You’ve started a new job at a church as a Christian education director, children’s minister, minister to families, youth minister, or similar position. You’re excited, and during the first several months, everyone is so nice.

Then after a few months, there are unpleasant surprises. You are expected to do many more things than were listed on the rather vague job description, and this is taking up many more hours than you were told to work (and you are not paid for this extra time). Everyone seems to think he or she is your boss—and they don’t all agree on their demands. The Staff-Parish Relations Committee reviews your performance and cites needs that were never expressed as essential when you were hired.

Now you are stressed out and rarely have time to do the ministry you really enjoy, the ministry you were told would be your primary responsibility.

This story is not unusual. Unfortunately, such problems are difficult to resolve if they were not anticipated at the start of employment.

To clarify your role, the church’s expectations, lines of accountability, evaluation standards, compensation and benefits, hours, office space, and more, you will want to have an employment covenant with the church. (If you are appointed clergy, you may call this an appointment covenant.)

Clarifying expectations benefits both the staff person and the hiring church.

The purpose of an employment covenant is to state explicitly the staff person’s responsibilities and couch them in the church’s specific mission goals; to describe how the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) or equivalent will support the staff person in accomplishing the mutually agreed-upon ministry goals; and to spell out reflection, feedback, benefits, and termination procedures.

With a mutually agreed-upon covenant, it is more likely that performance concerns and successes can be addressed early through a transparent process. It also will decrease the amount of misunderstandings about responsibilities, process, and roles.

By reducing anxiety, it also enhances the likelihood of successful ministry.

A covenant is both biblical and Wesleyan. “A covenant is a mutually created commitment to ministry,” says Gwen Purushotham in Watching Over One Another in Love (General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2010). “It is grounded in our relationship with God, who created us and called us to ministry. .  .  . It says, ‘Here is what we will endeavor to do together and how we will hold one another accountable.’ It is a commitment to life and growth.”

The covenant should be prepared with the collaboration of the staff person, the SPRC or equivalent church body, and the lead pastor. Before meeting, each of these parties should reflect upon the concerns listed below.

The covenant should include (but not be limited) to the following:

  • The church’s mission statement and ministry goals. If the church does not have these and they are not expressed specifically and clearly, it will be difficult for any staff member to lead successful ministry in that setting.
  • The goals of this position and how they fit into the church’s mission and ministry context.
  • The specific areas of responsibility for the staff person.
  • Hours, pay, and benefits; continuing education financial support and leave time; vacation and holidays; leaves of absence for family care, illness, spiritual development, or other.
  • The lines of supervision and accountability for this staff position.
  • Office space, department budget and participation in budget development, access to support staff.
  • Provisions for periodic feedback (who convenes the meetings, how frequently will the staff person and SPRC meet, communication guidelines for giving and receiving feedback, etc.)
  • Confidentiality agreement.
  • The process for annual performance review, including a list of who receives feedback and evaluation reports.
    • Statement of how the SPRC and supervisor will support the staff person in meeting agreed-upon goals.
    • Other specific expectations related to ministry performance.
    • A process for addressing grievances and conflicts.
    • A process for remediation when the staff person does not meet performance expectations. For example: the process for discussing with the staff person the specific shortcoming; the possibility of including an advocate for the staff person in this conversation (who serves as a listener, asks clarifying questions, and supports and encourages the staff member in his or her efforts to improve); working out a plan to help the staff person build proficiency in the area of concern; how the church might help financially support the effort, if training is part of the plan; listing check-in dates to monitor improvement; describing how improvement will be measured and the standard of adequate improvement; describe the consequences that result when the plan is not achieved.
  • Termination procedures, including notice. (For deacons, the United Methodist Book of Discipline requires a 90-day minimum notice and termination must be preceded by consultation among the deacon, the district superintendent, and the bishop, because the bishop sets appointments.)

Then these parties should set aside a couple of hours to meet and work together on a mutual covenant. It is a significant time investment, yes; but it will save a lot of time later.

You can see examples of such covenants on General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s deacon web page. While these are shaped for the appointed deacon, much of it is applicable to lay staff and elders.

Encourage your SPRC to read Watching Over One Another in Love, mentioned above. It is a very quick read, and it spells out supervision practices that include both support and accountability.

It’s not too late to start this process, even if you’ve been in your position a while. You might encourage your supervisor and/or the lead pastor to read the book and discuss it with you, and then suggest that you together present the idea to the SPRC. (The clergy staff may also want to establish this practice for themselves as well!)

Ministry has its joys, and these are more readily experienced when expectations are clear and lines of communication are regularly maintained. Take initiative in setting yourself up for success by preparing an employment covenant with your church.

Rev. Victoria Rebeck is director of deacon ministry support, provisional membership development, and certification programs for the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.