Ministry Nuts and Bolts: What does the pastor need to know about employment and HR?

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

A pastor is first of all likely to be an employee if they are paid by the church. Traditionally, this was not always considered the case, rather they were defined as office holders and considered to work directly for God.  However, many will have an explicit employment contract now and the courts, tribunals and Inland Revenue tend to infer that a employment contract exists even if it isn’t explicitly called such.

However, a pastor may also have teams of employees reporting to them, especially in larger churches where children’s workers, assistant pastors, administrative staff etc are employed.  Even in smaller churches, you may from time to time have an additional member of staff such as a trainee with you and often there are volunteers who whilst unpaid give significant time to working for the church and need direction and support.

It’s important to see this as a good thing. I’ve sometimes heard Christians grumble about employment law seeing it as a bureaucratic inconvenience -something imposed by the State that interferes with how the church functions. Other comments include “but we are really a big family and we don’t need all of this legal stuff where love is present.”

However, legal frameworks including contracts and statutory regulations should not be seen as in opposition to loving relationship. Rather, they are there to help minimise conflict and help you focus on the relational aspect of life.  Think of how there are rules and laws determining other aspects of relationships from marriage through to death and inheritance.

Furthermore, if employment law is primarily there to protect employees then why  would we not want those who work for our churches to benefit from those protections. Indeed, our aim should be to be better than the world, not worse. 

So, here are some things that you might want to be aware of and think about:

  • Are there clear reporting structures. Do you know who you as a pastor report to and who other staff report to?  I found it helpful for employment purposes to report in to two of our trustees, this kept this separate from elders’ discussions.  Who reports to you.  Don’t assume that other staff have to be line managed by you as lead pastor, there are particular gifts involved in management and it takes up precious time you may not have. That’s why some larger churches have Executive Pastors or Operations Managers to look after matters such as HR. This may not be possible in a small church but there may be ways of taking the line management pressure off of a pastor so they can devote themselves to the Word and Prayer.
  • Do you have processes in place for recruitment?  These should include clear decision-making gates for when to add staff to the team and the type of people to look for.  You will also want to make sure that recruitment is fair, transparent and safe. I’ll say a little bit more about this below.
  • Are you clear about the nature of reporting and tasking?  What level of supervision will employees need? For some, you’ll need to set out detailed and specific tasks but for quite a few, management will be light touched, as with you they’ll be responsible for planning their own week and determining priorities in line with the vision and mission of the church.
  • Do you have plans and processes in place for when things go wrong? What if there is a disciplinary or grievance issue, what if there is sickness? What if you have to make someone redundant or sadly even dismiss someone?

Some thoughts about recruitment

A lot of potential problems downstream are best prevented by getting things right from the start. However, churches often struggle at the recruitment stage because we don’t tend to do this kind of thing very often.  I’ve experienced recruitment from a number of angles both recruiter and recruited in secular and church work and I think it’s fair to say that I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly including through many of my own errors.

Gone are the days when a pastor was appointed based on a couple of visits to preach followed by a church vote. There are often lengthy processes with application forms and interview days. However, just because you have processes and forms does not mean that the recruitment is anymore effective. There is something to be said for finding ways to get to know someone relationally over a period of time which is how the church network we are now part of tries to function. 

At the same time, knowing someone relationally through your church or network and having the personal commendations of fellow pastors doesn’t meant that there isn’t a place for formal processes such as completing a CV, answering questions via an application form and sitting down to an official interview.  Done well, these can help you and the candidate to discern well.  Take time though to think about what you will ask and how to make sure that you get honest and useful answers.

These days, we increasingly talk about “safer recruitment.” That’s a reminder that our safe guarding responsibilities for children and adults at risk kick in.  As a minimum, you should require a DBS check for potential employees and volunteers. 

I would also encourage you to go and get references, even if you think you know the person well, even if they are a member of your church. They should have a good reputation out in the world, so one reference should be from someone outside of the church, their previous employer as a minimum but they may also be able to add references from friends and neighbours.

Pay attention to your gut and that of church members, don’t just brush negatives from the past under the carpet.  If there are concerns, raise them.  These may not prevent employment but they should be addressed properly.

When there are problems

As I mentioned above, there will be difficulties along the way. Have you planned for them.   I think the best tip here is not to attempt to do everything by yourselves as a church. Get outside support and help where needed.

For example, if you have someone off sick, or if there are ongoing medical issues then you are likely at some point to request and/or receive medical reports from the employee’s doctor. Now, when I was managing a team in secular employment, although those reports came in, I never read them personally. That meant I could focus on team building without any awkwardness. It protected the privacy of the employee. Instead, we had an occupational health team who were able to make detailed assessments. So, all I would want to know was “Is the person fit for work and do we need to make any reasonable adjustments.”

I would stick to those two questions in church employment too. If the employee seeks to talk to you about their medical circumstances pastorally, that’s a different matter. As a church, you won’t have an occupational health team. However, you can ask that a doctor redacts down a specialist report so they stick to the two questions. You may also be able to look to denomination or network support or an outside service provider such as Stewardship for this.


We want to be good employers and employees as this is an important part of our witness so that we honour and glorify God.

Outside Training and Support may be helpful and available from organisations such as Stewardship.

Further reading might include

First Break All The Rules – Coffman and Buckingham

Good to Great – Jim Collins

%d bloggers like this: