5 Dangers of Leading Your Staff Like a Family

Each Thanksgiving and Christmas my extended family gets together.

We love being together, reconnecting, eating too much food, telling stories around the table and watching my Uncle Herbert frighten the younger kids by sticking his false teeth out at them. It is an interesting bunch!

Gatherings with aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws (and a few out-laws) has always been a highlight of life.

Another group of people I view with the same amount of love is our church staff. Over the past year or so I have been working to get our team prepared for a new season of growth. Having bumped up against a growth barrier for a few years, I had to look to some larger churches for help.

One of the qualities I discovered was challenging:

Large churches operate their staff like an organization while most smaller church staffs function like a family.

Don't misconstrue what I am saying, we should always treat people well and love them, but larger ministries understand there comes a point where "family" cannot be reflected in your structure. A leaders job is to position their team to be effective and then take care of their team. Often I see church leaders care for their team by structuring them in a way that blocks effectiveness. 

Here are some dangers in operating your church staff like a family.

The best ideas can't rise to the top.

In a family there's a natural hierarchy. No one talks about it because no on can explain it. Even in the healthiest of families there is typically a dominant voice. Others submit by default.

On a church staff I call this the "Big Brother Syndrome." When the family model is how staff is led the best ideas are often subject to the feelings of a specific person or group. The "big brother" is often whoever on the team has the longest tenure, strongest opinions or biggest talent. Many churches bottleneck because the freshest ideas are stopped short of being executed. 

Artificial harmony creeps in.

Ever been in situations where people get along just enough to keep moving along? Some families exist in that space. Having harmony on the exterior while tension exists just under the surface. Families love each other so much they do not want to jeopardize that love by potentially hurting someone with their honesty.

Church staff led like a family allows artificial harmony ooze in. Every single time. Why? A lack of honesty exists. Perhaps it exists due to fear of hurting someone, low emotional intelligence on the part of some team members or having never been in situations that were difficult. Artificial harmony beneath the surface will eventually lead to disunity at the surface. 

Staff effectiveness erodes.

Recently I learned that with every 500 attendees a church grows they surpass the leadership capacity of 2 staff members. That is a sobering number. Families never outgrow family members, a healthy staff sometimes will. Does that sting? It does for me, but it is still true.

The difficult reality is that a family style staff never reassigns anyone, never tells the truth about someone's leadership capacity and would rarely let someone go based on job performance. Organizations do this all the time. Instead of allowing allegiance to keep a person in a role they're not longer suited for, they love the cause enough to make a painful transition. Your church deserves the best, give them the best team.

Breakthrough decisions are not made.


Breakthrough decisions are hard decisions. Breakthrough conversations are hard conversations. A good litmus test for how impactful a decision will be is how difficult it is to make. Family organizations struggle to have the hard conversation or make the painful decision. If it threatens the family it is pushed aside. The cause falls victim to the family.

A good example of this is a truth I picked up from a much larger church. I was told that churches over 1,000 in attendance need to grow proficient at letting people go. That sounds odd for those on a family style staff, but it makes sense. Larger ministries have to deal with more staff, meaning more issues, more behavioral problems. To keep the team positioned for growth, the leaders have to have the guts to release people who are bad for the team. Great for the family does not always mean good for the team.

Growth stalls.

A staff led like a family will eventually stall the growth of the church. The church will grow to the capacity of your highest leadership. For all of the reasons listed and then some, attendance and spiritual growth reflect your leadership structure.

Church leaders are called to reach people. Our job is to position your team to do so with the most effectiveness. This does not promise to always be easy. Honestly, this transition out of a family mindset of staff is one of the most difficult things to do in ministry. 

Love your team, care for them, but not at the expense of the cause. 

Shelve your feelings for a minute. Ask yourself, "If I left today and someone who had no emotional investment came to this team, how would they structure it to be most effective?" Now pick your feelings back up and go love those people enough to be honest with them. They deserve it. The cause is worth it.