Straddling the Secular and the Sacred: Clergy Job Descriptions

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As a non-United Methodist, I often wonder whether refining certain employment policies wouldn’t benefit annual conferences or the national UMC.

Today, the Call & Response blog on Faith & Leadership includes a post by Roger Parrott titled “Employee Policies are For Cowards”.  His points are well taken: beware of codifying into policy — and thus universalizing – your responses to one or two personnel problems or problematic individuals.  Doing so may not solve the issues at play, and may actually cause others.

Flickr/bjmccray However, as a non-United Methodist, I often wonder whether refining certain employment policies wouldn’t benefit annual conferences or the national UMC.  I’m thinking specifically of published job descriptions that would outline at least the minimum expectations for those engaged in parish ministry and for the committees that supervise them.  Such documents could define the denomination’s expectations and protections for vacation time, work boundaries, continuing education, and conflict resolution, amplifying the Book of Discipline’s description.  I realize that I speak from a tradition that uses a call system, rather than appointment system, so job descriptions there are standard practice.

Without a written benchmark, differing expectations arise, which can then devolve into wishful thinking – as this humorous ‘ideal pastor’ job description that has circulated on the Internet for years aptly demonstrates:

Handsome pastor needed to preach 10 minutes each Sunday. You will be working daily from 8 a.m. until midnight. The perfect candidate will have a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he will spend most of this time with senior citizens. He will smile all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his church. He will condemn sin but never hurt anyone’s feelings. Attendance at all church meetings is required. The perfect candidate will make at least fifteen home visits per day and will always be in his office so as to be available should an emergency arise. Preference will be given to a young pastor with 15-20 years of experience. Some light janitorial duties required.

Laugh all you want, but adoption of the mutual accountability statements found in standard job descriptions could significantly enhance the work of ministry for pastors and committees alike.  By setting forth clear expectations at the onset, churches could move beyond petty grievances to create healthy, respectful working relationships that enable more fruitful and vibrant programs.

Since pastoral work clearly straddles the secular and the sacred, are secular conventions like job descriptions appropriate?  Pastors: have your views about this subject changed over time, as the demands on your ministry have become more intense or more time-pressured?  Please let us know what you think.

Yours in health,

Robin Swift, MPH
Health Programs Director
Clergy Health Initiative

Photo Credit: Flickr/bjmccray


I agree with not making ridiculous policy decisions as Roger points out. However, my experience with both secular and religious organizations raises practical not ideological concerns.

One big problem with Christian organizations is that their leaders are not always biblically centered nor are some of the employees or in the case of churches some denominational leaders, pastor, staff and members although we wish the situation was otherwise. Given the current state of unhealthy relationships within churches along with the abuse of clergy, I think policies need to be visited again for the sake of clergy and churches.

A group of people secular or religious without clear, well-defined policies lack healthy boundaries and leave themselves wide open to those intrusive people who take advantage of such situations.

I once served on a state board of directors. It was a policy board which had experienced frequent turnovers of executive directors. With a new president of the board, we began to look into what was really going on.

First, the policies written for the ED were totally unrealistic like those stated in the Book of Discipline of the UMC for pastors. The policies for the staff was ridiculous as well. Several of the responsibilities of the ED could realistically be spread among the staff. Second, we discovered a few older board members who were personally trying to micromanage the ED. Once they became known, the resigned from the board. By the time I left, we had better policies for the ED and the Staff with a very clear understanding that as the Board we needed to let the ED be the ED and let them manage their staff.

From what I have seen in being a pastor of churches for 20 years is the same sort of poorly written policies and individuals who try to micromanage the pastor. This is not healthy nor do I think having better policies which are more realistic for each role that someone might be in necessarily means such persons are cowards. No matter how biblically centered or not centered someone might be, good policies for individual roles are good for the whole group.

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