Remember Middle Management

Your pastor supports equipping volunteers to serve. You have a designated person and team that helps people serve. You’ve got a great start. But for real change, don’t forget the middle — the “middle management.”

In From the Top Down, author Susan Ellis is speaking of middle managers when she writes, “These key people convey overt and subtle messages about expectations and can become an obstacle to effective volunteer involvement . . . . In the worst cases, this can amount to sabotage.”

Who are the middle managers in the church? Both staff and volunteers, they include the Director of Christian Education and the music director, the office secretary and business manager, heads of boards and teams, the women’s ministry leader and youth softball coach, and the coordinators of the ushers, the Sunday school and the hospitality team. And so on.

These middle managers either intentionally help, or unintentionally hinder, the many volunteers they serve with and direct. They will make or break your equipping efforts.

How can you involve, train and support these key leaders? What can you do to combat apathy or resistance?

What to Do

  • Ask them how they feel about working with volunteers, and why. Ask about their previous experiences. Listen well. Get into their world.
  • The pastor and governing board must firmly support equipping, make their support known and stress that it is a long term emphasis.
  • Select one or two resources (suggestion: Me to We by Alan Nelson) for middle management to read. Plan robust discussions (more than one) where the implications can be wrestled with.
  • Invest in training; regular and repeated training. Changing habits takes time. (Suggestion for staff training: “Training Busy Staff to Succeed with Volunteers” by Betty Stallings)
  • Be realistic about the work load of middle managers, staff and volunteer alike. Equipping people takes time. What can they stop doing in order to begin equipping people? Can someone help ease the burden?
  • Start with baby steps
  • Celebrate every ‘win’
  • Continue taking concrete steps toward more of an equipping system and culture
  • Include the responsibility of equipping volunteers in the job description of every middle manager
  • Include equipping volunteers in staff performance evaluations and in regular ‘mutual feedback’ sessions with volunteers
  • Give people support and encouragement as they try new things; continue to celebrate every step forward.
  • If someone is not willing to work at changing their attitude and their practices, they will eventually need to find another job or volunteer position. Their work is preventing many in the congregation from the volunteer work God has gifted them to do.

Most of all, use God’s word. Use it to “admonish the idle, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thess. 5:14). Hold up its picture of the church as the body of Christ, in which each part is doing its God-designed task and “the members have the same care for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25). Remind middle managers (and each and every one of us!) that we love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39) not only by the tasks we do for them, but by the way we equip, encourage and support our brothers and sisters serving alongside us.

Note: Ellis’ book From the Top Down examines the role of the chief executive in the success of volunteerism in an organization. She is not specifically addressing churches, but one pastor told me “I was amazed at how much of what it said is true in the church, too” and others have echoed him.

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