Love Your Lord? Love Your Staff!


I once worked in professional ministry.

There, I confessed. 😉

People paid me to show the light of Christ to others. And while I’ll add to the lament that the pay seemed to amount to little more than the change from a vending machine, it was pay nonetheless.

Where there’s one paid employee, there’s usually more. I worked in camping ministry for several years, Your typical summer camp staffon staffs of about a dozen to almost three hundred—a half dozen staff experiences in all, split between mainline Protestant camps and Evangelical.

If I learned one truth during my tenure in professional ministry, it’s you can’t be a Christian organization and not have some kind of hierarchy of ministry focus. In my years as a paid Christian camping professional, I saw two different ministry focus hierarchies:

1. Our ministry focus is on God first, people who fall into our ministry objective second, and staff third.

2. Our ministry focus is on God first, staff second, and people who fall into our ministry objective third.

Let me tell you about the places I worked that employed that first hierarchy of ministry…

When you work at a Christian ministry that puts everyone else before staff, you discover that about halfway through your ministry objective timeline the well’s run dry. So much time has been spent pouring the life of the staff into the lives of the people they’re ministering to that in a few months time your staff’s inner lives resemble the Sahara Desert—during a drought. And with a plague of locusts, too.

Leaders of ministries who follow a staff third ministry model succeed in doing one thing exceptionally well: creating ministry burnouts.

The problem for leaders comes from always expecting staff to pour themselves out, while not lifting a finger to refill their earthen vessels. In the end, everything about the ministry fails. It may have started ministering by the Spirit, but when people dry up—and they will in this environment—they start ministering with the arm of flesh. And we all know what that means: failure.

One of the camps I worked for had a nationally-recognized name, multi-million dollar budget, and several hundred people going through its gates every week. But they also had a bizarre curfew on Sundays during the summer that made it nearly impossible for summer staff to make it to church and back under the curfew. As a result, a lot of staff had no chance to worship.

I worked on year-round staff. Because of some special skills I possessed, I transitioned from my regular duties into the summer duties and found myself bound by the curfew. My response? Start an in-camp worship service for staff on the one night of the week we all had free.

Seems reasonable enough.

But you’d be astonished at how much persecution came down on our worship—from the camp leaders! No, I wasn’t an ordained minister, but this was a Protestant camp right? Martin Luther, priesthood of all believers? And yes, we did offer communion, too. Or was that wrong, as well?

Honestly, I felt like the leader of an underground church right there in Evangelical land. But you know what? The folks who came to that worship service left filled. And those who begged off and complained stayed empty and later burned out.

The worship service persecution was just one of many ways that camp kept pouring out its staff and giving nothing back. The list went on and on. In fact, it could be the poster camp for how to grind up and spit out a staff.

And they LIVED for the staff third hierarchy. Practically engraved it on the walls of every cabin in the camp.

I worked at another Evangelical camp (see the trend?) that had strange rules in place, such as A-level staff couldn’t associate with B-level staff outside camp. I had no idea such a lamebrained rule existed until I told the camp director in passing that I was planning on taking the mildly-retarded camp janitor, who had no friends on staff that I could tell, out for an ice cream so he could get away from camp and talk with a real person. From the pummeling I received for merely attempting to minister to another staff person, you would’ve thought the whole idea was part of a scheme to murder the guy!

The sum of all the rules at that camp added up to a legalistic tangle of nonsense that proved…well, anti-human. In time, I feared I might be subjected to forty lashes minus one for ministering to the wrong person. Or the right person in the wrong place. Or the wrong way. At the wrong time, or—oh, the heck with it.

Conversely, the mainline camps I worked for—you know, liberals—went for the staff second approach. Their leadership perpetually worked to meet the spiritual, mental, physical, and social needs of the staff. They paid better. They threw special parties for staff. They celebrated milestones for everyone on staff, even the summer-only folks. They routinely asked each person on staff how his or her relationship with the Lord was going. They treated staff like real people and not underlings.

And they actually allowed staff to minister. To the visitors. To the other staff. To anyone.

Their success came from understanding that people cannot be perpetually poured out without something being poured back in. Yes, people can have a devotional life that provides some of that refreshing, but anyone in leadership knows that real leadership means giving something back.

Let’s be honest here. The amount of personal time we devote to interacting with the actual subjects of our ministry may pale compared with the amount of time we spend with other staff. Any wise person leading a ministry realizes that the lives most likely to be changed by the ministry are those who actually work for it. Yes, a ministry that works with the poor may very well touch the lives of the poor to whom they minister, but it’s far more likely that the ministry will forever change the staff that works in that ministry.

And I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s true for every single ministry on the face of this planet since the Day of Pentecost.

If you’re the leader of a ministry (doesn’t matter what kind), my charge to you is to lay down your life for your staff. Christ laid His down for the ones who follow Him. If your ministry model has been staff third, shred it—now. If you don’t, rather than building your staff, you might very well be creating burnouts who never darken the door of any ministry again. If you don’t believe me, I’ve got the e-mail addresses of a couple hundred ministry burnouts I can send you.

If you love the Lord, then love your staff. Show it in practical, tangible, life-changing ways. The Lord demonstrated that kind of love to His disciples, the ones He called friends. We can do no less for those people with whom we minister.

28 thoughts on “Love Your Lord? Love Your Staff!

  1. Rob

    Amen Dan.
    Yes, a ministry that works with the poor may very well touch the lives of the poor to whom they minister, but it’s far more likely that the ministry will forever change the staff that works in that ministry
    Very well said. I’ve seen this as well when I’ve been involved in ministry (My “Paid” ministry position was so part time that I ended up tithing more to the church from my university scholarship at the time than I recieved in “income”) And I’d say it applies equally to volunteers as well (not just staff).

    It is such a slippery slope though.. It’s easy to start ignoring those around you in order to focus on those beyond. But I know that any time I did – and any time my leaders did – then we paid the price for it. If you aren’t valuing your team – If they don’t know and feel the esteem you have for them (especially if you don’t have any) – then it will all start to crumble. (And once your outward activities have crumbled – you’re left with nothing – because those around you are completely burnt by this).

    • Rob,

      You’re right about volunteers, too. In fact volunteers are the canary in the coal mine, so to speak. When they start keeling over, you know you’ve got a problem that will eventually take out your paid staff, too.

  2. james Burns

    Good morning Dan,

    As a member of a praise team you might be able to appreciate this. I have been involved in the worship ministry at my church for going on 4 years. We have a great amount of volunteers who sacrifice their time each week to make the services happen. One of the areas where these volunteers suffer is in the spiritual needs department.

    The leadership of the worship department really does not spend much time being willing to minister to the very ones it relies upon. I know many of them personally and to say they are spiritually dry is an understatement.

    When I was ask to lead a traditional service I made up my mind that I would be different with those that I work with. The result has been tremendous and it carries through every Sunday in the worship service.

    Leaders do need to meet the needs of their staff, whether paid or unpaid! The ministry itself will thrive or die based on those who facilitate it and where they stand in their personal walks.

  3. Dan,

    Don’t be ashamed. It’s okay. We understand that you really aren’t a “full-time ministry” kind of guy! 🙂

    I’ve also been involved in numerous ministry situations (church, camp, Christian college, etc.) and seen exactly the same thing! You are right on! Value the team. Build the staff. And God will do great things in you, first, and then through you.

    “Any wise person leading a ministry realizes that the lives most likely to be changed by the ministry are those who actually work for it.”


  4. Peter

    I’ve been writing some teaching material on whether or not we should take a day of rest every week.

    I don’t want to get into an argument about it here but one of the things I discuss in the teaching is the fact that Christians too often have this crazy notion that as long as they are in ‘Full Time Ministry’ they can work 25 hours a day, 8 days a week without ever pausing for breath or spendig time renewing themselves and tending to their inner lives. The result? Burnout!

    The problem is, the leaders of those ministries often have the same ridiculous notion and push their staff towards insanity.

    We need to get real and get intelligent, God gave us the ability to use wisdom for a reason and many Christian leaders need to recognize that.

    • Peter,

      The camp that hassled those of us who held a worship service hired me to work a forty hour a week job that paid by the hour. When that job wound up being closer to eighty hours a week, I requested the extra forty hours of pay a week. Amid much handwringing, one of the leadership staff questioned my dedication to ministry! When I asked why they would purposefully misrepresent the job requirements and the pay, you would have thought I’d called the guy a devil-worshiper!

      I should have contacted the state labor bureau, but I was so worn out from fighting every little thing that I just capitulated. They’d lost me at that point though and I left after only a year there.

  5. Mike

    Great narrative; this drama of unintentional burning-out of staff happens everywhere and in all kinds Christian ministries.

    I’m serving in a relatively new plant of a Christian community; the “founding mother” of this community suffers greatly from the Energizer Bunny syndrome, and cannot understand why others don’t “step up into leadership” or why I don’t “challenge them into leadership.” I fear that she has so resisted any attempts from reading the Scriptures with me and others that might propose a version the staff second approach (or that leadership might be something good from God for staff…) that she will no longer come around for gatherings for equipping or refreshment.

    In contrast, the younger (or less-experienced) leaders have really latched on to the notion that serving the Lord is not pain-free, but it also can become a great context for being with the Lord and receiving from Him as they serve. I dare say, that some of the ways we’ve read Scripture together have informed that notion, and I’m delighted that they are experiencing the joy of the Lord. So, the staff second approach might seem counter-intuitive at first, but I’m also aware that we’re becoming deeper in Christ throughout the community.

    • Mike,

      I don’t know about the staff second idea being counter-intuitive. You can’t get water out of an empty cup—nothing’s more common sense than that. If you read Paul’s letters, you see that even he, an apostle, received great refreshment from those who came to support him.

      Ministry doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

  6. I’m surprised no one’s picked up on the “liberal Mainliners vs. conservative Evangelicals” issue here! Do we just naturally concede that point?

    Why is it that the more (supposedly) conservative one becomes theologically, the more likely it is that one holds a very low view of people?

    • James Burns


      Evangelicals believe that eveyone should do what is ask of them because it is ministry.

      I have actually been told that if I had ministry in my heart I would not try to get paid for playing music or worship leading.

      My question, how many pastors of churches with 2000+ attenders would be willing to pastor the church for free? After all if they had ministry in their heart they wouldn’t worry about being paid right?

      • Rob

        Well – my understanding of Rick Warren was that he’s paid back all of his salary the church has paid.. All from book royalties..
        But i’m not sure if that really counts.

    • I wondered about this as well. Care (love) for one another should be the foundation stone of the Church (A new commandment I give to you: That you love one another) and yet is often, as Dan showed, secondary to some kind of ministry. Yet Jesus did not send us out to set up ministries, but to be examples of His love. So if a “liberal” church is practicing the sole commandment that Christ gave His disciples, and a “conservative” church is not, then which of them is truly obedient to Christ’s command? Kind of puts one in mind of the “Lord, Lord” illustration Christ mentioned. Too many Marthas out there that are missing the point.

      • Peyton


        Yes! To paraphrase an old quip, “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a ministry.” I suddenly realized that the giveaway was in the first first two words of the opposed focuses: “Our ministry.” The road of a ministry from a call to a cause to a project to a posession is so wide and well-traveled, but we are almost incapable of recognizing it. Hey, maybe John Calvin is right!


    • Peyton

      Dan, does this mean that we liberals don’t get everything wrong? We’ll have to work on that!
      The theological liberal looks at John 15:12 and applies it — to everything. We can, in fact, put the staff first, just as Jesus put his disciples first. Our mistake is thinking that everyone is “aboard,” so to speak, so we cannot properly discipline. The Calvinist says “Total Depravity,” and disciplines (i.e., abuses) his staff — in his depravity!
      Yours in His service,

      • Peyton,

        The liberals call me a conservative and the conservatives call me a liberal. Go figure!

        When I was in high school, I was one of the more popular people. I fit into just about every crowd: jocks, academics, stoners, Christians, pagans, you name it. They all accepted me.

        Nowadays, it’s kind of the opposite. No group wants to claim me. I went from popular to pariah.

        I like to consider it “walking the narrow path.”

        • Peter


          You seem pretty popular to me, All of these comments to your posts, 246 blogs linking to yours (if not more), 13,000 blog posts linking to your posts – that seems like a good measure of popularity.

          More important though, God thinks you’re incredibly special – special enough to send His Son to die for you. I don’t think it’s possible to get better than to be popular with God!

          • Peter,

            As a blogger, it’s easy to get caught up with numbers and think oneself quite important. But once you start examining the minuscule sphere one operates within, it’s far more humbling.

            This blog has about 250 regular readers through the RSS feed. Another 400 hits come from daily direct connections. About 30 percent of those are people looking for the images I have posted in my blog posts.

            I am thrilled that anyone reads Cerulean Sanctum. I send out regular “Reader Love” posts because I appreciate every person who comes here. As much as possible, I thank every blogger who links to one of the posts on their blog. My methods for determining this are sometimes hit and miss, so I do miss some people. I’m sorry in advance for that.

            From what I can tell about 300 Godbloggers link to Cerulean Sanctum. That’s an extreme blessing. That these blogs span such an enormous breadth of Christianity humbles me. Something is here that a wide range of Christians find meaty. I thank God that he continues to use me.

            But it’s a remarkably small “kingdom,” and I would be a proud fool to think of myself and this blog more highly than I ought. I am blessed to have some very devoted readers and I appreciate every person who takes the time to come here. The conversation rarely turns snarky and I appreciate that the people who come here are willing to think before they speak. We need more of that in Christianity. I’m blessed that the readers of Cerulean Sanctum are some of the more thoughtful blog-readers.

            Popular? I don’t know. I know that this blog has been held up for scorn elsewhere. Comes with the territory, I guess. I talk about tough issues here and people don’t always want to face them. That makes me a scold to some, especially when their ox gets gored. Any ox goring I try to do judiciously because the measure I mete out is the measure by which I am judged. And I am my own worst enemy in that regard.

            Thanks for the encouraging words. Just remember that popularity is a nebulous concept. And in the Christian life, it’s not always for the betterment of the soul.

  7. James Burns


    I totaly agree! Sometimes though it is hard to know what to do to make up for the sacrafices. I coordinate two different services every Sunday, one traditional one contemporary. I write charts for the worship group and even do the Easy Worship for the overhead without so much as a stipend.

    It really eats up personal time and I would appreciate being compensated for my time, however I also look at this as my act of worship to Christ so I go forward really not thinking about it.

    I do spend time with the worship team away from church and I send out a bi-weekly devotional to them. I hope that means something to them.

  8. Peter


    I think one of the problems here is that we have created these poles of being either conservative or liberal and each feels they have to reject any view held by the other.

    Somewhere in the middle there is a place where God wants us to be.

    As far as your comment about pay goes, the people I know who work in ministry who are the most content with their work/pay balance went into the ministry they are in totally focused on living for God. The ministry they joined though had a strong focus on ensuring that their needs were supplied financially and, in doing so, I think that the balance was found. The people focused on God and someone else focused on them so, while they are not rich and do not earn as much ‘per hour’ as they could working 9-5 in a grocery store, their needs are met and they are freed up to only need be concerned about what God has called them to.

    The difficulty comes when we think of our ministry as a ‘job’ and our ’employer’ thinks of it as service, then there is a huge gulf between what we think we should be paid and what we are paid.

    I’m not relating this specifically to your circumstance, I know very little about the camps that you worked at. I question why a ministry like that would pay by the hour? Seems ridiculous to me!

    • Peter,

      If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know that I believe the truth on many of the issues we face is closer to the middle than either side will confess. Some things are absolutes, yes, but our problem there is that we often fail to balance those things that are not absolutes, or we fail to see that two seemingly contrary absolutes will draw us to the center rather than the poles.

      As for pay in ministry, I suspect a majority of ministries pay non-management folks by the hour, at least in my own personal experience (and from talking with folks who work in ministry).

  9. Diane Roberts


    Thank you very much for this post. Most of us have probably never been on a Christian ministry or church staff and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. It certainly helps us non-staff people understand the other side.

    • Diane,

      You’ll find some brand of weirdness no matter where you turn. Working in a professional ministry environment would probably light most people’s hair on fire. You just can’t believe some of the things that go on.

      I was once hired by a camp for a high-level position and was in the process of talking out how the move across country would go. In the course of asking about my housing requirements, the director asked about my wife. Well, I wasn’t married at the time, but for some reason he thought I was. We’d never discussed it. I never brought it up and neither did he. Well, he suddenly got totally flustered on the phone and told me he needed to call me back about something. Odd.

      Well, the bureaucratic paperwork I had to fill out for the job (W-2s and such) never showed, and he never called back. So I called him and was informed the board of directors had suddenly frozen all hiring. I was out of work from a job I’d not even started. And after I’d already tendered my resignation at my previous employer! Needless to say, I was shattered.

      Eight months go by and I get something in the mail from the camp. It was a job notice for a marketing position. On the notice was penned, “Ideal for a single man. No contact with children.” I nearly ground my teeth to nubs at the gall. They’d lied to me AND insinuated I shouldn’t be around children because I wasn’t married.

      I could tell you a dozen stories like that centering around me pushing thirty and still being single. Simply awful stuff that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I eventually gave up on Christian camping altogether because of it. I had to eat, right?

      Oh well!

  10. I’ll be forwarding this to several people at my church. I’m pretty sure that we do a good job in feeding our staff, but it’s always good to know.

    BTW, I sent you an email about a Christian fiction podcast. Wanted to see if you got it and had any feedback.


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