“How much paid staff does our congregation really need?” This question comes up repeatedly when I work with the leaders of congregations of every size. Each congregation’s needs are a little different, and the available resources vary as quickly as changes in the economy, but there are benchmarks that congregations can aim to achieve.
In the past, churches relied on a cadre of dedicated volunteers to meet their staffing needs. But congregations today are finding it difficult to recruit, train and manage the number of volunteers they need to do all that needs to be done. I often hear people wax nostalgically about the good old days when there was a volunteer for every job and a job for every volunteer. The simple fact is that lifestyle changes have reduced the time available for volunteering. And Unitarian Universalists have been affected by these changes more than most!
As congregations deal with a shrinking volunteer pool, they also face increased expectations for service by both members and the larger community. Individual positions may grow so large that it is no longer reasonable to ask a volunteer to fill them, nor may it be practical or possible to break a position up into “volunteer-sized” pieces. Even when church programs do rely heavily on volunteer staffing, such as in the case of religious education, the task of coordinating and training calls for a paid professional. There is a greater need for specialization, along with the training and skills that specialization demands. Each of these factors, along with others, point to the need for increased staffing levels in most congregations.
In his book Staff Your Church for Growth, Gary McIntosh observes that churches follow one of three policies for staffing, whether or not they are even aware of it. The most common strategy among churches is to staff for decline. The next most likely approach taken by churches is to staff for maintenance. It is comparatively few churches that intentionally staff for growth.
Encouraging congregations to be intentional about their staffing strategies, McIntosh offers a simple staffing formula. If a congregation is staffing for maintenance—that is, looking after the people who are already there—it needs the equivalent of one full-time program professional for every 150 active participants (i.e., average attendance, including adults and children), assisted by one full-time support person for the first program professional and one half-time support staff position for each additional professional. (This staff complement does not include custodial staff, since the caretaking needs are largely determined by the size of the facility rather than the size of the congregation.) If a church wishes to staff for growth, the basic formula remains the same but the ratio shifts to one professional for every 100 active participants.
Interestingly enough, churches that are well staffed usually find that their volunteer pool increases! We can speculate that this is because the quality of the volunteer experience improves when there is adequate staff to coordinate and support the work of volunteers.