Many presbyteries and churches have chosen to structure themselves along military/corporate lines, with things like a “Head of Staff,” and “Personnel Committee.” Neither of these categories appears in the Book of Order and they are as foreign to our polity as they are to Scripture.
Now, I have known many good and responsible Heads of Staff and Personnel Committee members. I was a Head of Staff myself in several churches I served as Interim Pastor. It is possible to take on such a role and perform it with openness, sensitivity, humility, and faithfulness. Working with a good Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee is a joy.
But structurally, these positions are stacked against that. They are a vestige of the extreme inequality of the imperialist/colonialist/slavery regime which spawned the predatory economic order which now dominates the world. Relationships based on this order continue to manifest through most of our culture. We see it in a class/caste system which inherently lodges power with a privileged few, and puts other people into the subordinate position of supplicants, subjects, employees, etc.
In this system, the subordinate people tend always to be under suspicion. They are thought to need constant supervision and direction (even though they do most of the work). They are considered hopelessly biased and self-interested, while the appointed leaders are supposedly objective, generous, and wise. And of course we compensate the leaders way better than the subordinates. Often absurdly so.
Power corrupts. And when we develop systems with inherent inequalities and imbalances of power, people tend to abuse that power. This happens with parents all the time. Or with low-grade bureaucrats who seem to revel in lording what little power they have over others. And of course anyone being groomed as a “leader” has to think of themselves as better, above, and more gifted than others. I am reminded of Lord of the Flies. Even people who are normally subordinates, give them a little power and they can start morphing into Stalin.
The Presbyterian system is particularly prone to this sort of thing, with power given to elders meeting in councils. And that’s without adding foreign, potentially noxious categories like Head of Staff and Personnel Committee to the mix, with all the baggage they bring from secular existence. That sort of turbo-boosts our liabilities into something that can do real damage. At least with elders we can remind them of Jesus and talk about servant leadership. Heads of Staff have only Pontius Pilate or a string of miserable kings of Israel and Judah for Scriptural role models. And the idea of a Personnel Committee wasn’t concocted for centuries after that.
I have seen beloved, dedicated, faithful, and chronically overfunctioning members of presbytery and church staffs suddenly and viciously turned on by a Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee. Not for any misconduct or poor performance, but simply because the Head of Staff and Personnel Committee have decided to “move in a different direction.” Often this happens without any consultation with anyone else in the system, mind you, least of all with the subordinates themselves. God forbid! That would be a conflict of interest! (Subordinates always have conflicts of interest. Heads of Staff almost never do, it seems.) Personnel Committees generally work in secret, which is the whole point of their existence in the first place — though they like to call it “maintaining confidentiality” or “boundary keeping”. Whatever it is called, it is a self-serving hoarding of information which is necessary to maintain the group’s privilege, and protect the larger leader class from having to face its own corruption.
I have seen Personnel Committees attempt to fire associate pastors without even consulting session, let alone the congregation and presbytery! I have seen highly paid Heads of Staff protect their large salaries during financial crises by reducing salaries and benefits, or even eliminating the positions, of subordinate employees.
But if a subordinate complains about bad treatment the system will frequently immediately identify them as the problem! It’s a form of domestic violence, really. If the victim points out abuse, especially of themselves, the system wants to comfort the abuser for the indignity of having to endure such an accusation. It’s like when the courts side with the cop instead the unarmed person he murdered. Because the abuser is part of the dominant group, they are golden and assumed to be acting responsibly.
Finally, there is a symbiotic, to put it nicely, relationship between Heads of Staff and Personnel Committees. I think Heads of Staff learn in Head-of-Staff-School the imperative of packing Personnel Committees with their friends and supporters. No conflict-of-interest there, eh? Influencing the appointment of the committee that is supposed to oversee their work?
In any case, our system only works with trust and love. If we are not vigilant, these two institutions mitigate against those virtues. There is only One Head of the Church. The rest of us are all equals. Power in the church is decentralized and distributed, the structure is flat, the conversation is open-source, the mode is humility and listening, the values are inclusion and fairness. Even for Presbyterians. Some of us may be more literate in this or that area, from setting up folding tables to understanding the Hebrew Bible. Some may be further along on the journey than others. But in God’s sight no one is subordinate, and no one gets to dominate. There are in fact no authentic leaders in the church, only disciples. And when advancing to deacon or elder, it should mean an increase in the humility of the disciple. We are after all servants of the Servant of God, Jesus Christ.
I urge churches and presbyteries to be aware of these potential problems, and, if it remains desirable to have these things, institute structures that mitigate against the tendency towards abuse. For instance, build collegiality and partnership into the staff model, mandating principles of fundamental fairness like notice and inclusion. Avoid obscenely large differences in compensation between superiors and subordinates. Replace military and business language with biblical and ecclesiastical terms. Adopt rules of inclusivity for, and diminish the influence of staff people in the selection of any committee to oversee their work. Make the workings of the Personnel Committee more transparent and accountable to the session; define their work more in terms of coordination, feedback, communication, and support.