate. A good question to ask oneself is, “Would I be comfortable, in my staff role, saying this to, or doing this activity with each and every member of my congregation?” If the answer is no, which in most cases it is, then it would not be wise to engage in it.

One way to ensure that all goes well is to put into writing all of the expectations and responsibilities of the new staff person, with considerations for lines of supervision and communication. This document should answer such questions as:
  • To whom does the staff person report? The pastor? The Faith Formation Board/Committee? Another Board/Committee?
  • To whom does the staff person take personnel issues? How will this group facilitate communication between the staff person, the pastor, and the congregation?
  • What are the specific roles and responsibilities of the Faith Formation Board/Committee in relation to the faith formation staff person?
  • What is the plan for resignation or dismissal? What are the expectations of the staff person during the time between the resignation/dismissal and the final date of employment? What are the expectations after the final date of employment?
  • If the staff person creates curriculum materials for the congregation, who owns them — the staff person or the congregation?
  • and other questions specific to the congregation and staff configuration.
It is critical that questions such as these be addressed at the outset of this staff person's ministry. The Church Educator's Code, from the United Church of Christ, is a good document to become familiar with as employment expectations are created and then lived out.

When the staff person leaves their position at a church where they are a member, it is often difficult for them to imagine no longer having that congregation as a part of their lives. However, the best practice is for the former staff person to remove themselves completely from the life of the congregation for at least a year. This allows both the congregation, and the new staff replacement, to live into the new reality without being held back by what was and can no longer be. If the former staff person desires to continue being an active member after a year has passed, it is best that they choose a committee or ministry other than faith formation to engage in.

There are so many issues to be addressed when it comes to appropriate boundaries for lay staff persons, for instance those relating to ministry with children and youth. The Faith Formation Leadership Program of the Southern New England Conference offers a “Boundary Awareness for Faith Formation and Youth Ministry Leaders” class with two identical sessions to choose from, which will be held twice in 2022:
January 8th via Zoom
or
April 2nd at Hadwen Park Congregational Church.
For more information and where to register, click here.
Other helpful resources are provided by the Association of United Church Educators on their Professional Support webpage.

Working on a church staff requires careful attention to multiple roles and the varieties of relationships that are often undertaken by these staff persons. With careful, constant, and consistent attention and communication, each situation can be managed with successful outcomes.

Author

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Debbie Gline Allen

Debbie Gline Allen serves as a Minister of Faith Formation on the Conference’s Faith Formation Ministry Team. She also serves as the administrator of the SNEUCC Faith Formation Leadership Program.  Her passion for ministry is with children and family...

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